Keep it Simple
keep everyone happy, cable must help subscribers get cozy
with new technologies.
a growing number of households are subscribing to digital
cable service in the U.S., some customers are not happy
with the service and soon return to analog cable. Why?
The technology feels too difficult to master, and people
simply give up trying.
creating churn for MSOs is that digital cable's interface
really isn't all that user friendly, at least, not yet.
"I believe 'ease of
use' is a laudable goal and should be a rallying cry for
the industry," said Ross Rubin, formerly the senior
research officer at Jupiter Communications and now a
senior analyst at eMarketer. "There has been slow
progress in making systems easy to use, and this has
slowed market penetration."
"We now have 14
million households using the PowerTV system for digital
cable," said Bindu Crandall, the director of marketing
for Scientific-Atlanta. "As we improve the usability of
the interface, like not overloading a button with too
many functions, we expect the result will be converting
most of our analog customers into digital
services can't reach their full market potential unless
consumers feel comfortable using those services. And that
comfort largely depends in the usability of the
interface, from the remote control to the onscreen guide
Indeed, a loose
cable industry consensus long relegated interface design
to each set-top box and middleware provider. Many
industry players feared that premature standardization
could lock cable into dead-end solutions, so the tacit
agreement was to let marketplace competition set the
standards for the cable TV interface, much as Windows
became the standard for the personal computer through
But competition led
to repeated interoperability problems among middleware
vendors. A crucial case was Motorola's delay producing
its advanced DCT5000 series digital box. After the vendor
spent years unsuccessfully trying to squeeze the
middleware from both Liberate Technologies and
MicrosoftTV into that box for TCI and then AT&T
Broadband, the cable operator finally canceled the order
before selling out to Comcast Corp.
Plagued by delays
rolling out advanced services, the cable industry finally
agreed in 1997 to work through CableLabs to develop the
Open Cable Applications Platform (OCAP) as the standard
middleware for all digital boxes sold at retail in the
U.S. to meet a federal mandate.
By late 2002, this
effort led to the plug-and-play agreement between the
National Cable & Telecommunications Association and
the Consumer Electronics Association. The TV receiver
manufacturers agreed to install the chipset and software
for one-way digital cable services. These new cable-ready
TV sets will work anywhere in the U.S., but the receivers
won't support two-way cable services like
video-on-demand, which will still require a set-top
compatibility between the boxes sold at retail and those
that cable operators directly lease to subscribers, OCAP
is being implemented by all digital cable box vendors
selling in the U.S., including Motorola,
Scientific-Atlanta, Pace Micro Technology, Panasonic
(Matsushita), and Pioneer Electronics. The move is
expected to improve the overall usability of advanced
includes a standardized application interface (API) for
all of the proprietary digital programming services
delivered by the box, including the interactive or
electronic program guide (IPG or EPG);
information-on-demand services like news and weather;
VOD; and games, home banking, home shopping, Internet
access, and other interactive TV services.
Progress is being
made on the usability front, but obstacles remain.
For example, TV
Guide rigorously defends its Gemstar patents for the
onscreen TV schedule layout, and some operators like
Comcast and Motorola have adopted the company's IPG. But
not everyone is willing to be compliant.
which supplies equipment for Time Warner Cable, recently
prevailed against TV Guide in two patent-infringement
suits over its grid-style program guide. Canal+,
conversely, developed a different plan for its MediaGuide
IPG, which offers video feeds from channels in an
onscreen block matrix. Such variations may solve legal
problems, but are they more usable?
universe is changing the way we use TV," says Dr. Diana
Gagnon Hawkins, an independent consultant in Redwood
City, CA, specializing in interface design for advanced
TV systems. "Back when cable had only 30 to 60 channels,
it was easy to scroll though a channel guide. But that
user paradigm broke down when hundreds of channels were
added. Consumers do not want to wait while scrolling
through 200 or more channels."
