Velocity of Media Consumption: TV vs. the Web

by Jakob Nielsen on November 24, 2009

Summary: The granularity of user decisions is much finer on the Web, which is dominated by the instant gratification of the user's needs in any given instant. Content must cater to this rapid pace.


I've been reading The Tale of Genji — the masterpiece of Japanese literature that was written a thousand years ago and is widely considered the world's first novel. I hope I don't offend my Japanese friends by saying that I find the action pretty slow moving. It's a wonderful book, but Lady Murasaki spends many pages to advance the plot even the tiniest bit.

From a historical perspective, it's clear why The Tale of Genji racked up the page count. The ladies of the Japanese court had nothing else to read. After all, this was the only novel in existence in the entire world. It's not as if Lady Murasaki had to compete with Stephen King or Tom Clancy.

Today, of course, we're in the opposite scenario: everything we write competes with trillions of Web pages, all a few clicks away. As a result, most people actually read very few words on the Web.

The velocity of media consumption has increased dramatically. Readers no longer linger over lovingly described passages detailing a lord's style of dress. They click here, they click there, they click everywhere. But they don't stay.

People's consumption of print media is different than their use of websites, leading to the many differences in designing for print versus the Web.

Dimensions of Media Difference

All media move faster these days. Compare an old TV show with a current one, and you'll see that the cuts come quicker.

And, between TV and the Web, there are many differences that result in a substantially faster online media velocity:

  TV Web
Audience Mass: everybody watches the same basic channels, so the programming has to be bland Niche: everybody seeks out their own special interests the moment they want something
Usability Turn it on Figure it out
Technology Weak: can't do anything except show pictures; offers no features Powerful: can do almost anything; offers plenty of features
Main access UI "Same time, same channel" next week Search and navigation
User experience Passive: sit back and let it happen the way the program director decided Active: lean forward and decide where you want to go at any time
Flow Linear Hypertext
Distractions None (except for temptation to do something else during commercials), so you stay focused on the one show you're watching Many: other windows and tabs beckon (and you'd better check your email right now in case something important has come in)
Ownership MSM (main-stream media = big corporations, because it's expensive to run a broadcast network) The means of production are in everybody's hands, reversing the centralization caused by the industrial revolution
Production values High Low
Social context Often with others; in a family room Usually alone; in an office or den
Brand-building Image and slogans Experience
Good for advertising? Yes No (except search and classified ads)
Sales cycle support Demand creation Research, buying, fulfillment (for electronic products), customer support, relationship maintenance

Of course, I'm simplifying when I say that TV has easy usability and no features. One look at a remote control implies otherwise — and usability of remote controls hasn't improved since I analyzed it 5 years ago. Indeed, people basically don't use any of TV's advanced features precisely because they're so cumbersome. As a result, the received user experience is pretty simple: turn it on, sit back, and enjoy the show.

The Web has powerful features, is nonlinear, and is user-driven — able to instantly gratifying users' current needs based on their search engine queries. Mobile Web use lives even more in the current moment.

Compared to TV, the Web also has a much finer granularity of user control:

  • When watching TV, you make one decision every 30–120 minutes: pick a show or movie to watch, and then it's lean-back time. Ah, easy.
  • When surfing the Web, you make a decision every 10–120 seconds: leave or stay on this page; leave or stay on this site. Where to click now? Where to click next? Stressful.

Adding up all these differences explains the fast pace of Web use: the velocity is much higher than we see for TV use.

Web Video: An Intermediate Case

Video on the Web is an intermediate case between broadcast video (TV) and page-based Web navigation. Preliminary data indicates that most Web videos should be short — typically 2–10 minutes — indicating a usage velocity between Web and TV, but closer to the Web's velocity of one user decision every 10–120 seconds.

When you develop content, services, and designs for the Web, remember that this medium has a much faster velocity than older media, whether print or TV.


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