Improving the Cable TV Interface

Planit Agency
February 13, 2010

With the record amount of snowfall we've had in the past week I have been spending a lot of time indoors watching television.  And something that has always bothered me with watching cable television are the really poor interfaces they use for basic channel switching. There are many aspects to why these are bad, but the overall problem is that  the interface design and technology are at least 10 years behind everything else. Compare your cable tv interface to your iphone, android, website navigation, and even your home computer.   I live in Baltimore so most of what I see is the Comcast interface, but I have seen many other Cable Providers that have exactly the same problem, actually I have never seen a good Cable TV Interface. 

Now I don't work for a cable TV provider or pretend to know the In's and Outs of interface programing for cable television, but I do program and see many open source alternatives online that have much more intuitive interfaces to allow you to switch between channels,however these are just a hassle to set up and not many people have a computer hooked up to their television.  It seems feasible that Cable Providers could easily update their interfaces, especially since they all double as internet providers as well. The two are never connected, at least not in a way that lives up to their potential.

I am going to outline aspects of bad design in the Comcast Television Interface (which looks almost identical to Time Warner, Cox, etc), point out some improvements that could be made, and show some design concepts in the process.  The intention of this post is not to come up with an entire new interface design, it's more to conceptually lay out a better interface design. I am not looking too far past what is available now, so no wii-motes or minority report interfaces. These are practical suggestions on how the interfaces could be brought up to speed to today's standards. The main problems I see in interface design are similar to the same problems in web design: 1. Speed 2. Usability 3. Transparency 


My main gripe with most of these interfaces is the speed at which you can flip through channels. If channel flipping were faster then the interface would already be at least 50% better. These should just be text inputs, when you hit down on your remote their should be an immediate response with what you see, whereas right now it takes about a half second to go to the next menu or page down.  I find it unbelievable that this can't be made faster when a gaming system like the wii has such sensitive controls on its remote, even when you are just using the arrow buttons. You would think that the cable box could be used better for this, cacheing channel guides and periodically updating them on the backend, so that when you flip to a new menu or channel guide it is not calling for a response from some remote server. 

When you look at well put together web interfaces with similar quantities of content to flip through, you don't see nearly as much of a lag. And when you do, it is for a good reason.  Usability

Cable TV Interfaces are far from intuitive. You often have to go through three or four menus  to get to what you want, which might be a show you watch all the time. I know the Comcast interface the best so I know how to get around the menus. But, when I sit down to use one that I'm not familiar with (i.e. Time Warner), it has a pretty big learning curve.  The key here is lack of simplicity.  

The logic for menu priority should go like this:

Highest Priority:  What is on TV Now

Secondary Priorities  What can Watch that I might have saved or is on On Demand What is coming up Next on TV What is on TV in the future 


And when it comes to what you see visually: Highest Priority: The TV Show Secondary Priority: The Guide  

The Interface: The actual visual interface for Comcast seems to be 10 years old at this point, there are menus inside menus of menus, then menus within those menus that take you to the same menu. Sound complicated? It is, it's like there was never any plan for updating the interface, for adding additional content, etc. Here I will lay out what you should see visually as you navigate through the menus. The Breakdown Basically there are three levels of menu here. 1. Immeditate channel surfing – A minimzed version of the full menu.   2. Full menu subnav, before launching into the most in-depth part of the menu, figure out what the user is looking for. 3. The Full menu, fullscreen, with the most options for browsing. 

1.  Immediate Channel Surfing When I sit down to watch TV, I click on the menu and what it brings me to is  the most minimal menu on the interface.  A TV grid at the bottom with what you are watching now. Besides the design being clunky, it takes way too much attention from the actual screen content. Where is the use of transparency, overlays, and just a simpler way of navigating.  The first thing I want to know when I go to this screen is

A. What am I watching now then B. What else is on right now and finally C. How much time is left, or what can I watch next. So, with this logic in mind, wouldn't a menu like this be more efficient and less intrusive?  

