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Talk: Tivo

Revolutionizing Consumer Electronics: Welcome to the TiVolution�! Paul Newby, Director of Consumer Design Margret Schmidt, Director of User Experience (UE), TiVo

I went to the TiVo talk at BayCHI/PARC. The best part of the night, perhaps, was that I have a bunch of great TiVo schwag: a TiVo doll and two new TiVo remotes -- one to replace honeyfield's remote, which has been mistaken for bunny food, and one to solve the problem we had last week of, when you lose the TiVo remote, there's no way for you to watch TV. The second best part of the night is that I learned a new TiVo feature that didn't exist on the Series 1 remote: if you press advance (the ->| button) in a list, it will jump to the end (very useful for Home Media Option).

I have detailed notes, but it's hard for me to put the effort into transcribing all of them, mainly because I've heard most of what she's said having worked at PARC for two years (big human-computer interaction focus) and having owned a TiVo for two years. As metamanda put it when I asked her if I should read Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things, she said it was good, but I've already heard everything in it multiple times. Seeing as Norman's book is somewhat of a bible for the TiVo User Experience team, I think the same applies here.

It's also hard for me to transcribe my notes because much of what was said has already been said in this interview Schmidt did for PVRBlog

There was an interesting semi-anecdote on TiVo's "overshoot correction" feature (where it jumps back a little after a fast forward). Many people think that TiVo is actually "learning" this (even across multiple users), i.e. when they fast forward and it doesn't jump to the spot that they wanted, they assume it was because they must have deviated from their normal reaction time (it's actually a hardcoded number based on the fast forward speed, derived from research).

My last thought before this switches into notes is that I wonder if TiVo is going to put an Apple-style clickwheel on the remote to replace the direction pad. The problem with navigating long lists was mentioned multiple times by them, and Margret did even mention a scrollwheel as a possibility, and it seems to me that the newest clickwheel comes the closest to carrying the TiVo direction pad concept forward.

Consumer design: industrial design, mechanical design, and branding UE: user experience

Design Mantras (1998)

  • It's entertainment, stupid.
  • It's TV, stupid.
  • It's video, damnit.
  • Everything is smooth and gentle.
  • No modality or deep hierarchy.
  • Respect the viewer's privacy.
  • It's a robust appliance, like a TV

Brand values

  • Approachable and honest
  • Simple, easy
  • Smart
  • Clean and direct
  • Vibrant and playful
  • Fun and friendly, but not without intelligence

Initial UI

We got to see some screenshots of the initial UI. Bad colors, a little too vibrant, and the layout was a little too cluttered/clustered.

Designed with small design teams, consensus building, Design of Everday Things.

Initial design * Simple lists * Up, down, left, right, select * Screens slide on and off * Audio feedback

Mistakes * Lack of on-screen affordances: TiVo button would toggle between two screens, but no way to do the same navigation on screen * Assumed users would change their behavior, not enough design to allow people to continue watching TV as always (e.g. Live TV) * Let cuteness and TV-focus impede usability (interstials of TiVo character juggling)

Sounds * Organic, happy, playful * perception of performance improved

Background video * Different colors (not for identification, just for "fun") * Soft, continual looping

Reinforcing Brand Values

Simple: pause live TV, fast forward through commercials, few options/preferences, "set it and forget it", everyone's TiVO works the same

Smart: season pass (find every episode), wishlist, suggestions

Consumer design

Good mix of industrial design and mechanical design, but not too far from branding

Objectives: * simple * iconic * friendly * comfortable

Front panel design: navigation buttons, character displays

Platform engineering: quiet, cool, reliable, flexible


Heaviest overlap between onscreen navigation interaction and stress-free control

  • Simple: low button count, descriptive icons
  • Iconic: coffee table standout, not rectangles and rows
  • Friendly: focus on screen, not on remote. Did both 2D and 3D design studies, looked for persona.
  • Iconic: big yellow pause button, green thumbs up (esoteric concept, eventually settled on thumbs to describe), shape (would have to hold it a lot, rectangular remotes not comfortable) -- worked out different designs in surfboard foam.
  • Comfortable: dozens of designs. Able to climb up and down, tilt balance.

