Failing the Future Part I: The Incoherence of Experience

I’ve just had a bit of a customer experience, and one which I suspect is desperately familiar, despite our world (if you’d believe the proclamations of manufactures and service providers) being one of instant gratification, of always-on content and of seamless service and device integration.

Back in September, I hit the buy button on the iTunes store, purchased Season 1 of Breaking Bad (I’m a bit of a slow starter with content memes) and checked that it had in fact downloaded to our server. That went OK, albeit with a minor detour via my Amazon Prime account, to discover that, subscription notwithstanding, Amazon was going to charge me £2.49 per episode. So back to Apple it was, then, simply because – in theory – it’s so much easier to watch a purchased item via an Apple TV box connected to the TV.

We finally sat down last night to watch episode 1. The process went something like this: prod my supposedly autoswitching HDMI box to change inputs to the Apple TV; change the sound input on my surround processor, ditto. Find the remote for the Apple TV box (our bluetooth integrated remote hasn’t worked for a couple of months as the developer hasn’t updated the app for iOS 8); Remember how to use a completely different interface structure and model to the Sky TV I’d just been watching; wait for an hour staring at screen that kept meandering between saying 52-32-23-12-45 minutes before it’s ready to play – this remember, this for a programme we’d already downloaded and which it should simply have picked up from local storage. At the end of about 45 minutes, it then cheerfully claimed that I wasn’t authorised to watch it, despite my having checked that my account was logged in from the Apple TV. And all this over a 1Gb/s LAN and a 20Mb/s internet connection, the latter courtesy of half-a-billion pounds worth of electron-shuffling tin can sitting in a Clarke orbit. The final insult was finally to get it playing, to then discover that Apple provides a censored version, presumably aimed at the US ‘moral’ right…

So this is the new world, is it? The world of 2014, where the customer is king and the experience is seamless? If you are now or have ever been under that delusion, think again. The desperately sad thing is that the experiential status quo is accepted: by the public, firstly because they have little choice and, secondly, because no-one has yet shown them that it doesn’t have to be like that. They do however vote with their fingers, with the uptake of Smart TV services, to date, being far lower than most industry estimates. Much less forgivably, manufacturers and content services consistently set themselves absurdly low standards for customer experience and then fail to meet them – the reason I use Apple’s equipment and much of its ecosystem is not because it’s good in absolute terms, but because it is – on occasion – the best of a bad bunch. The complication of the experience is then compounded by content owners and providers with their arcane release, licensing and censorship strictures.

There is, as ever, a whole tapestry of interwoven issues here, which need to be unpicked – incrementally or disruptively – to break the experience logjam: right now, for all the hype of a convergent, connected world, manufacturers and service providers are providing consumers with an ever more fragmented, confusing and unreliable customer experience and are losing market and revenue because of it. Pulling on a number of fairly random threads, we end up with:

Content Accessibility: I’ve already touched on content: arbitrary limitations on availability, scheduling and egregious censorship are the best model I can think of to drive consumers to unauthorised download services, even where people would otherwise happily pay for it: the staggered release schedule in global markets for Game of Thrones as Blu-ray or download is, for instance, a perfect recipe for piracy.

Content Discovery: This is about unifying the metadata and ‘intelligence’ around content: the stuff that allows you not only to find what you want to watch at a given time from a single point but also, as a consumer, being able to discover the things you’d want to watch if only you knew they existed, preferably within its window of availability.

Networks: IP-based delivery networks are too often unreliable and frequently incapable of coping with peak demand – certainly in the UK, we suffer from exponentially growing demand for timestream content, especially video, something which, combined with a ‘race to the bottom’ by ISPs in search of providing the cheapest possible experience rather than one that works and is resilient, leads to long-term underinvestment in infrastructure and a consequential inability to deliver on claimed performance. Broadcast networks still  exist largely independently of IP networks with very little integration between the two.

Design: Our devices still don’t play together nicely and, for the most part, every discrete service on every device has its own control, navigation and access model. Most confusing, every so-called Smart TV has, in the same bloody box, multiple interfaces and walled gardens, for the TV EPG, Manufacturer-approved Apps and PVR functionality. That in turn comes from manufacturers who either don’t understand or value how to design user experience and/or take too narrow a use case: where design only focusses on the delivery of their own service and not how their offerings fit into either the whole device experience or the entire ecology of devices that many of us now use. The irony of course is that many more of us would adopt such an ecosystem if it made our lives easier rather than more complicated. Right now and either way, everyone loses.

Attitude: This is the big one – the design issues touch on the attitudes of the various corporations involved, but those in turn come from even more fundamental problems of comprehension, outlook and understanding. To only slightly over-generalise, broadcasters don’t understand the wider world of designing a service around the feedback loop between content, experience and feedback that comes from the Net, and Net-tech companies don’t understand the relevance of broadcast to their IP-centric world. You can almost forgive a somewhat parochial approach from an industry that’s been around for eighty years or so but the insularity and ‘received wisdom’ attitude of the still-emergent IP industry is less easy to comprehend. Even in companies that should – and occasionally do – understand the relationship between the two, we find that there are (at least) two competing camps trying to make the service model fit their world view rather than collaboratively looking for the synergy. I’ve more than once had senior BBC executives say to me that “Broadcast is dead” (usually just before they jumped ship to an IP-based startup that went on to perpetuate all the problems described above). That attitude probably reached its zenith under the Microsoft hegemony at the BBC – the exits of Erik Huggers and Daniel Danker should hopefully have engendered a rather more considered view of the relationship between content, delivery and the audience. Even in initiatives whose original intent was to create a unified media experience – and I’ll refer you to the UK’s Youview platform as a prime example here – the unenlightened self interest of their participants creates a closed platform that effectively excludes existing and emerging industry players. Who of course then go on to create another new platform and thereby perpetuate the vicious cycle.

For those companies who are effectively saying, “It costs too much to think“, consider this: I’ve used the term ‘accepted’, but what it actually means is that people will only mode-switch between services when there’s a really overwhelming incentive to do so, and simply don’t bother the rest of the time. And I’m just like anyone else in that regard: If I can’t access Netflix or iTunes through my default TV interface/EPG, most of the time I just don’t bother: were these services available through a single and coherent model across multiple devices, wherever I am and at the time of my choosing, everyone would win: I’d get choice, I’d happily spend more on watching stuff that I’d chosen to watch (rather than watching-through-inertia)  and content providers would get a lot more of my eyeballs, monetised either by what I pay them or through my (hopefully permissively) tracked presence as an advertising target.

OK, a deconstructivist analysis of a situation without a suggestion of what could be done is merely a rant. That comes in Part II. Thereafter, the how of the what is a much harder call…

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