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I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Vice President of Design & Engineering at TiVo, Margret Schmidt on behalf of She is currently the chief design officer for TiVo’s DVR, TV, PC/Mac, Web, and mobile experiences and has been with TiVo since 2001. With notables such as a Prime Time Emmy award under her belt for Outstanding Achievement In Enhanced Or Interactive Television and a Patent for Customizing DVR Functonality, Margret knows her stuff!

Her insights reflect the beautifully crafted design, hard work, research and efficient implementation that have all lead to ground-breaking concepts and seamless user experiences that TiVo users have come to rely on.

tivo-001.jpegImage Courtesy of TiVo

First of all I want to commend you for your work at TiVo. The TiVo approach to the user interface is a streamlined and visually stunning experience while remaining practical in every sense. With the introduction of TiVo UI version 20.2, we saw exciting new updates including translucent high definition grid guide and live guide as well as a mini-guide, info banners, speed improvements, a revision to the discovery bar, improvements to the search algorithm and the ability to stream content between TiVo boxes on the same home network.

With all of these changes we know there are blood, sweat, and tears behind it. Can you tell us more about these new features and what went into creating them and rethinking the TiVo platform? What went into the process, from conceptual designs to implementation?

The transition from the classic TiVo UI to our new High Definition UI was an intensive and collaborative process. We took a couple of very strong interaction designers, set them up in a “war room,” and expected them to frequently bring design concepts to widening circles of stakeholders: Design leadership, Product and Engineering, and the executive team. We wanted the company to feel a part of the process, so that we were all united behind this new look and feel for TiVo. We considered many concepts that were more “revolutionary”, but found that an evolutionary approach better suited our brand. Our classic UI had been well loved, and we didn’t want to lose that by throwing it out and starting over. We wanted our customers to feel this was an enhancement to what they originally fell in love with.

Research played an important role in our design process. We had both prospects and current customers evaluate our leading concepts. We needed to know that first-time users wouldn’t be intimidated by the design — that they would feel they could easily jump in and learn how to use it. We wanted current customers to feel that they would love this new TiVo UI even more than their current one. (We knew we were heading down the right path when we showed a group of current customers one of our new screens, and they started clapping!) We even did some online quantitative assessment that helped us confirm our chosen path would be well received.

Once we had a design framework established, our UI designers attacked each area of the UI with the approach of “based on what we’ve learned having a DVR in the market for 10+ years, what should we do differently?” We wanted to take advantage of the screen real estate available in HDTV, we wanted a more visually rich experience with poster art, and we wanted to create an experience that felt easier and smarter than ever before. Our UI designers created UI concepts, which we reviewed and iterated on with stakeholders and users, and then wrote UI specs that detailed all of the behavior.

UI worked closely with Product Management to assure we were delivering the most important features for our customers, and with Engineering to make sure we were aligned on a design that led to efficient implementation. Once the product was in Alpha, we began using it in our homes and assessing the design in a real-world environment. We also got feedback from customers as part of our Beta program. Throughout the process we were always evaluating whether what we had created was living up to our standards of a delightful user experience.

tivo-002.jpegTiVo UI Image Courtesy of TiVo

Can you please tell us more about yourself? How long have you been with TiVo?

I have been at TiVo over 11 years, since early 2001. I started as Manager of the UI Design Group, and I am now Vice President of Design and Engineering. My bachelor’s is in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from U.C. Berkeley, and prior to TiVo I had positions in Engineering Management and Product Management (in companies that didn’t have UI Designers). It was along that career journey that I realized my passion was for creating easy and elegant user experiences. It just isn’t any fun to ship products that your customers aren’t going to love, so I decided to figure out what needs to be done to create great user experiences.

How do you feel that TV User Interface differs from a Web Interface?

TV is all about entertainment, typically enjoyed while leaning back on the couch with a “ten-foot UI” across the room. While the Web has a lot of entertaining content, it has many other uses, and users are often leaning forward to engage with a “two-foot UI.” This creates user mindset differences. Users don’t want anything related to TV to take much effort, while they may have more patience for extra steps (and choices) on a Web interface. Users expect more “options” from anything they use on a computer.

