2000s: The Decade of DVR

For my last post at PVRblog, i wanted to do a quick recap of the previous ten years, talk about how my own media habits have changed and ask a few friends how PVR technology has impacted their lives as we look back at a decade of innovation.

Decade-of-dvr Through the lens of PVRblog it's easy to call 2000-2010 the "Decade of DVR". TiVo and ReplayTV both formed at the tail end of the 90s, offering digital recorders for the bleeding edge technologist, typically recording only about 7-8 hours of TV and costing around a thousand dollars. By mid-2000, the devices started to catch on as prices came down to the $300-500 range and recording capacities increased to 30 hours. Early adopters couldn't shut up about the device and "TiVo" quickly became a household word and associated with all digital recording devices.

Throughout the 2000s, TiVo had its ups and downs, Replay came and went, Microsoft entered the game, a variety of free software clones emerged, and a whole rash of free somewhat feature-limited cable & satellite company provided DVRs flooded the market. The DVR went from expensive device for geeks in 2000 to a broadband research group finding in late 2009 that over 1/3 of all US households have some form of DVR in use. That's incredible growth for a device that kicked off a revolution and changed the way Americans watched and interacted with television.

As DVR use increased (and continues to climb), advertisers, networks, and studios have been in a panic for much of the decade. Even top flight award-winning shows are featuring product placement (Mad Men, 30 Rock) that can't be avoided while some advertisers purposely slow down on-screen messages so DVR fast-forwarders catch the ads. Studies show that DVR users still watch some (sometimes more, and more often) commercials and the data from DVR users is so detailed every year TiVo can declare which Super Bowl commercial was most-watched (and re-watched). What the future holds is unknown, but an overwhelming majority of DVR owners say they can't live without the technology and the numbers will continue to grow. The challenges ahead for content producers will be how to get paid for their work, either directly in a iTunes/AppleTV model, or through innovations in advertising. At the same time, the medium of TV itself is in competition with internet sites like YouTube and Hulu for viewer attention. All through this passing decade, the DVR landscape has grown by leaps and bounds and shows no sign of stopping.

My own story

Being a gadget freak working in the web industry, I'd followed both TiVo and Replay's early news and anticipated someday getting a unit. I grew up sitting in front of a TV for hours a day and though programmable VCRs got smarter, it was nearly impossible to track multiple shows at multiple timeslots without some serious time spent setting each show up. In mid-2000, TiVo threw a contest and gave away hundreds of TiVo boxes in an essay contest that many early bloggers participated in, including me. My wife and I quickly fell in love with the device as we had two busy professions and didn't get home in time to see many of our favorite shows.

I remember the sense of freedom having a DVR provided, that I was no longer bound to be at home at a certain time if I wanted to see something, but also the wonderful feeling of being able to set aside some time to be entertained and knowing there was always a dozen options of my very favorite shows to watch whenever I wanted. At first I watched much less TV, on the order of just a couple hours a week of my 2-3 favorite shows, but the Season Pass feature worked so well that eventually you are following 30-40 shows and I was watching more (but better!) TV. Still, having a TiVo around meant I could concentrate on important stuff around the house like my family and my work, and make time for entertainment when I needed it. I literally became more productive because of TiVo.

Needless to say I became a huge fan, scoured sites for tips and tricks, wrote so many emails to friends encouraging them to get their own that I eventually started this site just to make it easier on me to put everything I knew about DVRs in one place. To this day I love my Series 3 TiVo as well as my hacked AppleTV running Boxee that both meet my entertainment needs. That combination of devices lets me watch almost anything on TV or online that I like, whenever I want. My four year old daughter has never known a world without a DVR, and the few times we've been at a relative's house or in a hotel, she's been disappointed that the TV seemed "broken" and didn't have several dozen options for her favorite shows a button click away.

But enough about me, here are some leading technology buffs talking in their own words about how their relationship with TV changed in the past ten years, thanks to the almighty DVR.

Adamsavage Adam Savage, co-host of Discovery Channel's Mythbusters

Time shifting has had a radical effect on the way I watch tv. For one, I often have a hard time knowing what networks my favorite shows are actually on, let along when it's actually aired. I'm used to (and paced for) watching large chunks of my favorite shows all at once.  I never watch LOST as it airs. I watch in weeks after airing in 3-5 episode chunks. Once per season I'll actually make time to watch a particularly excellent show when it airs (for the last two years it's been Mad Men) and even then, we usually lag about an hour behind just because we're no longer forced to pace ourselves to the schedule.  So we don't.

