TV Meets the Web

by Jakob Nielsen on February 15, 1997

In my review of WebTV's usability, I concluded that they had great design, especially regarding novice user usability, but that the design constraints relating to using a small screen and cursor keys on a remote control were too severe for an optimal Web-browsing experience. Well, maybe Web-access through television sets doesn't need to be as usable as a normal computer if it can provide other benefits.

Experience with traditional media has shown that even media that are quite similar can have different properties and different things they are good at. Consider television, movies, and theater: all three basically show human actors in costumes who read scripts in front of stage sets. All are very different from comic books, novels, conference panels, or a list of the first million digits of pi. Even so, the focus of the three media is different:

  • Television is about characters. TV is shown on a small screen that presents faces and close-ups better than landscapes. Because viewers sit in their living rooms with many distractions, shows tend to be at most one hour long, meaning that they cannot evolve complex plots. Series of TV shows are common because the audience likes the convenience of tuning in every week at the same time and because they can easily do so since the TV set is in their house and has no usage fees. Seeing the same characters week after week leads to extensive character development during a season.
  • Movies are about stories. Viewers have gone to the trouble of driving to the movie theater, so they want more than a half-hour show, though most films are still less than two hours long due to human biology. Because viewers are trapped in a dark room for the duration of the film, the storyline can be developed further than is possible on TV. On the other hand, because of the expense and bother of going to the movies, people rarely do so on a regular basis, meaning that continued series are rare (except for one or two sequels to popular films). Because of the lack of series, characters are developed less and the film rests more on a strong plot.
  • Theater is about ideas. The audience sits far away from the stage and cannot see the actors as well as on film. Nor can the stage show as elaborate sets or landscapes. These differences lead to prominence of dialogue over visuals. Also, the added expense of live actors for every performance makes the tickets significantly more expensive than movie tickets and attracts a more elite and intellectual audience. At the same time, the start-up cost of putting on the performance is less than the cost of producing a film, meaning that theater is more suited for experimental expressions.

Furthermore, of course, television has a substantial news and non-fiction component that is not present in movies and theater due to the ability of TV to deliver content in real time.

The following table compares television and traditional computers along a number of dimensions:

  Television Computers
Screen resolution (amount of information displayed) relatively poor varies from medium-sized screens to potentially very large screens
Input devices remote control and optional wireless keyboard that are best for small amounts of input and user actions mouse and keyboard sitting on desk in fixed positions leading to fast homing time for hands
Viewing distance several meters a few inches
User posture relaxed, reclined upright, straight
Room living room, bedroom (ambiance and tradition implies relaxation) home office (paperwork, tax returns, etc. close by: ambiance implies work)
Integration opportunities with other things on same device various broadcast shows productivity applications, user's personal data, user's work data
Number of users social: many people can see screen (often, several people will be in the room when the TV is on) solitary: few people can see the screen (user is usually alone while computing)
User engagement passive: the viewer receives whatever the network executives decide to put on active: user issues commands and the computer obeys

It is clear that Web access from television sets is a different style of medium than Web access from a computer screen. This difference is OK and will only serve to strengthen the Web. As an analogy, it doesn't hurt the paper medium that newspapers and books are different.

The Web on computers is a very information-rich medium that is based on a high degree of user initiative and engagement: users create their own experience through a steady stream of hypertext-following clicks. Clearly, WebTV is ill suited to support this kind of user experience.

The Web on television should still be more user-driven and individualized than the fully passive mass medium of broadcast TV, but it needs to move in directions better suited to the device. This is not to say that WebTV users can not benefit from accessing some parts of the traditional Web: after all, successful films have been made based on Shakespeare's plays and television networks often broadcast feature films. But as pointed out above, the mainstream directions of the media have turned out to be separate.

The most obvious direction for the Web on television is integration with broadcast TV. Online TV program listings are one example of content that would seem optimal for WebTV users. It would also be quite useful to have hyperlinks to detailed information about each show: which actor is playing this role? what are the statistics for this baseball player? The point being that the system should know what program the user was watching and have appropriate links for that specific show so that the basic user experience would be driven by the television and not by fully flexible browsing.

Drawing of idea for integrating Web and TV: the anchor of a show throws out a hypertext reference that animates into a webpage The figure shows one of the ideas we developed in SunSoft's Worlds Without Windows project as a user interface for hyperlinks from a TV show to the Web: The anchor of a television show ("Jane") tells the viewers that there is more information about some story at their website. She makes a throwing gesture that is detected by a gesture recognizer which animates the appearance of a hypertext reference flying out of her hand and morphing into a miniature of the Web page in question. If the user wants to read the page, he or she makes a gesture to activate the Web link. In our project, we assumed the use of a large screen where the Web info would grow into a separate area, but one could use the same idea with a revised version of WebTV and switch a small monitor between broadcast and Web reading as needed. The right part of the figure shows one of our other ideas: a chat room tied into the TV to allow the user to discuss the show with his or her friends.

When more bandwidth becomes available, it will also be possible to use a television-based Web to assemble more efficient evening news broadcasts optimized for the individual viewer. For example, the show could start by having the anchorperson read the list of the day's headlines. Each family could then indicate what stories they wanted to see - either by having a single person click a button as interesting headlines are read or by letting each family member have his or her own button. This latter solution is more family-friendly: the current WebTV design with a single remote control is divorce lawyers' delight.

Note how my example of selecting stories for a customized evening news show relies on a fairly passive user interface: click a button as a fixed set of choices are read. In general, I think that the amount of initiative and activity required of the user will be the major defining difference between TV-based Web and computer-based Web. I don't think that the use of video will be as important a difference since I expect computer-based Web to include more multimedia effects as bandwidth grows and more powerful computers (allowing better compression as well as a cache of at least a terabyte on your local harddisk) become popular.

To conclude:

  • the Web on computers is about interaction and maximizing user initiative and empowerment
  • the Web on TV is about integration with broadcasting without too much user initiative

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