Ok, it's probably not that different than what they have now, just simplified. Hit that down arrow key on the remote and it will go to a menu like this:

This menu shows what is currently on as you scroll down, which current Cable TV Interfaces do now, but this is way less confusing, I don't need a full TV grid at this point, and it takes up the same amount of real estate as the previous window.  On this menu I see what is on now in rows of two, if I want the next hour I just click to the right.  It's similar to what Comcast currently uses with some slight usability features that make things simpler and more efficient. Also, the menu is subdued in design, it doesn't cry out for attention. If someone else is watching TV with you, and you begin flipping through the channels, it's unobtrusive. 2. The Full Menu Sub Navigation Now, If I want to browse stations on a more in-depth level, then I go to the main menu. Since the main menu will have more features, I turned the navigation from horizontal to vertical to be able to hold more buttons without interfering with screen real estate.

The purpose of this navigation is to give you the top level categories for the entire interface while always focusing on the quickest way to find what you want.  The reson you go to this menu is either A) You don't know what to watch so you just want to browse within specific categories or B) You want to watch a show you recorded or something on ON Demand.  It seems obvious but when I go to the current comcast main menu, my screen shrinks to 25% and I have these gigantic buttons on the screen, most of which I never go to. 

For browsing purposes there are many options here.  The first option is to open up the full menu for the most robust browsing experience.   The menu items below this are more to narrow down what you see in the full menu.

Flip-Thru Favorites: This is something I have seen in one form or another. It's usually a button on the remote, and it is hardly ever used. The reason it isn;t used is becauase people don't want to add favorites manually. Cable boxes should be capable of logging what you watch most frequently, what channels you go to most often, and then flip through them when you want. When you click this flip-through favorites button, it goes directly to your favorite stations, one after the next. Think of it as browsing in autopilot, like stumble-upon for TV. myShows: This is basically a DVR/On Demand Feature. This menu narrows down your browsing to shows you have specifically included in your myShows box, shows you frequently watch that might be coming on shortly, shows you have recorded in your DVR and shows that you like that might be on on-demand. It is a one-stop spot for everything you like in it's simplest form.  Right now, on Comcast, I have all of these things in different places. If I recorded a show then I hit DVR, if I want onDemand, then I click another onDemand button. Putting these things all in one place and using statistics to present the user with the most used options will not only make the interface more intuitive and less busy, but would also make the remote controls simpler.

On Demand: I'm not going to go too much into ON-DEMAND, there is too much there to cover and I think you will already get the gist of what I am getting to with the other menus.  ON DEMAND should be way more robust, it it could be doing things like pulling in movie reviews from the internet, offfering a much more sophisticated music listening (and video) interface, and amongst others, it should be offering up more web content like podcasts and youtube video.   Look at the XBOX Live menu's for the best example of how this could work. Channel Categories Let's say you want to look for a sporting event, nothing in particular, you just want to watch some sports.  This is where the category menu comes in, which most Cable TV Interfaces it's  buried and works poorly.  This shows you your categories, Network programming, sports, Kids and Local.  It has, in small type, shows that are currently showing below the category name. When you click on one of these categories you can see either a grid navigation (as seen below for kids), or a more linear navigation (as seen below for sports).  The tv grid navigation is to be able to see other shows grayed out while seeing the category shows highlighted, the linear navigation is to just see those shows in that category for that time period. Notice how you can still see what is on the tv without it having to be minimized to a quarter of your screen real estate.  It's amazing what a little transparency will do.  Although I am showing the standard TV grid navigation for the Kids section, I find the vertical, linear navigation of the Sports section to be way more intuitive, you have it right there, what you can watch right now in sports.  

This all might seem pretty obvious, but still something nobody has improved upon.

Category TV Grid Channel View

Category Channel List View

And for a little embellishment, put some transitions into those menus. Have them slide out, fade-in, etc. It's not necessary, but it makes things look so much better and gives the impression of the menu's moving gracefully and working smoothly. 4) Transparency I have talked about transparency through this article in terms of actual alpha channels, but what I am referring to here is making the interface invisible to the user, make it feel like they aren't using an interface, like they don't have to learn. I might not have fully accomplished this with my examples, but they are a step in the right direction for Cable TV Interfaces.  Give me the options when I need the options, learn my channel browsing habits.  TIVO did this, cable didn't learn much from it.  The Future Although this is all meant as a concept for bringing the Cable TV Interface up to speed, it seems like it should be even farther along than even what I am proposing. When are cable providers going to open up their software to allow for API's, allowing developers to make widgets that sync to television programs? When is syncing your phone to your cable going to become more widespread? What has been talked about and what will make all of this better and quicker will be when television comes completely to the internet, I more often find myself watching shows on Hulu and other internet TV sites than I do regular cable television at this point.