Hawkins notes that
in her household, "My kids might be watching Nickelodeon
with a channel number at 500 something, but I may want to
watch CNN at channel 50. I'm not willing to scroll from
500 down to 50 to select my program, and we enjoy
channels spread all over the place. Setting up the
favorite channels inside the guide is so complicated that
we end up memorizing the channel numbers we like,
instead, and that's not the way people want to watch TV."
Mark Hess, the VP
of digital television at Comcast, admits that "ever since
we launched VOD, we've been aware that we confused our
customers by adding so much new content. The original EPG
for digital TV was good for up to 200 channels, but now
we're pushing past 300 channels with thousands of hours
Hess says that
today's TV Guide IPG is a work in progress.
internally on the features we require and we'll share
this with the provider," he says, declining to set a
deadline. "Then, we'll test these changes in front of our
"There's still a lot of work to be done together, and a
lot of decisions to be made before everything comes
together. What maters is that all of us making decisions
-- programmers, manufacturers and cable operators -- must
agree to deliver services and products that are deadly
simple for customers to use. This is
One key to success
is the fact that subscribers "want to find and manipulate
content instantly," notes Tim Friezley, the VP of global
solutions at MicrosoftTV, which offers a software
platform for digital cable as an adjunct to its worldwide
To discover what
works, Microsoft in the past year conducted a 30-city
usability study with subjects who spent one to four hours
a week programming a TiVo personal digital video recorder
(PVR or DVR).
"We saw that the
guide was clumsy for many users, who found it hard to
find the content they wanted in the broadcast mode,"
Friezley reports. "And when they switched to the PVR's
on-demand mode, the difference between the two interfaces
was confusing. Out of 90 features on TiVo we tested, we
found that most consumer could master only three to five
of them before they just gave up trying."
Scientific-Atlanta, engineers and usability experts are
spending "a lot of time and research energy to design a
very simple interface for average cable subscribers,"
says Dave Davies, the company's director of strategies
and business development.
He notes that the
vendor is combining engineering with marketing elements
in a series of focus groups and field tests to create the
best possible navigation system for S-A boxes running
"Our goal is to
reduce the number of clicks needed to navigate the
screens for selecting content by time or category,"
Davies says. "The challenge is cutting the number of
different interfaces that subscribers have to deal with
on a daily basis.
"For instance, a
cable operator may deploy an IPG from us, but VOD from
another vendor. We need to offer a more integrated
experience so [that] subscribers who feel
comfortable with one pay service are not afraid of trying
A MATTER OF
To that end, Davies
says Scientific-Atlanta publishes a "style guide" for
PowerTV and third-party developers with recommendations
for the onscreen "look and feel," as well as how each
button on the S-A remote was designed to work. The vendor
offers to test any new application or product to ensure
its style guide extends across all the interfaces without
doesn't demand compliance with the style guide nor
require formal certification.
"We want to leave
the flexibility for a developer to do something different
and better," Davies explains. If an application interface
is too different, it may confuse consumers, he admits,
"but that's why we're working together with cable
operators. It's in their best interest to pick the most
usable solutions for their customers."
Cable should adopt software that allows the set-top box
to adapt to subscribers' viewing habits, and generate
personalized virtual channels based on viewers' habits
and preferences, along the lines of what's possible with
For consumers to
fully accept that, though, "rigid privacy protections
must be in place so personal viewing filters or profiles
never leave the box," Hawkins notes. "Cable customers do
not want cable operators knowing what they watch.".
"If there's a
problem with the ease of use on any system," says Dr.
Clare-Marie Karat, a human-machine interface researcher
at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Hawthorne,
NY, "the real problem is with the system, not the user.
You should hear all the horror stories I've heard about
products that just don't do what they're supposed to do,
and then how customers are made to feel stupid when they
call the companies to complain."
In a 10-point
Computer User's Bill of Rights first published in 1998,
Karat began with an idea that the cable industry might
take to heart: "The user is always right." .
December 2003 in premier of Transmit
2003 by Ken