When I stay in a hotel, and I have to watch the commericals (or mute them) I can't believe 1. how many there are, and 2. how long the disclaimers are on the drug commercials (when "depression" is a SIDE EFFECT, perhaps you should choose another option). I find myself wanting to pause everything I missed to hear it again.  In 30 second bumps. The radio, a movie in a movie theater, my kids. I really found myself wanting to do a 30 second bump DURING A STAGE MUSICAL.

Time shifting is one of those "oh well of COURSE it should work that way" kind of inventions that seems inevitable and immediately crucial, like answering machines. Once that pandora is out of it's box there's no putting it back in.

HeatherarmstrongHeather Armstrong, Author, creator of Dooce

I think Leta was about 15 months old, and one Saturday morning she woke up at some ungodly hour. So I took her out to the living room to let Jon get a few more hours of sleep. I sat down on the couch, flipped on the television and clicked around looking for cartoons when I stumbled upon an episode of Sesame Street. I thought she'd find it totally boring, but she was TRANSFIXED.  So much so that she made it clear that when it was over her life could not go on. I think there was screaming involved.

Thankfully I was quick enough on my feet that early in the morning to have pressed record the moment I saw that she was interested, so I started it back at the beginning and she sat there and watched it — I am not even kidding — five times in row. I'd go back to sleep and then wake up when it was over and start it all over again. Some parents would call that neglect. I call it THANK GOD FOR TIVO.

That episode remained on our TiVo for YEARS. And it was Sesame Street that taught her the alphabet and how to identify letters. I love that I could pull up any number of recorded episodes of Sesame Street  AT ANY TIME and she'd stop whining and start learning! I can't directly link that first episode of Sesame Street with the fact that at five-years-old she can read at an almost third grade level, but I wouldn't be surprised!

NickdentonNick Denton, founder of Gawker Media (including Gizmodo)

My relationship with TV has changed entirely. I used to disdain the medium. That was partly out of English snobbery. And, when I lived in San Francisco, nobody ever seemed to talk about shows. The English snobbery was overlaid with geek detachment. The DVR -- and a move to New York -- has changed all that. There's more buzz about shows, or at least I'm more aware of it. And the DVR allows someone to have a social life and still watch TV when one stumbles home. It's not so much appointment TV as TV that arranges itself around ones appointments. I've become an addict. 30 Rock, Damages, Nurse Jackie, Dexter, Bored to Death -- even Desperate Housewives, though I'm embarrassed by that one. TV is so much more reliably entertaining than the movies. And -- waiting for me on the DVR -- so much more convenient. So thanks, technology, for finally turning me into a goggle-eyed moron.

GinatrapaniGina Trapani, Author, Tech Blogger, Founding Editor of Lifehacker

In 1999, I barely watched TV. I thought television was a waste of time, even though I secretly felt left out when my friends talked about their favorite shows. Then TiVo--also known as The Best Christmas Gift Ever!! in my house--converted me. Without timeshifting, I would have missed out on some of the best shows ever created (and the conversations about them). The key is control. Giving people control over how and when they consume your content means they'll watch more, not less.

ChrisandersonChris Anderson, Author, Editor of Wired Magazine

We've had a Media Center PC since they first came out, and now have Xbox 360s (as Media Center extenders) on every screen in the house. The result is that my kids have grown up never knowing live TV. The deal we have with them is this: they crave control over the screen in all ways, including having the remote. So in exchange for them been allowed to pause or rewind funny bits, they're required to skip commercials, which they now do automatically. The result: they don't bug us about junk advertised on TV, all shows are 20% shorter, and when we go to hotels they're confused by why their shows aren't just there waiting for them.

In short, they are totally typical DVR kids. But given a choice between any TV and YouTube, their true colors shine through. They'd rather watch web video than anything broadcast. There is nothing Hollywood makes that can hold a candle to Fail Blog for them. Was it the control that the DVR gave them that made them so drawn the ultimate control of the Web? I'm not sure, but what seems clear is that they're not going back.

