In the 1976 science-fiction movie
The Man Who Fell to Earth, an alien played by David Bowie watches several TV sets at the same time, his superior mind taking in all the action at once.
Today, many satellite subscribers in Europe can duplicate this feat via an interactive guide from Canal Plus Technologies that simultaneously carries 20 live network feeds, so they can see which channel to choose. The navigator, called Mosaic, is one of the more intriguing of several TV interfaces designed to guide consumers through programming and interactive services.
But even a superior intellect would have trouble understanding what's transpiring as interactive TV takes root in the United States. The TV screen is being bombarded by a hodgepodge of different on-screen interfaces for services such as video-on-demand, Internet-on-TV, digital-video recording and interactive advertising, with few standards for design, format or functionality.
To consumers, these interfaces will appear more confusing than a Florida presidential ballot.
The problem is that many ITV applications have been designed with engineering requirements and business strategies taking precedence over consumer needs. The engineers then end up "throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks," notes Steve Johnson, who develops interfaces under the banner of Coach Media.
"What's missing, from a design standpoint, is [that] they don't start from a consumer perspective," Johnson said.
Interfaces are a vital component of ITV's future. Whether it's an order screen for an on-demand movie, an interactive program guide or a pop-up window for buying a CD, the interface helps determine the look and feel of the viewer's ITV experience.
If designed correctly, interfaces can serve as a gateway to on-demand programming, interactive ads and television commerce-and will usher in significant revenues for providers of those services. If done incorrectly, they will be an annoying turn-off for viewers. At present, there's little conformity between the various offerings.
"When it comes to the consumer, if these things don't play well together, who would want the service?" said an MSO marketing executive.
First, developers must verify that consumers actually want the applications and that they can deliver the product.
"A good interface will not help a bad application," says Zimran Ahmed, a consultant for Creative Good, which assesses user experience.
Focus groups demonstrate that user interfaces, or UIs, must clearly tell users which remote-control buttons to push. Bill Ziff-Levine, managing director of usability researcher Data & Management Counsel, said many interfaces have been developed with "a level of engineering arrogance that impedes the intuitive adoption of interactivity."
ITV needs to work on "bread-crumbing," or the practice of leading users on a logical, step-by-step path through applications, Ziff-Levine said. Otherwise, they'll think, "I don't have a clue what that means," he said.
About the only area where standards exist is electronic program guides, which are shaped by the patents held by Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. Even in that space, there is still a multitude of guide designs and colors.
MSOs and set-top box manufacturers advocate standardized interfaces, yet each company brings its own agenda to the process. Cable networks offer enhancements through formatted services such as those of WebTV Networks Inc. or Wink Communications Inc., but generally, they're going their separate ways in terms of the designs and content they provide.
One reason for the jumble is that each provider wants to support its unique brand or competitive position. But some measure of conformity is needed so consumers know what to expect from an ITV experience, regardless of the application.
UI development will get trickier as MSOs create TV portals that serve as an entryway to high-speed Internet access and other applications. There are a host of technical issues behind the screen, as well as interface issues in front of it.
Interface specialists believe standardization won't occur until it's clearer what consumers want.
"Whatever does the job the easiest is the one consumers will pick," Ahmed predicted. "The big lessons from the Web are that you need to keep the experience simple and fast and let people easily do what they want to do."
Simplicity is the watchword, according to UI specialists. They also suggest:
Make it obvious what viewers are supposed to do.
Don't overcrowd the screen.
Don't go crazy with colors.
Use text big enough to read from the living room couch.
Use graphics or video where possible.
Require as few button pushes or drill-downs as possible.
Be careful about what is covered by overlays.
Allow viewers to easily turn interactive elements on-and off.
And remember, TV is still primarily a passive, entertainment-based experience.
In the end, the best interface may seem like no interface at all. It will be a seamless part of the viewing experience, enabling consumers to understand what they can do and access what they want instantly. That's an interface that even an alien would love.
Digital Dilemma is a new column by Craig Leddy, an independent writer and digital-media analyst. It runs every other week. If you've got a digital dilemma to tackle, contact him at LeddyColumn@aol.com.