In addition, the input method (remote control vs. mouse/trackpad/touch) is one of the biggest differentiators in the type of user interface you can create on a TV. With the basic UP/DOWN/LEFT/RIGHT/SELECT buttons on a TV remote control, you need to have a limited number of options per screen, preferably in a list or grid layout for logical navigation. If you have a long scrolling list of content, and then put a row of tabs up at the top as a means to filter the list, a user would need to keep pressing UP enough times to get to the top of the list, before they could press RIGHT to navigate the tabs. Not an ideal experience.

There are ways to get around this with the use of other buttons on the remote control, but you have to be very careful that it is easy for a user to learn and remember which other buttons they need to use, AND you need a remote control that makes it easy to find these other buttons with minimal effort (placement, shape, texture, labeling). A user interface where the user has to take their eyes off the TV screen and stare at the remote control to figure out what to do next is not a delightful experience.

tivo-003.jpegTiVo UI Image Courtesy of TiVo

What is being done to make these two mediums work more seamlessly together?

The beauty of the TiVo architecture is that all TiVo products (DVRs & set-top boxes, web sites, and mobile devices) talk to the same TiVo Service via the Internet. This lets us provide a consistent experience across all devices. Users can use their phone or tablet to search for and schedule new recordings on their DVR, cancel upcoming recordings, or even delete shows that have already been recorded. While watching a show on the TV, users can browse the Guide or their DVR recordings from their mobile device, and then “flick” a new show to the TV when they’ve found what they want to watch next.

Our DVR/TV design team and our Web/Mobile design team sit right next to each other, and work closely together to make sure our products stay in sync. We might be designing a more advanced feature that will first appear on the tablet, but at the same time we work out the basics of the design for how it will appear on the TV and online, so that we don’t have to redesign things later to make them consistent.

What is your experience in working with focus groups? If you have worked with them, do you prefer this method?

TiVo occasionally works with focus groups when looking at new product directions, but the group setting has limited use. For design, we much prefer one-on-one usability studies, where participants come to our in-house usability lab and interact with our new product designs. Our lab looks like a small living room, with a couch and TV. We create interactive prototypes that we display on the TV, and we give the participant a remote to control them. We bring in both current customers as well as people interested in getting a DVR. We learn a lot from these sessions.

Sometimes the problem is as simple as confusing terminology. Other times we realize that users think about the feature in a completely different way, or want to use it for a completely different reason than we expect. Every design we ship has been through our usability lab at least once. In addition to the help it provides to improve the specific design we are testing, I love how watching usability studies helps designers improve their design skills. Sitting behind the mirror and watching real customers use your design is an excellent way to build your “design gut” so that next time you are more likely to anticipate similar issues.

tivo-004.jpegTiVo UI Image Courtesy of TiVo

tivo-005.jpegTiVo UI Image Courtesy of TiVo

How do you feel The TiVo slide remote has added to the User Experience?

I think the keyboard on the TiVo Slide is a nice enhancement for users that like to search inside apps like YouTube on TiVo. It can also be helpful in setting up WishList searches with lengthy keywords because you don’t have to navigate an on-screen keyboard grid with the arrow buttons. Most of our users do their searching in our “Search” menu, where we use relevancy data to push items to the top of the list. This means if they’re looking for a popular show, they probably only have to enter one or two letters in order to find it. So, it is certainly nice to have a TiVo Slide remote, but we’re careful not to ever design a feature that requires it, since it is an optional accessory.

tivo-006.pngTiVo Slide Remote | Image Courtesy of TiVo

What are some things that you can tell us that are on the horizon for the TiVo user interfaces?

tivo-007.pngImage Courtesy of TiVo

We’ve just released the TiVo Stream, for streaming shows from a TiVo Premiere DVR to an iPad or iPhone on your home network. (Or quickly downloading recorded shows so you can watch them offline.) Next up is TiVo Mini — connect it to a TV in another room in your house, and it can stream live TV and recordings from your 4-tuner TiVo Premiere DVR. Our TiVo Premiere DVRs will also receive a software update this year that adds HD versions of the Season Pass Manager, To Do List, and My Shows on remote DVRs.

TiVo will continue to expand our user experiences beyond our TV set-top box. We want to be the easiest and best way to get your video entertainment — on any device you choose. This means we’ll continue to iterate and refine our user interfaces on all platforms (and add new ones!) to create a seamless TiVo experience.