AnnaleenewitzAnnalee Newitz, Author, Journalist, Editor of scifi blog io9

DVRs are the perfect tools for the television obsessive, which is what scifi fans tend to be. I can't tell you how many times I paused for intense debate with friends (often with rewinding and rewatching) in the middle of watching Battlestar Galactica or Dollhouse. Honestly, how is anybody supposed to watch Lost without a DVR? One unexpected result of the rise of the DVR, however, is the destruction of one basic way fans relate to each other, which is by sharing videos. In the days of videocassettes, we swapped Star Trek:TNG and X-Files episodes, but most DVRs make it difficult to pass along copies of what you've saved.

JeffjarvisJeff Jarvis, Author, Journalism professor, creator & founding editor of Entertainment Weekly

The DVR killed the networks, yet may save the networks. Even more than the VCR, it freed us from the tyranny of of programmers' schedules and then -- to their surprise -- it also enabled us to watch more shows. The DVR showed 'em who's boss.

I think Hulu, iTunes, et al will have a greater impact on TV viewing, making it entirely personal. If I tried to start Entertainment Weekly today, I wouldn't, for a one-size-fits-all magazine would serve our entertainment needs just as poorly as one-size-fits-all networks have. EW's job will be done by peers' links and taste algorithms.

I can't leave this event without also noting the importance of PVRblog itself: Your what-the-heck experiment in niche content -- and advertising -- opened a path straight to current development of hyperlocal and hyperinterest blogs and entrepreneurship for that, I salute you.

CaterinafakeCaterina Fake, Co-Founder of Flickr & Hunch

A guy said to me once, "Wow! As a woman, you can get laid whenever you want!" and I said "Yeah and I can eat dirt whenever I want too!" For years there was a blinkx advertisement on 101 between Silicon Valley and San Francisco with a tagline that said something like "Find something to watch", which I thought was one of the stupidest taglines I'd ever heard. It's not hard to find someone to sleep with, it's hard to find someone you'd WANT to sleep with. It's not hard to find something to watch, it's hard to find something GOOD to watch. The tagline should have been, IMO, "There's Something Good On!"

That's what DVRs did. Find you the one thing, or the five things, that were good, so you didn't have to spend the time looking or surfing, hoping against hope you'd find the one good thing that was on. And you didn't have to be there, on time, to view it! Fantastic. Lifechanging. During the brief TV-watching era of my life between 2005-2007 my television life was completely changed forever.

Thanks to everyone for contributing here and to you the readers for following the site! I can't wait to see what the next decade has in store for entertainment technology and stay tuned for continued coverage of the PVR/DVR landscape here at PVRblog starting in January.

December 29, 2009 in Interviews, Op-Ed | Permalink | Comments (18)

A lengthy interview with Margret Schmidt of TiVo

Margret-schmidt I forgot to post this soon after it went up, but a few weeks ago, my friend Peter Merholz got to do a long interview with Margret Schmidt, head of User Experience for TiVo. It's in three parts on the Adaptive Path blog: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. In it, they talk about the design of the interface, how new features are developed, how groups work internally at TiVo, and how user experience ties into the business aspects of TiVo.

A few years ago I got to ask Ms. Schmidt a bunch of questions about the design of the TiVo remotes, how the user interface of TiVo was developed, and my personal favorite -- how they designed the audio bleeps and bloops that still to this day are the only helpful sounds I've used in a consumer device.

March 1, 2009 in Interviews, TiVo | Permalink | Comments (3)

Seven Questions with Michael Cronan, designer and creator of the name "TiVo" and the mascot

Through a totally random sequence of events where a friend of a friend met someone at a party, I ended up talking to Michael Cronan of Cronan Design. Michael is noted for coming up with the name "TiVo" and mascot concept that they're still using successfully in 2005. He was kind enough to take the time to answer my questions about the process that came up with "TiVo" and how the name has worked ever since.

Matt Haughey, PVRblog: Take us back to the very beginning of the project. Before TiVo had a name or mascot, how was the project described to you when you began? Did they have a pretty good idea of the total features or was it pitched as just a "tapeless VCR?"

Michael Cronan, Cronan Design: Mike [Ramsay, former CEO of TiVo -- ed.] invited me to his home one afternoon to discuss the project. I'd created the color-name series concept for the computers Indigo and Crimson for his group at Silicon Graphics, as well as worked with him on the Silicon Studio project, the school SGI established to train animators on their technology. The project code name was Teleworld.