Settled on hierarchical model for button arrangement rather than frequency of use arrangement. Functional grouping: navigation, control, trick play, numeric.

"Small" matters

  • tactile key snap. survey of existing remotes showed small buttons with low activation force (perhaps driven by Asian design, smaller hands). Wanted closure with a snap (i.e. snap to occur when circuit is closed).
  • Graphical consistency across UI and remote
  • Sound effects: didn't want them to be annoying
  • IR signal range: early remotes could fire through TV blankets (drained batteries too fast)
  • Error rates and timing: Huge difference between 85ms and 115ms key timing. Decided to replace a bunch of remotes in the beta program to get this right. Key "debounce" issues.
  • Fiddle factor: didn't want the annoyance of the guy in the meeting who fiddles with the ballpoint pen, so worried about batttery door latch and the "parting line" (seam that runs around remote where face snaps into body). Personally, I think the TiVo remote has a high fiddle factor

Continuous evolution

  • Original remote: 30 buttons, designed in 14-week period.
  • Series 2 remote: 34 buttons, larger. Discovered that blank space was important as a place to rest fingers. Example of good better than perfect.
  • DVD Burner remote: 37 buttons (blue-coded DVD buttons). Had to work out which DVD functions could be moved from the remote to an onscreen menu. Margret argued that the onscreen menu can be more efficient, because instead of turning your attention to the remote to find the button you want (e.g. "subtitle"), you can press the easier-to-find menu button and select the feature you want onscreen.

Future considerations

  • function vs. button count (if you turn your back the number of buttons on the remote will double)
  • under-5 and over-50 users
  • directionality of remote (perhaps use balance and texture to convey this)
  • universal code set (wanted to avoid this pandora's box issue in the past of programming universal remote functionality)
  • navigating big lists. With Home Media Option and larger drives, lists are getting longer. Need to solve with "hyperpage key," or even a scrollwheel (will the direction pad become an Apple clickwheel?)

UI Design Today

Design Mantras (2004)

Tivo Makes TV better... * It is reliable * It puts me in control * It's easy to use * It's smart and helpful * It's responsive * It's all about entertainment Can't imagine life without it

Design principles

  • Know your audience
  • Design for intermediates (not power user)
  • Optimize high frequency tasks

Spriit of TiVo

  • Charming/responsive
  • like family
  • Predictable and forthcoming
  • Clever
  • All w/ ease

Making TV better

  • Dual tuner
  • DVD burners
  • Can now have TiVo remote for DVD players (I admit, this alone is making me want to buy the Humax or Toshiba DVD TiVo)
  • HDTV

[omitting well known stuff about web/pc/mac and advertising]


The response rates that Margret quoted were astounding. For the "Showcase" feature (the starred item on TiVo central): * 4-26% weekly viewership * 4% retail ads * 26% electronic ads * 10% music ads * 18% TV programming ads * 18% auto ads * 15% movies

The user spends 1.5-2.5 minutes in the Showcase

Fun/Interesting Things

Some programs aren't time shifted: reality, news, sports. 70% (possibly 90%, can't read my handwriting) watched presidential debates live. This has potentially important consequences for advertisers.

