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Insights for the TV Interface from the Mobile Phone Interface

Younghwan Pan and Young Sam Ryu

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 4, Issue 4, May 2009, pp. 166-177

Article Contents

The Changes of TV Paradigm

Television (TV) technology has experienced two fundamental changes since its introduction to the consumer market. The first fundamental change was the introduction of color TV that supplanted existing black and white TV broadcasts. With the second fundamental change, the evolution from analogue to digital transmission introduced more channels along with higher quality images and sound. Because digital transmission can employ data compression and send more information using a given bandwidth, interactive applications and services have become available to the TV viewers. Thus, TV sets supporting digital systems have become more powerful and sophisticated to support advanced services such as high definition TV (HDTV), electronic program guide (EPG), and digital teletext service (Peng, Cesar, & Vuorimaa, 2001). These changes have increased the complexity of the user interface of the TV sets.

Although the type and number of TV services have changed significantly, few studies have addressed the TV user interface even though there are clear challenges in the use of TV by consumers. It seems that TV viewers are having difficulty adapting to the new TV paradigm, because they are used to the limited and one directional service of traditional TV. For example, Internet TV failed in the market soon after its release. Also, the buying cycle for TV sets is longer than that of mobile phones, so updating to newer systems and different user experiences is very slow. Furthermore, most TV manufacturers are in far-east Asia with no major manufacturer in the U.S. Thus, researchers in the U.S. who are concerned with user interface design have limited access or opportunities to affect the TV user interface.

Mobile Phones as the User Interface Leader

Meanwhile, the mobile wireless phone was originally designed primarily to support voice interaction, much like its stationary, wired counterpart. However, current mobile phones have evolved to support text messaging, Internet browsing, interactive gaming, high-resolution cameras, MP3 audio, and mobile TV services. Like TV, the mobile phone has become a fundamental artifact of the modern lifestyle, and it is experiencing continuous changes. Due to the increase of device complexity, the usability of mobile phones has become a key differentiator for the success of mobile phone devices and services (Williams, 2006). Unlike TV, much effort and numerous studies have been dedicated to the improvement of the user interface for mobile phones. U.S., European, and Asian device manufacturers as well as researchers have modified multiple device characteristics and conducted many research studies during the last 10 years. This may be because the mobile phone market was a brand new market, or because the mobile phone is relatively smaller and cheaper with more rapid design changes, or because the mobile service provider has the buying power to influence the device manufacturers. These factors are not present in the TV system design, production, and usage models.

Can TV Learn Lessons from the Mobile Phone?

The dominant usage of both TVs and mobile phones is based around the display device, and the capabilities of these displays are not homogeneous. The resolution of the mobile phone display includes Quarter Common Intermediate Format (QCIF) (176 x 220), Quarter Video Graphics Array (QVGA) (240 x 320), and Video Graphics Array (VGA) (480 x 640), while that of TV includes 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i (the i is the abbreviation for pixels in interlaced mode and the p is the abbreviation for pixels in progressive scan mode). The input devices for PCs have been well established with the mouse and keyboard from the inception of the technology. There is less standardization in input devices for mobile phones than PCs, however, four-way directional keys with an OK (Select) button, small discrete thumb-joysticks, soft keys1 (left and right soft keys for mobile phones), and labeled designated buttons are common (Amant, Horton, & Ritter, 2007). For TV navigation, color soft keys (four color buttons for TV), four-way directional keys, and numeric keypads are common (Eronen & Vuorimaa, 2000). Both TV and mobile phones try to convey information, especially information on the Internet; however, both of these systems are struggling to solve issues in interface design for Internet service. TV and mobile phones are very different, but they have similarities in the user interface.

Because there are reasonable similarities between TV and mobile phones, we believe that the significant amount of mobile phone user interface studies, design process, and lessons learned from the mobile phone industry can guide the direction of the user interface design effort for the TV industry. Thus, we have conducted a comparison of user interfaces between TV and mobile phones to provide insights for designers of TV user interfaces. To analyze the structure of service and user interface for this comparison, the usability engineering lifecycle process (i.e., requirement analysis, design/testing/development, and installation) by Mayhew (1999) was utilized.

Service Structure of TV and Mobile Phones

Although it is not apparent to most consumers, there are similarities between the main organizational entities affecting the user experience for both TV and mobile phones. These entities can be classified as program and content provider, service operator and provider, and device manufacturer. Currently, there are three different types of TV service, and the organizational entities affecting user experience for each service in the U.S. are summarized along with mobile phone services in Table 1.

Table 1. Organizations Affecting TV and Mobile Phone User Experience by Service Type in the U.S.
Service operator Device manufacturer
Terrestrial TV network TV network channels CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX TV manufacturer (Samsung, Sony, LG, etc.)
Satellite TV TV network channels
Cable TV channels
Satellite TV channels
Network, etc.
Set-top box manufacturer
TV manufacturer
Cable TV TV network channels
Cable TV channels
Satellite TV channels
Time Warner, COX,
Comcast, etc.
Set-top box manufacturer
TV manufacturer
Mobile phone Content provider
Service provider
(AT&T, Verizon,
Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.)
Mobile phone manufacturer
(Samsung, Nokia, LG, Motorola,
Blackberry, etc.)

The TV user experience is integrated and provided by the program and content provider, the service provider, and the device manufacturer. The mobile phone user experience is similarly integrated. Because user interface designers in each organizational body try to implement their own design to optimize user experience, sometimes the user experiences between different organizations can be incompatible. Thus, the need for a collaborative user interface design between service operator and device manufacturer in the mobile phone industry has led to guidelines for cooperative design as discussed in Williamsí (2006) work. Because most mobile phone users are also TV viewers, the user experience of mobile phones affects the experience of TV and vice versa.

1 A button that performs a function dependent on the text shown on the display above or next to the button.

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