It was initially a "smart house" concept; a robust disc drive that would control features and functions in the home, including entertainment. I thought that the entertainment component would be the popular part of the offering, the part that was the newest, most amazing idea. Others thought so as well. When they called me in officially a few months later to start work on the identity, it was all about TV.

MH: Wow, I had no idea it started out as a whole-home concept. I'm glad they honed in on TV, given how historically it's been difficult to market and explain to people. And now the "teleworld" name from the filesystem makes sense.

When did you start work on the project, and about how long did it take to come up with "TiVo" and the mascot?

MC: We started in spring 1997. We had roughly six weeks to create a name and an identity. It may be hard to believe, but we reviewed probably 1600-plus name alternatives, seriously considered over 800 names, and presented over 100 strong candidates to the team. This might seem like an arduous task but those meetings were filled with fun, laughter and confidence that we would get the right answer.

We work on many new products and services, as well as updating the brands of existing products and services. I've learned that something really new needs to be first a little familiar before consumers can recognize or understand it. That's why marketers use metaphors to help explain new products.

One of the ways to generate a winning answer is to find the right question to ask. Answering questions is relatively easy. Asking the right question is more difficult. This was the technique we used in coming up with TiVo. We spent the early meetings trying to place a cultural context on the product. Was it to be a revolutionary or evolutionary kind of product? Once I began to understand that it could change behavior on an essential level I began to pose questions like, "what would 'the next TV' be like? are we naming the 'next' TV?"

The winning answer was we were naming the next TV. I thought it should be as close as possible to what people would find familiar so it must contain T and V. I started looking at letter combinations and pretty quickly settled on TiVo. I also liked that "i" and "o" were a part of the name from the "in and out" engineering acronym. Additionally I thought "vo" had a nice connection to "vox" and "voce" from the latin for vocal sound and Italian for voice, vote and vow are part of the same root words. In a way, every selection one makes with TiVo is a kind of vote. It was all beginning to make some sense. We created a beginning lexicon of TiVo expressions to help create what we anticipated would be a TiVo culture. One of the expressions was "TiVolution". I liked the similarity of sound to the rock band DEVO and their devolution stance.

Once we'd settled on the name (see the answer to your next question) we began work on creating the identity. I wanted to provide a kind of identity that would become as recognizable as the mouse ears are to Disney. From that impulse I placed a smile under the word that would make a face out of the lettering and signal the happy attitude of the character. We were also thinking of the shape of a TV and so added the rabbit ears. I was driving one day and saw the little Darwinian fish-with-legs evolution character on a bumper and immediately realized that TiVo needed legs.

The next day I presented a little stick figure drawing and everyone started nodding, the TiVo identity became the TiVo mascot. From that concept we developed the extended look and feel of the brand, with color palettes and the elements to create the world of TiVo, "TV my way". Later we realized that the character would need to be refined to help the animators do their work. By then Paul Newby had come aboard and helped direct the refinements to the character. At one point in the review process TiVo got a little too skinny and I urged that he get a little thicker to help keep the TV metaphor clear.

MH: I heard you say that "TiVo" wasn't the first choice. Can you recall some of the names you thought fit better? Was "TiVo" a compromise between the company and you or did they really like that name right away?

MC: It's interesting that of all the names we developed, TiVo was the ninth name we presented. It was always a favorite with me. There were names that were seriously considered, but in retrospect definitely not as good as TiVo. One was "Bongo"; at one point the team was considering that the thumbs up and down buttons on the remote might be different sizes for tactile differentiation so the notion of Bongo drums came up. "Lasso" was another candidate, it referred to capturing what you want to watch when you want to watch it. 

There was really never a need to compromise anything. The team was so focused on their specific challenges and very trusting with other aspects of the project that it was a terrific collaboration and recognition of what was the right thing to do. When the schedule milestone approached for the final name we put 20 "finalists" on the conference room wall. Mike and the team, like most folks in technology, have an ingrained just-in-time modality. The engineering of great products is highly creative, the team was familiar with the feelings of uncertainty that exist before an answer comes and they were comfortable that we would get it right, it's one of the benefits of an "A" level team.  Everyone gets more creative and productive when there is a hard deadline. The encouragement and support was really helpful, I thank Mike, Jim Barton, Howard Look and the rest of the team for making the process a pleasure.