75% of TiVos are in multi-user households


  • 95% customer satisfaction w/ new subscribers
  • DVR users who fast forward have better commercial recall than non-DVR users (CBS Research)
  • 40% of users would sooner disconnect their cellphone than their TiVo


  • TiVo is not a verb (bad to TiVo, not bad to anyone else)
  • People think any DVR is a TiVo (bad for TiVo)
  • People do not like to think they watch a lot of TV
  • Remotes get chewed on

[omitting stuff on "How We Design", "Successful Process", as all of this is fairly standard user-centere design stuff, except for one interesting process:]

UI OTS: "Over the shoulder" review with engineering prior to checkin (by someone from UE)

Themes from the future

  • Broadband content download
  • Third party development of apps for TiVo (have to worry about maintaining design principles)
  • Community
  • Personalization
  • TiVo UI on other devices


I had a question as to whether or not they would ever get rid of the numeric keypad (on the one side is the desire to not enforce change on the user, on the other is the button creep in the remote). Paul answered that they've tried to make the numeric keypad "recessive," but they can't get rid of it because there is still a high rate of numeric keypad hits. This didn't address the forward-looking part of the question, but it was an interesting point nevertheless.

"Do people watch more TV with TiVo?" There wasn't a direct answer to this. The TiVo market researcher answered that people watch more TV shows, but they also feel they are watching better TV, and they spend less time on each show (no aggregate overall in terms of time). [I would have liked to know if there were any longitudinal data for this question, i.e. do people watch less TV over time with TiVo? (which has been my experience.]

Someone asked the question I wanted to ask, which is why can't TiVo make special rules for the Daily Show so that it doesn't record four episodes per day -- this question elicited the most response from the crowd, demonstrating the popularity of the Daily Show. Despite pandering to Paul Newby's own expressed love of the show, the questioner couldn't get a good answer out of Paul/Margret, who blamed it on the third party guide information.

Someone also asked about the Series 2 remote "button that does nothing," aka the window button. They were trying to future-proof the remote and allow for a feature/design direction they thought they were going to head in, but ended up not doing. They managed to co-opt the button for HDTV as a "ratio" button, so it all worked out (somewhat).

"Lack of a disk space remaining meter" Margret's response what that this was a subject of much debate. They want the user to know that TiVo will record her programs and give her enough time to watch them. They don't want users to do math when they see the disk space snapshot (thus, implicitly assuming that TiVo can't be trusted on this matter).

"Why doesn't the scrolling wraparound?" This is related to the point that they had made about the problem with long lists. Margret pointed out that from their studies, users frequently use the "bonk" to navigate, i.e. keep hitting down blindly until the bonk, then navigate up. Also, she introduced me to the advance button feature to jump to the end of the list.

"TiVo suggestions." People love it or hate it. Originally it was just genre/actor/etc... matching. About three years ago they had collaborative filtering introduced. Now, it's more advanced, though she didn't go into details.

UE is on the critical path to shipping products at TiVo, so it works directly with engineering.

"Why do people cancel TiVo?" Margret was at a loss to answer this one, in light of the low number of people who cancel their subscriptions. She did point out that DirectTV likes TiVo because those with the TiVo functionality "churn" less (i.e. they don't switch to other satellite providers). She did know why people did retail returns (i.e. returning the box before subscribing): didn't know there was a monthly fee, didn't know they had to connect to a phone line). Paul mentioned that they are starting to get impulse buyers for the first time now that they've hit the $99 mark, which is introducing new problems for them in terms of initial retention.

Ed complained about the lack of UE effort in the out-of-box experience. e.g. those w/o phone lines cannot setup the TiVo, and there is no content prerecorded on the TiVo. Margret's response, as it was to many of these types of questions was that they were working on it.

Comments (3)


Thanks for writing up your talk notes, Ken! Interesting stuff. Were they really just freely giving away Tivo remotes?


About the first 5 rows of the Pake auditorium had free remotes sitting in the seats -- there were plenty for anyone who wanted one (I grabbed the extra at the very end after no one seemed to be clammoring for it). The plush toy was given to anyone who asked a question -- I have to give them credit, they had two bagfuls of the toys, and they gave out every single one answering questions.

Thanks for the notes Ken. I really fascinated by the technology that is coming out these days. I mean what ever did we do before TIVO came out, oh I remember it was Betamax. Keep the good articles coming.

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