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Get smart, TV: Fix the usability experience

September 15, 2022 | By Christy Tanner, Founder – Coraly Partners and Senior Advisor Oaklins DeSilva & Phillips @christytanner

Do you have more than one remote to operate various connected and streaming devices?

Among your family members, are there as many different streaming habits and preferences as there are people? And do these disparate behaviors lead, for instance, to heated arguments over whether captions should always be on and who’s responsible for turning them on and off?

Have you rented someone else’s home for a short stay recently? If so, could you log in and start using your streaming services on the TV? Within five minutes? After multiple emails with the host?

For all the joy that streaming “Stranger Things” and “Abbott Elementary” has brought us, the user experience of Smart TVs and connected devices has delivered far too much frustration. The mere act of turning on the TV to find something to watch is an inexcusably disastrous viewer experience—a complete fail on the part of the television industry.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of streaming services has not improved viewers’ TV usability experience. In fact, it seems exponentially worse. This is despite 81% of consumers citing “ease of use” as the second-most important attribute for video streaming, close behind “cost” at 84%, according to a 2020 Nielsen study. If streaming service providers and device manufacturers spent as much time improving the viewer usability experience as they spend building pricing models, perhaps they wouldn’t be forced to continuously raise prices.

While I think we’d all agree that there are much bigger problems in this world, viewer frustration with streaming service features and connected devices illustrates how much the TV industry takes its customers for granted. Sure, some products are arguably better than others. And right now, there’s probably someone making the argument somewhere that their supposedly excellent usability is a competitive advantage. And though there are some excellent products out there, there is considerable room for companies to improve the viewer usability experience and to gain loyalty and attention for the entire sector.

Let’s examine a few areas in need of improvement:

The multiple remote e-waste factor

First, proliferation of different and incompatible remotes is rampant. This is not a new issue with the streaming era, but it is now even more difficult to solve. Universal remotes notoriously challenge even the most tech-savvy and usually end up taking space in a drawer. In fact, many people have drawers full of extra, old and broken remotes, exemplifying the wastefulness of this sector of consumer devices.

Perhaps we need a new way of looking at this particular frustration, beyond the fact that it’s hard for consumers to navigate. So, let’s look at a similar issue in which an entity made a decision intended to minimize e-waste long-term: In June, the EU mandated the use by 2026 of a common charger for all new portable devices such as smartphones, earbuds, wireless keyboards and laptops. The argument could be made that mandating even a baseline of standardization for TV and streaming device remotes would minimize e-waste. Which government wants to take it on?

The personalized feature set

Second, personalizing one’s TV experience, within the operating system navigation, is ridiculously complex. Because this topic is vast, let’s look at just one example – turning captions on and off. Nothing exemplifies the lack of care for the TV viewer more than the inaccessibility of captions, especially given that the original purpose of the caption feature is … accessibility!

In one family I surveyed, one person likes to always have captions on. This preference is not due a hearing issue. Rather, this person believes captions or subtitles augment their understanding of a show, especially while they simultaneously are playing a video game on their laptop and scrolling TikTok on their phone.

This sort of use case is hardly uncommon. In fact, four out of five viewers ages 18-25 say they use subtitles all or part of the time according to one study. Meanwhile, within the family surveyed, other members complain that captions ruin their experience, often revealing a joke or a plot twist before it happens on screen.

The difference in preferences means that family members sharing the same TV and streaming services must frequently turn captions on and off. If you’ve tried to do this at all, you know that every service and device is different. If you haven’t tried yet, please do just to see how needlessly complex it is.

As we know, the lack of standardization for caption functions is the same lack of standardization for everything from start to fast forwarding to volume functions. It’s all unnecessarily complex and frustrating for the consumer.

The unfamiliar TV panic

Third, the issue of standardization goes beyond consumers’ own homes. Based on my recent unscientific, informal survey of a half dozen short-term rental property hosts and their guests, struggles with unfamiliar remotes and/or TV operating systems are one of the top sources of friction between hosts and guests. This applies to those young and old, tech-savvy or not.

One guest called his host frequently, complaining that the TV was broken. In fact, the TV worked just fine, but the guest was flummoxed by the Apple TV remote, despite several lessons. The guest is still complaining about the host’s Apple TV, although he has moved on to another short-term rental property (and despite the fact that this TV-challenged property was a beautifully designed home in an idyllic natural setting).

Another host described a guest who emailed a half dozen times in advance of his arrival, concerned about how he would watch TV. He asked for photos of both the front and back of the TV and a detailed assessment of whether he’d be able to plug in an antenna to watch local TV. After his arrival, this guest complained that he found the remote “awkward.” The host described losing sleep over whether this guest would write a bad Airbnb review solely based on his TV experience.

The bottom line is that both hosts and guests clearly would appreciate a TV experience that just works, easily, without instructions. And they really don’t want to have to communicate with one another about it. By setting a new baseline common standard for TVs and streaming services, the industry could perhaps improve the rental home industry’s host-guest relations – and help the rest of us at the same time.

Let’s fix the consumer experience

Forget for a moment some of the common complaints about today’s streaming industry, such as too many mediocre shows or ideas that should have been 90-minute movies but are needlessly stretched to seven-part series. Given all the investment in Smart TV technology, and all of the money to be made from distributing content via that technology, the industry would benefit from providing viewers with a much better experience. For what we are paying, we certainly deserve it.

We should have more standardized devices, accessible navigation interfaces, excellent search capabilities across devices and services, and more. Achieving this would require some cooperation among the major players. But primarily, it would require that the players start to care about their customers. It’s evident that they don’t.

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