I argued for "TiVo" and urged that we narrow the list down to three of four. That day the group had Ed Sullivan, from the former Pittard Sullivan, a terrific animation firm in LA who created the initial animations of the TiVo character, in for their initial meetings. Ed walked in and saw the finalists on the wall and pretty much insisted that the name was TiVo. It took one person from the outside to help the team with the choice. They at once saw the the concept through his fresh eyes and understood that he was right. Not long after that we transferred the ownership of the name "TiVo" to the company.

One of the fascinating aspects of the project was how clear the team was on the power of the concept, once they decided to focus on television. In retrospect it was an strong lesson for me in how valuable experience is in truly understanding any issue. I had had the opportunity to review the thinking in detail, use the prototype equipment and watch and listen to others using the device. Then they sent me a TiVo box at home, and one of my kids set it up. As we were watching a show, my wife came into the room and started talking to us. For the first time in my own home, I clicked the button to pause live TV. When I clicked to restart it, at that moment I really "got" the power of TiVo for myself. I began to feel, like most TiVo users do, that I wish I could use TiVo's feature set in life outside the box.

MH: TiVo really is a perfect name. If I remember correctly, I think Bongo was Earthlink's wireless service a few years later and Macromedia Director's scripting language is Lasso. What do you think about TiVo becoming a verb?

MC: TiVo is in the dictionary at this point. And I'm happy Webster's has the etymology right.

MH: Is it gratifying to hear people use it as a generic term like "xeroxing some documents" or hearing that people want to use TiVo's features in life?

MC: I am gratified that the name has helped with the understanding and acceptance of TiVo, but TiVo is a killer experience and that is what generates the wild praise. TiVo's name and Identity just helps people recognise, understand and love the what it is.

MH: Do you think the name has transcended the close ties to TV and gotten to the level of a name like say, Yahoo, or Google? (I'd say that Yahoo and Google were once closely associated with "search" but now both companies offer so many applications and features it's tough to define any one thing they focus on).

MC: TiVo has the potential to be what marketers call a Branded House, meaning that the brand evokes a level of trust that it can offer a large array of products and experiences. I actually think, from a brand perspective, TiVo has an advantage as a Branded House over Yahoo and Google. I'd bet that most people who know TiVo and Google would buy a TiVo toaster before a Google toaster.

MH: If a TiVo box could start doing all sorts of non-TV tasks, do you think the name would still work?

MC: Yes, I do think the name would work. A good name grows with what it names.

Thanks goes out to Michael Cronan for taking the time to answer all my questions, and thanks to my friend Lane for making the connection. Michael still does product and brand design as Cronan Design. Full Bio for Michael and Cronan Design follows.

Cronan Design creates names and strategic brand identities and design for some of today's most successful new products and companies. With three decades of experience in corporate communications, packaging, print graphics, exhibits and art programs, a partial client list includes Apple, Estee Lauder, Levi Strauss & Co., McKesson, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Symphony and Opera, Silicon Graphics, TiVo, TV Guide, the United States Postal Service, Verio, and Williams Sonoma.

In 1989 Cronan was featured in the Museo Fortuny (Venice, Italy) exhibition entitled "Pacific Wave, California Graphic Design", and was one of four graphic designers featured in "In the Public Eye," the first graphic design exhibition at SFMOMA in 1993. The recipient of numerous national and international design awards and publications feature articles, Cronan's work is represented in the collections of American Graphic Design at the Denver Art Museum, in the Library of Congress, the permanent Design Collection of SFMOMA, and London's Victoria & Albert Museum.

Cronan was born in San Francisco in 1951. He studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC), and graduated with a degree in Fine Art from CSU Sacramento. From 1982-1999, Cronan served as an adjunct professor of graphic design at California College of the Arts. He is a founding member and former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) San Francisco chapter and served on the AIGA national board. Cronan is also a fine artist:: www.michaelcronan.com

December 7, 2005 in Interviews, TiVo | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Interview with the Olivelink folks

Olivelink_1A couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon the ingenious new service Olivelink. It's a person-to-person video broadcast service that allows you to either privately send video to one person, or publicly to anyone. The folks at Olivelink contacted me soon after to answer a few questions I raised in my original post, and I asked them to elaborate on a few more questions about how the service was developed and where they see it going. What follows is a short interview we did over email:

The service looks promising, was it developed from the start to be a 1-to-1 service or did you always plan on letting folks broadcast content to the public?

