Update: Article on Gigaom covering the release; https://gigaom.com/2015/01/16/playon-gets-ready-to-launch-a-desktop-app-with-ad-skipping/
Since Fall of 2013 I have worked as the lead creative and senior UX designer for PlayOn.tv; a Seattle-based company that delivers of shows and movies, as well as aggregates other popular streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant- straight to users. At its heart, PlayOn allows users to stream, cast and record any media content that can be found on the internet, giving them the ability to record entire seasons of their favorite shows and take them with them wherever they go and watch them on any device, at any time. Similar to Pandora or Spotify, users can subscribe to PlayOn on a yearly basis and never need to pay for cable again.
When I came on in 2013, PlayOn had already been around for nearly a decade, with several million downloads of their desktop app and mobile app counterpart. Yet despite genuine growth, the company was looking to take it suite of applications to the next level. They had worked with a number of groups, design firms and agencies, but their current interface was, by all standards, bland and non-engaging. Worse, their dynamic feature set was displayed in a extremely discordant manner, making the product seem unfriendly, unintuitive and overly complex. Things needed simplified.
I began by identifying the needs of the user as well as the current problems faced by the existing UI. I sent out a survey to all existing PlayOn users, of which some 7,000 people replied. The 30 question survey for the most part ignored the current application UI- the PlayOn team had been very vocal about coming up with a new approach and were looking for fresh insights. Questions began with user’s daily TV watching habits; did they watch mostly movies or television shows? Live news, sports or series? When they came home after work, did they want to passively browse and get recommendations or did they already have a show or series in mind that they wanted to continue? I also took some time to get feedback on ideas that did not exist yet; subscriptions that could auto download your favorite shows for you and queue them to watch, dynamic folder management, integrated support features, ease of management for videos in your record queue, quickly be able to throw shows on your iPad, etc. Other questions tried to build an understanding of the “ideal user’s” TV environment; did they watch shows in their living room? If so, what color were their walls? What was the lighting level? How large was the average TV display? Did they watch in bed? How often would they want to watch multiple episodes, one after the other…
After I got back the thousands of responses, many users even took time to write me lengthy messages detailing their viewing habits, I was able to better understand our audience. Younger/middle-aged men and women, professionals who wanted the family room-TV experience, but who watched most of their television and movies via streaming platforms instead of cable. They didn’t want to be as tethered to the PC app, more mobile friendly. Better casting and intuitive browsing like other platforms were offering (people love vegging out and being fed content). The new UI we began to develop didn’t just think through how to make the experience more ‘beautiful’ and user-friendly, but even began to evolve the product in terms of what it offered.
The new UI brings organization front and center, but disguises it with beautiful hero images; showing off all the content that PlayOn can bring to users. Large hero images display current series and episodes for channels as users browse, but now with intuitive browsing paths and a dashboard to quickly jump back and forth from their recordings to browsing. Subscriptions, too, now allow users to find a show they love and “subscribe” to it. Whenever a new week’s episode becomes available online (i.e. an episode of New Girl that airs on Tuesday will be available online Wednesday morning on Fox’s website and Hulu) the subscription agent will automatically download the show and queue it up to watch whenever the user wants.
The biggest design challenge was integrating all the PlayOn features in one desktop app. As of 2013 all the unique features; recording, casting, streaming, etc, were done through their unique programs. Most users had to download and install license keys for multiple products (PlayOn, PlayLater, etc) to use all the features. We decided that it made sense and made the product a thousand times more appealing to have everything under one roof. The challenge was, however, how to combine several applications into one, seamless experience. A large part of the answer came in context-based menus and awareness of connected devices; only showing the user what he or she is able to do and not confusing them with hundreds of options that they cant interact with. This took months of UX research and development iterations.
The robust desktop application alone brought with it innumerable design and development decisions. Consistently displaying varying context menus and browse levels was an every changing puzzle as the application evolved through its many iterations, while always keeping the interface clean, clear and never overwhelming for users. Add to that this application needs to play nice with a diverse set of casting partners such as Roku and Chromecast, PS4 and XBox, not to mention other PlayOn partner devices like the PlayOn app for users’ smartphones.
A second major design challenge as well was the release of Google’s Chromecast stick, which came out after we had already started development on the revised desktop app. An exciting new opportunity for PlayOn, Chromecast opened up a whole new audience of streamers who could use the PlayOn desktop and mobile app; allowing them to cast any video on the internet to a nearby TV and even saving it to watch later. This required a more serious build out of the cast control features within both the desktop and mobile app; not just allowing users to connect to a streaming device and control it, but also bounce between different casting devices and in different locations and even take over a cast video and interrupt it.
All in all, it has been an ongoing challenge, exciting nonetheless, designing across such a diverse range of platforms and devices, ranging from 10-foot displays (televisions) to desktop and mobile. Even as I write this we are planning out the next stages of development that make everything described here seem outdated and mundane; a prospect that keeps me ever energized as there is always something new to create.