The user experience is becoming more and more critical for CE manufacturers, pay-TV providers, and content providers. In an era where virtually every device can stream the major content apps--Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX), YouTube, Amazon Prime Instant Video (NASDAQ: AMZN) and others--a strong user experience can create compelling, competitive differentiation.
The user experience for content streaming is influenced by picture quality, content availability, broadband performance, and the ease and intuitiveness of navigating the user interface to find desired content, but content is first and foremost the main success factor. Consumers are more likely to use a less-friendly interface for the right content than an easy-to-use interface that does not provide access to desired content.
The user interface has a key role in defining the quality of the user experience, which in turn affects a consumer's overall perception of the product or service. The user interface is not only the connection between the device or service and the user--it is also the connection to the desired outcome, whether that is viewing content or managing smart home devices. The driving principle of a satisfactory user interface is economy of effort. The interface should be clean, simple, intuitive, and easy to navigate. Most importantly, the interface should provide a swift passage to content discovery and access with the fewest possible number of clicks, movements, or commands.
How an interface succeeds in creating a simple, intuitive experience impacts alternate revenue streams, such as content sales, rentals, and subscriptions. A satisfactory user interface can contribute significantly to the generation of recurring revenue for content providers, CE makers, and pay-TV operators. It can also result in brand loyalty for purchases of replacement products and other products from the brand's portfolio.
Unified User Interfaces
According to Parks Associates research, 87 percent of U.S. broadband households have a pay-TV subscription, a figure relatively unchanged from 2011. However, pay-TV providers are seeing more and more competition for eyeballs, meaning that it is imperative that pay-TV providers offer a high-quality user experience.
Content is everything to consumers. Pay TV has retained its strength, despite the competition, because it offers content that other industry players do not have and because pay-TV providers can aggregate this content into bundles. If consumers have pay-TV options in their community, they will select the provider with the most desired content.
Though pay TV remains a staple among U.S. broadband households accessing video content, two-thirds (64 percent) stream over-the-top (OTT) content from the Internet, meaning that the majority of broadband households consume content from multiple sources. Due to this trend, streaming media devices are now adding pay-TV apps to their devices, and operators are adding streaming functionality to their STBs. Companies are marketing software that accesses content from any source--live TV, VoD, and OTT--to offer a one-stop, seamless user interface and experience.
The value proposition of a unified interface is one through which a consumer can access any content of choice, whether it is through a pay-TV subscription, OTT content subscription, ad hoc video or music, or a niche channel. Because of platform fragmentation, there is not currently a single solution that works across all platforms. Instead, the unified solution is likely to be software-based. CE manufacturers and operators may develop their own unified search and discovery software or may purchase software from a vendor. For example, Rovi, which recently acquired Fanhattan, is now incorporating Fan TV's cloud video discovery into its interfaces, which enables customers to search for specific programs whether they are on Time Warner Cable or an OTT app.
User Interface Interaction Tools
To enhance current and new user interface functionality, developers and manufacturers are offering a broad range of options for device interaction. Historically, interface interaction tools have been touch-controlled devices such as keyboards, remote controls, mice, and more recently, touchpads and touchscreens. Innovators have expanded the interaction experience to include other senses, such as voice and movement, and companies and research labs are developing ways to expand the touch experience through the replication of skin sensations and textures, known as haptic feedback technology. Some CE makers, including Samsung and LG, are using haptic feedback technology to provide a vibration when a touchscreen key is pressed.
Remote controls remain a core controller, and this is not likely to change anytime soon. The remote has been the primary TV controller for more than 30 years and has survived for that long because consumers are comfortable with pushing buttons to communicate with their TVs.
However, emerging interface interaction tools are paving the way for new types of interfaces, producing ones that can use one, all, or a combination of the senses. CE makers and entertainment companies are working to offer more immersive experiences to consumers as a way to move the needle on sales. Recent developments in user interface tools have the same goals in mind.
Voice controls--such as those found on the Amazon Fire TV--are the furthest along the curve in terms of communicating with devices, though other concepts are still in development. Gesture controls are the least-preferred method of communicating with devices because they can be inconsistent or require multiple attempts, but there is market potential for this technology within wearable devices. Other emerging tools include facial recognition, virtual reality hardware, and haptic feedback.
Winning the Market
No matter what innovation is brought to user interfaces or how well an interface is designed, available content trumps everything else. Chinese TV manufacturer Konka reports that consumers are more likely to purchase a device with desired content even if that device is harder to use as opposed to another device that is easier to use but doesn't have the desired content. While interface developers are striving to provide new content experiences, popular content will continue to drive sales and satisfaction.
It is unlikely that there will be a single content interface in the near future due to individual content use cases--no one device maker or service provider will be able to offer everything. However, the lines between device and service providers will blur, with CE makers providing pay-TV apps and aggregating content and operators providing access to OTT content. The blending of services will provide consumers with more choice and capabilities to customize their entertainment experiences, and the user interface will have a key role in connecting consumers with desired content as quickly and easily as possible.
Barbara Kraus is Director of Research at Parks Associates.
Parks Associates will examine the role of the user interface along with consumer trends in digital media, access services, and the smart home at CONNECTIONS™: The Premier Connected Home Conference, May 19-21, in San Francisco. Visit www.connectionsus.com for more information.