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User Experience: To Keep Viewers, Online Video Must Be a Joy

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Content is king, or so the saying goes, and of all the factors that contribute to viewer engagement, content quality is the greatest. But if that content isn’t easily accessible, or the entire viewing experience—from discovery to content selection to the player controls—isn’t pleasurable, viewers might not stick around long enough to figure out if they like the content.

We can boil down the user experience to one simple question: Is your product a joy to use? User interface is a big factor in answering that question. Getting the interface right—and therefore, much of the experience—is crucial for keeping and growing your customer base.

I spoke to a number of experts about what’s important when they build their content—the good, the bad, the innovative, and the future. And if they occasionally assert the obvious, well, let’s just say that keeping things simple is harder than it looks.

Different types of content generated different success stories. Here’s what stands out.

Leading esports platform Twitch is getting tremendous engagement time—an average of 106 minutes per person, per day—from the live chat interaction between broadcaster and audience, even when there are several hundred thousand viewers online.

CBS Interactive is offering more customized video controls, giving audiences of popular programming—for example, the Grammys and Big Brother—more involvement in how they view and interact with the content.

Slingbox is experimenting with contextual content, letting users switch from primary content to YouTube recommendations for a broadened viewing experience.

Behind the scenes, development companies Ratio and Float Left Interactive are working on making content easier to find and more sellable.

We’ll learn more about each one, starting with Twitch.

Chat and Broadcaster Tools

Live content coupled with moderated chat is driving engagement at Twitch, creating a thriving ecosystem that keeps viewers on its site for almost 2 hours a day.

“We have certain streams right now where we will have several hundred thousand people watching at the same time, and that drives a lot of chat,” says Twitch PR director Chase, who only goes by one name. Twitch attracts more than 100 million visitors per month, watching 1.5 million broadcasters of video game-related content. In addition, Twitch has 10,000 partner broadcasters that monetize their content through subscription, ads, and merchandise sales. “What makes Twitch so sticky? We call it social video for gamers,” Chase says. The difference between watching esports on Twitch and watching a baseball game is that there is an ongoing conversation between the players and the audience in real time.

Twitch user engagement

Twitch says the biggest factor in driving user engagement is its active, moderated chat feature. 

“Once we integrated into the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, broadcasting became as easy as hitting the share button. As a result, 30 percent of our broadcaster base comes from a console,” Chase says. This, coupled with international payment options, has created a worldwide phenomenon. “Working with xsolla.com,” he says, “we now have 500 different ways to receive payments.”

In addition to the publishing and monetization tools, viewers and broadcasters thrive on community-building tools, including chat moderation, localization controls, and a new feature called host mode.

Viewers who came to a broadcaster that had no live content were more likely not to go back, so Twitch invented host mode, allowing for broadcasters to rebroadcast someone else’s live stream.

Twitch gets lot of feedback, sometimes in great technical depth, from viewers about features they want to see. Based on that feedback, Twitch updated its player, which hadn’t been changed in quite a while. The new interface is built completely in HTML5, and is the first step toward a goal of having a completely HTML5-based playback experience, according to Twitch video playback engineer Matt Fisher.

Fisher says addressing the user interface and experience around playback is an extremely important first step in getting to all HTML5 content. “We can then swap out the backend and eventually remove the reliance on the Flash player to deliver our video,” he says.

The takeaway from Twitch? Make it easy for anyone to be a broadcaster, give the audience the space to make their opinions heard, and enable multiple monetization options.

Viewer Control

The team at CBS Interactive (CBSi) is building more access and custom interactions for their content. CBS has also created direct-to-consumer access to a vast library of content (including the live network feed in some markets) via the CBS All Access subscription service.

“It’s a really big step,” says Rob Gerick, SVP and GM of digital platforms for CBSi. “It’s like taking the entire broadcast network and delivering that on top of an IP-based network.”

With more than 6,500 episodes available, organization, categorization, and clear labeling are essential in getting viewers to content as quickly as possible. “One of the things that is an absolute essential is labeling and sorting your content, so it’s in the order people would expect to see,” Gerick says.

CBS All Access

CBS All Access delivers more than 6,500 episodes, as well as a live network feed in some markets. Clear labeling and sorting, along with effective search, are crucial in making sure users keep watching.

“Some of the things we consider is where people are coming in in any given cycle,” he explains. “If someone is coming in and they want to start a series, they want to see the first episode in the series. If they’re already an avid fan, they want to see the latest.”

Live programming presents a different set of challenges, as well as opportunities to create user experiences that encourage viewers to engage with the content. For the Grammys, for instance, CBS offered viewers the option to see the main live feed in addition to other live cameras around the venue.

For the live stream of Big Brother, CBS presents a custom-built fan interface where viewers can chat as they watch.

“It’s a utility where viewers can connect with other people who are subscribers to our all access service and can get access to the live feeds,” Gerick says. ”You can set up a special group where you chat with a smaller group, or join one of the public forums. Those are extremely active in terms of people having a dialogue with each other while watching, kind of like a social viewing experience.”

Online traffic to Big Brother in 2014 (the last year for which CBS is sharing statistics) was up 61 percent over the previous year. Fans created more than 99,000 chat rooms last season, up more than 100 percent over the previous year.

The social aspect of video means the viewer doesn’t necessarily have to leave their feeds to watch some content.

“I would say video in the context of social has absolutely changed significantly,” Gerick says. “You’ll see us using shorter form teaser content that actually exists natively in social today, and we still do a balance of linking people out back to our own properties in destination as well as actually just embedding the video directly in social where someone can consume something without leaving their feed,” he says.

Touch vs. Remote

Regardless of the device viewers are using to access your content, managing the viewer navigation experience is important. Managing navigation for large video libraries presents an interesting challenge. Because of the limitations of the traditional remote control, TV content needs to be structured in a wide and shallow configuration, while mobile and touch interfaces allow for more depth.

“The challenging thing about this is that mobile and desktop are dealt within in a different fashion because obviously with desktop you have a mouse, you can click around, you can get to what you want to watch much easier than if you’re sitting there with a remote with five buttons on it, like Roku remote for example,” says Tom Schaeffer, CEO of app development company Float Left Interactive.

Float Left user interface

Video app developer Float Left Interactive works hard to design apps with interfaces that are easy to navigate on specific devices.

“The design considerations that we have to make with the TV in the living room are much different than what we would deal with when it comes to desktop and mobile,” Schaeffer continues. “Mobile can have multiple layers of navigation because we can swipe, we can drill down. With the touch interface, it’s very easy for us to create more elaborate navigational layers when it comes to the interface.”

The nature of the interface can also anticipate the mentality of the viewer.

“I’d rather have someone scrolling through multiple categories, finding something that they want to watch, then being able to get into it,” Schaeffer says. “We want to make that navigational hierarchy as flat as possible so that they’re not going down endless pathways trying to find something to watch.”

As is often the case, the solution isn’t only technical. “We tell publishers to organize their content in things that are most attractive to people in that category at the top so that they can completely identify right away with that category,” Schaeffer says.

Personalization and Recommendation

Once you present categories that will draw people in, you also need to offer recommendations for content that viewers might not even know to seek out on their own.

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