iPlayer on Virgin Media Cable

Usability Friction reader Nick Wright emailed this week to tell me about the frustrating design of the BBC iPlayer on his Virgin Media Cable TV set top box.

The Virgin set top box has a common look and feel throughout the user interface which makes the system feel nice and unified. However, the BBC decided that they should have a completely different appearance for the iPlayer; the layout, the colour scheme, the button placements etc. are all different. This immediately removes the user’s sense of familiarity with the system. Given that the cable box already has the controls necessary for implementing this kind of interface it seems a little unnecessary. Having said that, the BBC will be wanting to establish a strong brand around the iPlayer so it’s at least understandable.

Changing the appearance is one thing, but what is unforgivable is how they have disregarded the interaction conventions that were already established on the platform. The major means of interaction with the box is through the remote control; a directional pad for selecting items plus the 4 coloured buttons for short cuts. Throughout the whole system, whether you are buying a play on demand movie or just using the basic TV guide, the red button on the remote is “Page Down” and the green button is “Page Up”. The BBC decided to ignore this and have red for “Home”, blue for “Page Up and the yellow button for “Page Down”!

By doing this they have introduced what are known as ‘Interference Effects’; in this case an example of ‘Proactive Interference’. This is where existing memories interfere with learning. The user is so accustomed to red being page down that they instinctively press it and are then surprised when it takes them back to the home page. On one level this makes the user feel stupid – “I know it goes back to the home page, it says so on the screen!” and you should never make your users feel this way by doing unexpected things. They aren’t stupid, they are just assuming the system will be consistent.

The BBC really should have followed the conventions set out elsewhere in the system in this case; it just makes their application unnecessarily frustrating – would it have been so bad to make the yellow button go to the home page?!

Conventions are a powerful aid to improving the learnability of a system, so whenever possible they should be used. That isn’t to say you can never ignore them; sometimes there is a compelling reason to. Just be aware that you are probably going to trip people up so your reasons need to be good!

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