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

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“Most publishers we talk to feel the recommendation capabilities are lacking in general. You pick the obvious things, like watch Seinfeld and you get more episodes of Seinfeld recommended or maybe something that the cast member is in,” says Mike Lucero, VP of product strategy and connected TV, app development company Ratio.

So while you watch Big Brother, publishers are trying to gather accurate information to find out what would be the best matches for you for content and advertising.

“One of the areas where we are exploring and are interested in pursuing much further is using machine learning,” Lucero says. “There’s an overwhelming amount of data about consumption right now, so there’s a lot of energy in the industry... to take that and figure out the right way to take that information, capture it, process it, and turn it into meaningful insights that then allow you to really think about the logical recommendations. It’s an area where I think over the next 18 months we’re going to see a lot of improvement.”

Being able to provide personalized recommendations based on what viewers have watched in the past is especially important when they’re searching for something that’s not there.

“Do we just show an empty set of results?” Schaffer asks. “If we don’t have the actual title, we should show them things that we think they may also want to watch. That’s also part of what we try to do in terms of the overall experience—personalizing the interface, the experience, making it feel like there’s this connection between the user and the application. I think that’s really important.”

Every platform allows for search within its own system. What’s needed is a search function that works across platforms, a function we’ve seen implemented to some degree on devices such as the Roku and Amazon Fire.

“The holy grail right now is being able to get to great discoverability of content,” says Mark Vena, vice president of worldwide marketing for Sling Media. “As more and more people are watching a cable box, live TV, and OTT apps, they want to be able to hop into each of these devices to find if there is a particular movie that they may want to watch on a service that they already subscribe to and don’t want to pay for [again].”

Popcornflix

Mike Lucero of Ratio, which has built apps for several OTT services, including PopcornFlix, says that it’s important to provide personalized recommendations that go beyond the obvious.

The logical solution, or so it would seem, is a second screen app that can access libraries across different platforms. So far, though, second screen services don’t integrate well with content services.

“Second screen has been a real failure so far because it hasn’t really scaled very well,” Lucero says. “It tends to be what I call ‘out of band’ experiences. People will be watching a movie on Netflix and then go to IMDb to find out more information. It’s not connected with the experience. There are numbers from Nielsen that people are definitely doing stuff, they’re just not doing it with the content so they do not really have an opportunity to monetize that.”

Multiplatform Pause and Resume

Viewers like to multitask, and with that comes a fragmented viewing experience, sometimes across multiple devices, so content platforms need to make that functionality seamless.

“The concept of pause and resume has become a baseline must-have, especially when you’re thinking about tablets or smartphones,” Gerick says. “Being able to track and provide [viewers] where they left off across the platforms regardless of the device is one of those essential experiences.”

And no matter what screen the viewer is watching on, the video quality needs to be the best available.

“There’s a tendency to undervalue the quality of service as part of the user experience, but it’s actually getting more and more important,” Lucero says. “Users have the expectation, even over mobile phone networks, that the service is going to be high quality. If they go to a publisher and the content looks like garbage a few times in a row, they’re going to not come back. There’s more and more evidence that consumers don’t have the patience to put up with poor video quality, and that becomes a big factor in live.”

Still, as important as video quality is, in most instances a good SD stream is better than a poor-quality HD stream that sputters and stalls.

“Obviously, video quality is very important,” Schaffer acknowledges. “There are a lot of publishers that struggle with creating the necessary video streams to make the quality as good as they can because people have different environments in their home.” He adds, “We don’t want people waiting for video to load; even if it’s lesser quality, at least they can watch it.”

Contextualized Content

Sometimes, providing a rewarding viewer experience goes beyond simply optimizing the experience around the primary content stream. Sling has introduced a feature on the Slingbox 500 that suggests YouTube content relevant to the program a viewer is watching. So if you’re watching a New York Yankees game, you can switch in the middle of the inning to the YouTube app and receive Yankees-related video suggestions.

For now, the feature is only available on televisions connected to the Slingbox 500, but Sling is looking at deploying it for tablet and mobile phone viewing as well. But Sling doesn’t want to do anything that will detract from the primary content.

“Usability, especially on an application level, is a very important thing,” Vena says. “You want to be able to create an unobtrusive experience. Most Slingbox users want to get the live content as quickly as they can.”

While we’re on the topic of unobtrusive experience, Vena said Sling recently integrated advertising into apps. “We want to do it in such a way that we don’t block the screen,” Vena says. “The last thing we want is someone to be watching the Super Bowl and then in the fourth quarter an ad comes up over the screen.” Slingbox also usually offers some version of skippable ads where you can jump ahead after 5 seconds.

Sling related video recommendations

Sling offers contextual advertising and even YouTube “related video” recommendations, but always makes sure it’s easy for viewers to get right to the content they want to watch.

Slingbox users may have a pretty good idea what they want to watch, but what about someone who is more in browse or search mode?

Ratings and Social

“There’s so much clutter out there. It used to be 500 cable channels, but now there’s 500,000 people out there you are competing against,” Lucero says. “Making sure you find your audience is going to be a long and arduous process. It involves a lot of iterations to actually nail that, and that’s often the hardest part.”

One way to stand out is through social ratings and sharing.

“Having a social feature where you’re able to lock in the viewer and then allow them to be able to share out what they’re watching is very important,” Schaeffer says. “Having some way to tweet or post about something that you’ve watched, ‘Hey, this is a great title. We love this. I just finished watching this title. You might also enjoy it as well.’” Social serves several purposes. There’s the sharing element, where people are promoting things online, and there’s also the feedback for publishers about what’s working and what’s not. “[Social is] providing the publishers a lot of feedback and allowing them to be able to make better decisions about what do I want to show in my lineup,” Schaeffer says.

To Be Continued ...

Different user interface features and user experiences work for different kinds of content. Chat drives a lot of activity for Twitch and CBS, and CBS is also offering customized user controls for live content across select content. Slingbox viewers expect their content to display quickly with the click of a few buttons, regardless of whether they are in their living room or a hotel halfway around the world. Ultimately, your viewers will decide what they want and like, and you’ll need to follow their lead.

So ask yourself again, “Is my service a joy to use?” Without great user experience, the best business models, greatest content, or trendiest ideas in the world won’t deliver.

This article originally ran in the October 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Joy of Video.”

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