Originally we developed Olivelink as a 1-to-1 tool so we could share family stuff (like birthday party videos, etc). without the hassle of uploading to a web server or buring a DVD. However, it didn't take long to realize that it had great potential as a personal broadcasting medium.

What kinds of uses do you see typically? Is it all home video for grandma or are there other significant uses?

Initially it was a lot of home video stuff, but as we've gone along we're seeing a lot of different uses. While the video for grandma is still a big part, we're now seeing people doing "Wayne's World" type shows, funny little movies, and a lot of video blogging. Going forward we can see a lot of uses. Not just video hobbiests but independent film makers who want to distribute their work, schools that want to share lectures, people or companies who want to do "how-to" videos or public demonstrations, folks that want to setup their own mini-network, and so on. One of the more significant uses we can see is personal broadcast of breaking news like we saw with the Torrent feeds of the Tsunami a couple of months back. I'm sure we haven't scratched the surface as to all the things people will do with Olivelink. Our focus is to provide the freedom to distribute content, what people do with that will be limited only by their imaginations.

Is there any framework for listing public video, like a gallery or something at olivelink? Or is it up to people creating their video content to publicize it on their own sites?

A possibility for a public listing framework does exist, but we prefer that the community create that gallery/directory system. The idea is that if you want to share your video only with a few people, then your broadcast stays private. But if you want to create content and allow it to reach a far wider audience, you're free to promote your broadcast in any manner you see fit. Toward that end we have some upcoming features that will allow you to link your broadcasts directly to your website or blog, as well as video-on-demand option that will allow viewers to select one or more videos to watch from your library. We also have some additional privacy and "invitation only" features in the works.

Do you have any plans for passworded or paid streaming? I suspect someone could make their own show or video from an event, and then charge viewers a buck or two to watch it or get a password for it.

No doubt a lot of people will want to be able to charge for their content (e.g, for how-to video, remote learning, special content, etc.) As I mentioned we are working on an "invitation only" feature that will allow a broadcaster to limit his or her stream to specific viewers, so if an Olivelink broadcaster wanted to charge a fee to view content, they could do that. We give people the ability to distribute their content any way they want. If they want to quit their day job and make a living broadcasting from their basement, more power to them.

Do you see Olivelink becoming a "broadcaster of the people" someday? Imagine if many folks want to share their video you could have the internet equivalent of the largest public access cable network, all online for anyone to see.

Absolutely. I think if you look around you'll find that the most interesting and compelling content isn't coming from big movie studios or TV networks, it's coming from regular people. Whether it's Jib Jab's presidential spoofs, Rooster Teeth's Red Vs. Blue, home video of the Southeast Asian tsunami and other world events -- even audio-only podcasts, people are producing amazingly creative content and getting millions of viewers. I think in the near future you're going to see a revolution where viewers will no longer be limited to the content a few big businesses with a movie studio or a broadcast license want to produce. Forget 500 cable channels; get ready for 5 million. Now anybody with a camera, PC, broadband access and a little creativity will be able to get into broadcasting. The possibilities are very exciting and it's going to be very interesting to see what happens.

Thanks to the good folks at Olivelink for the interview!

March 23, 2005 in Interviews | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The PVRBlog Interview: Ten Questions with TiVo's Director of User Experience, Margret Schmidt

This past summer, I was building some new website interfaces (it's part of my day job) and thinking about TiVo's combination of power and simplicity in their interface and I got to thinking about all the things I wished I could ask someone about the TiVo UI but was afraid to ask. Then I realized I could track down someone at TiVo HQ and corner them for an interview. Thanks to a few designer friends in the Bay Area, I ended up speaking directly to the top, the head honcho of all that is TiVo User Experience, Margret Schmidt.

Margret was kind enough to answer ten questions about how TiVo's UI was originally developed, how new features are added, and how the sound UI came to be, among others. I'm grateful for TiVo and Margret taking the time to do this, so without further adieu, here's the interview:

Matt Haughey: TiVo is a revolutionary product and aside from the basic recording features, the interface is often seen as a key killer feature among both typical users and the design-savvy. I'm constantly hearing it referenced as the hallmark of useful design that masks powerful features. Was an easy-to-use interface a key design goal from the beginning of TiVo's development? (considering TiVo was developed in 1997-8 that was incredibly forward thinking at the time).

