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5 Tips for Designing Great Big Screen Apps

Joseph Mitchell

Senior Product Designer

October 25, 2023


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Designing Big Screen TV apps can be tricky. This is because TV is an entirely different experience to other platforms, with its own unique features, navigation patterns, and constraints. While there are lots of things to consider when designing a Big Screen TV app, here are five that I think are key.

1. Keep navigation simple and consistent

In recent years, TV remotes have become increasingly smaller, simpler, and equipped with fewer buttons. In 2023 you simply can’t assume that all users will have controls like Fast Forward or Record on their TV remotes.

For this reason, it's important to ensure that users can navigate and perform all tasks in your app using the six 'core' remote buttons: Up, Down, Left, Right, OK and Back. Having this in mind when designing helps avoid issues arising from the diversity in remote styles. 

Consistency is also important. Users tend to expect that if pressing a button triggers a certain action in one section of your app, it should produce the same result in a related section. A similar principle applies across apps on the same device. If pressing Back on the home screen triggers an exit modal to appear on all of the other apps on their Smart TV, chances are that’s what users will expect should happen on your app too.

Quick Tip

Ensure that your navigation experience is consistent across different parts of your app, and aligns with related apps on the same platform. Ensure that all core actions can be accomplished using the six core buttons listed above.

A mix of old and new TV remotes from Panasonic, Samsung, Philips and Apple, showing the variety of buttons they have. 

2.  Help users reduce text input

One of the key things to consider when designing for TV is that text input is very slow. A simple task like logging in, which takes seconds on a desktop, can sometimes take over a minute on a TV. Sign-up can be even more arduous, requiring users to input fields such as their name, mobile phone or credit card number, as well as their email address and password. 

Thankfully, there are a variety of solutions that you can use to help address these issues. For login and sign-up processes, consider allowing users to log in to their TV via a second screen, for example using a QR code, a one-time password (OTP), or a social media app. When it comes to sign-up, redirect users to another device to complete the later steps of the sign-up process. 

Text entry during search can also present challenges. If a user has to input three or more characters before seeing any search results, it can create real friction in their experience. 

Using a search engine that displays results as soon as the first character is entered can make a real difference. Alternatively, by integrating voice search or displaying popular content and genres on the initial state of the search page, you can help users skip text entry altogether and quickly get to the content they want.

Quick Tip

Implement features that help your users avoid or reduce text input on TV. To improve search, showcase popular content on the page before users start searching, incorporate voice search functionality, and choose a search engine that displays results after entering the first character.

A sign-in screen for the Max TV app, showing options to sign in via a QR code or one-time password (OTP). 

3. Design for your TV’s performance abilities

Another key distinction between TV and other platforms lies in its potential performance constraints. Rich, intricate transitions that perform seamlessly on a desktop, might appear clunky on a TV. This is because many TVs have less processing power and available memory than other platforms like desktop or mobile. 

Performance can vary significantly among different Smart TVs, boxes, and gaming consoles. A layered, parallax animation that runs smoothly on a 4K Apple TV box might simply not be viable on a 10 year-old Smart TV. 

To address these performance differences, it's important to check any device documentation. It’s also worthwhile to talk to your developers and pre-test any animations or transitions that you want to utilize. If you’re new to designing for TV, consider working with an agency who specializes in Big Screen design and development, like Accedo. Specialist agencies can provide guidance on the performance capabilities of different devices.

Quick Tip

Before incorporating complex animations or transitions into your designs, chat to your developers or a specialist agency to understand the performance limitations of the TVs you’re designing for. If you’re designing for a mix of high and low-performance TVs, create distinct solutions for both high-end and lower-end devices. Alternatively, consider opting for a simpler experience that functions well across all devices. 

Apple TV uses a variety of complex, smooth animations, which could be difficult to implement on some other devices.   

4. Help users preview content

Finding the right content can be a real challenge for many users. A recent study revealed that nearly three in four consumers (72%) report frustration when trying to find something to watch. The time spent searching for content can add up, with data from Nielsen suggesting that streaming users spend 45 hours per year deciding what to watch. In the quest to find a movie to watch at home, a couple may explore the home, movies, and search sections of an app, navigating in and out of 20 or more movie detail pages before finally making a selection. 

When addressing these challenges, designers must strike a balance between creating minimalist, user-friendly browsing pages and providing enough information about a title to entices users to watch it.

Fortunately, there’s a number of methods designers can utilize to help users preview content and aid their decision-making process. These methods include using autoplaying clips on hero banners or detail pages, implementing 'rich focus states' that display additional metadata and imagery on focus, and incorporating useful metadata into a marquee banner.

Quick Tip

Consider integrating one or more content preview methods into your app to boost discovery. With that being said, we also recommend that you pre-test these features with your users first to ensure that they are not overly intrusive, as autoplaying clips have been a significant source of user complaints for Netflix.

An example of a ‘rich focus state’ experience on the Prime Video TV app. While the Robots card is in focus, the app displays a logo, metadata and background imagery for the movie. 

5. Make data-informed decisions

Do you have a groundbreaking new TV experience that you want to release? Test it. What about a straightforward rollout of a common feature? Test it.

Even when adhering to industry best practices and common design patterns, a feature that appears intuitive to a product team might prove frustrating to real-world users. This potential disconnect can be caused by various factors, including differences between your user base and your product team, situational factors, or mistaken assumptions about your users' motivations and behavior.

Conducting user testing before a release doesn’t need to be time-consuming, or even require a large pool of users to test with. In fact, research from Nielsen indicates that testing with as few as five users can help identify up to 85% of usability issues.

Usability testing can also lead to substantial cost savings. When the digital security company McAfee started usability testing to gain a better understanding of its customer base and their needs, the company managed to achieve a 90% reduction in support expenses.

Even when a feature update performs well during user testing, there is no guarantee that it will out-perform the original version in the market. This is where A/B testing proves invaluable. 

By A/B testing a new feature with a limited number of users within your live application, you can validate your new concept while ensuring that the update does not inadvertently hurt other key metrics. For instance, a new watchlist button design that increases the number of titles watchlisted by 5%, but reduces playback by 7%, might not be something that you want to implement.e

Beyond user testing, it’s also critical to ensure that you are prioritizing features that matter most to your users. While a brand new, best-practice home section in your application might appear to be an obvious feature to prioritize, users may actually prefer that you address app stability issues first. This is where surveys, user interviews, focus groups, customer support data, quality of experience (QOE) analytics, and other research methods can help you gain a deeper understanding of your users' preferences and ensure that your priorities align with their needs.

Quick Tip

Integrate user research and testing into your core design process to ensure that you are addressing the right priorities and that your solutions perform as intended. Remember, it is usually more cost-effective to verify that something works before it's fully released, than to find out it doesn’t after.

Research methods like user interviews allow you to better understand your Big Screen users’ needs and align your product with their priorities.  

Thinking of taking your app to the big screen?

With 20 years of experience under our belt, we have designed and developed world-class TV apps for clients globally. If you’re ready to tap into a new audience and would like help in designing a new Big Screen app, improving one you already have, or simply rolling it out to new platforms, come and have a chat with us at Accedo.

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