What “Normal People” Want from TV

Peter Merholz, President Adaptive Path, at NTVL 2010

Most people just want to watch TV. They want it to be simple, and it should “just work.” Those are some of the findings from research conducted through interviews with “normal people” by the user experience design firm Adaptive Path. Speaking today at GigaOM’s NewTeeVee Live conference, the firm’s president Peter Merholz explained, “People want the same media experience they’ve always had. Not everybody wants the latest whizzy, super complicated set of features and functions.”

Merholz called for minimal input and maximal output for consumers. “Pandora is an inspiration,” he said, “because of the ability to put in one thing and get this stream.” Another model to keep in mind? Old-school television sets. “When we were all kids, you turned on the TV and it just worked,” commented Merholz. “About the only hassle was moving the rabbit ears to get reception.”

Real simplicity occurs on at least two levels, according to Merholz: technical and experiential. “You can have something that’s simple, but has a lot of friction,” he said. Examples of technical friction include poor battery life and unreliable wireless connectivity, while experiential friction can involve finding stuff to watch, interstitial advertising or pay-per-item. If a service requires consumers to make a decision to buy “every time they want to watch an episode, I don’t think that’s a long-term winner,” he said. Later he commented that “Netflix has recognized the power of ‘frictionlessness,'” and “Cable isn’t going anywhere because it has the least friction of all these video experiences.”

The motivations for engaging with particular media at a particular time, meanwhile, are not simple. Predictable, perhaps, but more nuanced than black-and-white desires to be either informed or entertained. “People engage with media to change modes,” he said. They may want to be informed, kill time, be productive, focused, bond with others, or relaxed. “People have these predictable rhythms,” said Merholz, telling the NewTeeVee Live audience that “TV programmers are smarter than you. They understand that people want something different at different times of day.” With Netflix, TiVo, Apple TV and other services, he said, “all I have are lists.”

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