Margret Schmidt: In 1998 the "design mantras" for TiVo were:

  • It's entertainment, stupid.
  • It's TV, stupid.
  • It's video, damnit.
  • Everything is smooth and gentle.
  • No modality or deep hierarchy.
  • Respect the viewer's privacy.
  • It's a robust appliance, like a TV.

From the very beginning ease-of-use was a goal of the team.  They were inspired by appliances and interfaces that "just work" and don't require reading manuals or learning the controls.  Donald Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" was required reading.  They spent a lot of time talking to "TV people" about what made for good broadcast television design.

As TiVo has evolved, we've revised our design mantras, but with many of the same themes:

The TiVo box makes TV better...

  • It is reliable.
  • It puts me in control.
  • It's easy to use.
  • It's smart and helpful.
  • It's responsive.
  • It's all about entertainment.

I can't imagine life without it.

MH: I'm guessing UI feature development is a relatively long process, involving much internal debate and testing. Can you take us through the process? As a feature goes from idea to deployed to users, about how long does it take and what steps does the UI team take along the way?

MS: The business case for product features and functionality originates in Product Management.  The UI Designer works closely with the Product Manager and Technical Lead to refine the requirements.

Depending on the nature of the feature we may do some early user needs research to understand how users think about a concept, and what they might be looking for in a feature.   From the requirements and the research findings the Designer creates an initial design concept which is reviewed first with the User Experience team, and then with the stakeholders for the project. 

The design concept is a walkthrough of the most frequent tasks we expect users to undertake.  If the stakeholders believe the concept meets the requirements, we begin usability testing of the design.  TiVo has an on-site lab and a strong research team.  Typically we will create a fully functional prototype that we can display on a TV and control with a TiVo remote -- it feels just like the real thing!  Based on the findings, we iterate on the design.  (Some times *many* iterations!)

The Designer then creates a written specification for engineering that details every screen, error condition, edge case, and final text. Engineering starts building it, and we can begin using the feature at home, and then deploying it to Alpha and Beta testers.

The Researcher designs the tasks and surveys for the testers to complete in order to get further user feedback.  Some tasks can't be easily modeled in the lab and need to be evaluated when the user can live with the product.  For instance, dual tuner channel surfing behavior didn't lend itself easily to lab-based testing.  We received much better feedback when users could live with the product and accurately report how they used it and not how they *thought* they would use it.

We continue to make tweaks to the user experience throughout the development cycle, always conscious about our need to stay on schedule. The Design and Research leads are on the project from the initial investigation until the moment it ships.  The length of the process varies with the complexity of the release.

Anyone can apply to participate in our beta or usability programs.

MH: When you've got a breakthrough product like TiVo, you're constantly innovating in a space that doesn't have a ton of established competition and I bet user research can be tough. How do you ensure that you're developing something that is usable, desirable, etc. when it's never existed before?  Do you have to build a lot of proof-of-concept prototypes and test with users to see if people want it?

MS: Innovation is a by product of a talented team.  We regularly brainstorm, collect, and categorize new product ideas.  We have a cross functional approach to refining the ideas into product features.  We have one person dedicated to creating prototypes so we can iterate quickly.

It can be difficult to test an innovative product because people are often not good at predicting their own future behavior.  We overcome this by using a variety of research methods including in home studies, usability studies, in depth interviews, card sorts, surveys, field experiments, data analysis of existing behaviors to a name a few.  By using different methods we are able to triangulate and get a sense of future use in the development process.

MH: Does market research play a big role into user experience? Do you check out what publications, forums, and sites are saying they wished TiVo did, then use that to develop new features, or are feature ideas more home-grown?

MS: We keep a catalog of good ideas called "RFEs" (requests for enhancement).  These RFEs can come from anywhere -- from employees, Beta testers, Customer Support, the TiVo Community forum.  We categorize the RFEs by feature, like Season Pass(TM) recording or WishList(TM) search.

When a UI Designer is tasked with changes to a particular feature he reviews all of the related RFEs to see which ones are appropriate to incorporate into the design.  In addition, the User Experience team keeps a "Hit List" of the features or improvements we would most like to see addressed in the product.  We routinely review this list with the Product Management team to get the business justification for spending engineering effort on specific features or improvements.

MH: As I've watched TiVo over the years, I've seen it morph from a company that challenged Hollywood to one that was eventually embraced it. Have there ever been problems weighing what users are asking for, and what TV studios are comfortable with? I would imagine the upcoming TiVoToGo features would be a good example.

MS: It is actually pretty easy to balance the needs of the two groups, because in general they have the same goals.  Users want to watch quality programming when, where, and how they want to.  Studios want their programming enjoyed by the masses.  TiVo simply empowers users to control their TV consumption within the guidelines of fair use.  We have strong security system called TiVo Guard(TM) that protects the interests of the studios.  We don't support the inappropriate distribution of copyrighted content, and our users aren't asking for it.

MH: Given the large current userbase of TiVo and their comfort with the interface, I see parallels with eBay in terms of a rabid fanbase that has historical problems dealing with major UI changes. Has stability in the UI ever been a problem when developing new features?

MS: We are very careful not to change the UI just for change's sake.  For example, three years ago, when we were shipping our 2.5 release we were thinking of changing the behavior of the ADVANCE button on the remote. Instead of simply jumping to the end of a program and then jumping to the beginning of a program we wanted it to stop on every 15-minute tickmark on the status bar.  We thought this would be a handy way to get to a different part of the program more quickly.

We went to Beta and our testers complained.  They were used to easily jumping to the end of a program and pressing LEFT to be prompted to delete it.  Some had even programmed their Pronto remotes with this functionality.  We quickly changed the design, and now the mode only applies if you are in fast forward or rewind mode.

Now we challenge each other to remember the "skip-to-tick incident" if we are considering making behavioral changes to fundamental UI behaviors.  To mitigate having these problems, we try to design for the future (where we want to eventually take the feature) and then pare it down to what we are going to ship in a particular release.  This lets us show how the experience will naturally evolve rather than having to radically change it to accommodate future functionality.  We try to add to the experience rather than change it or take away something users rely on.

MH: How does your team decide when a feature or functionality is too complex to fit into the TiVo paradigm?

MS: In general a feature won't be ruled out as "too complex" because we have strong design team that can make anything easy to use.  A feature will get ruled out if it doesn't apply or appeal to enough users.  The TiVo service is for anyone who watches TV.  My grandmother can use it.  My toddler can use it.  We are unlikely to add a specialized or power-user feature when our engineering effort can be better spent making entertainment better for everyone.

MH: What's the one feature or concept people find most confusing and how did you determine that?

MS: We learn about user confusion by tracking emails and calls to Customer Support, survey responses, issues in usability testing, watching people use the product in their homes, Beta reports, etc.  There isn't one area that stands out as the most confusing, but there are areas of the UI we want to make as easy as possible.  We would like the experience of un-packing the TiVo DVR, hooking it up to your TV, and configuring it for your cable or satellite provider to be simple and fun.  We are working on innovative UI to help with this.

MH: TiVo is not only one of the best examples of powerful-yet-easy visual interfaces, I'd say TiVo is probably the only device that I actually enjoy hearing. The sound interface is a helpful, effective addition to the UI and rarely gets in the way. I can't point to many products that use sound effectively aside from TiVo and I'm curious how the team developed it. Were there long discussions or testing involved to help determine how intrusive sounds should be?

MS: Since TVs aren't silent, we didn't want the TiVo interface to be silent either.  The initial sound concepts fell into a few categories.  Some were mechanical, some synthesized, others more organic.  We quickly identified the organic, happy sounds as better in line with our brand value of "playful".  It actually didn't take too many iterations to get it right.

MH: The remote control that comes with a TiVo has been the subject of much writing in the past, but I'd love to hear about how that came about as well. While the TiVo UI was a breakthrough without equal, in the case of the remote, TiVo took something with 30+ years of history and remade it into something more useful than anything that had come before. How long did it take to develop the new remote? Did user testing prompt the team to make the pause button the largest or was that an early design  that stuck around?

MS: The creation of the TiVo remote is well detailed in this New York Times article.

We continue to evolve the remote.  The Consumer Design and User Experience teams work closely together to evaluate every button and question whether we *really* need it.  We use the same research methodologies we use to evaluate the on-screen interface, only our prototypes are made of foam.  A complex remote leads you to believe it is a complex product.  Our remote is simple and elegant just like our UI.

Note: Paul Newby (Director, TiVo Consumer Design) and Margret Schmidt will be speaking at the monthly meeting of BayCHI (Bay Area Computer Human Interaction group) on Tuesday, December 14 in Palo Alto (open to the interested public).

December 8, 2004 in Interviews | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack