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VIII.2 March 2001
Page: 75
Digital Citation

Industry briefs: Viant

John Armitage

back to top  Philosophy of Design

Viant approaches design as an integrated discipline, alongside business strategy and technology, applied to the pursuit of innovation. Viant believes that design for digital products is most innovative when it is part of a sound business strategy and is informed by the constraints and opportunities of the latest digital technology.

Viant relies on project team members to draw upon the diverse views of their teammates in order to inform their own work. For example, a Design Lead that participates in initial strategy work (the Envision phase) provides a unique perspective to a strategy-driven team, and also enters the design development (Experience phase) armed with deep insights about the client's position in the market. Keeping the Lead on the team throughout production (Launch phase) assures that key design ideas are implemented properly, and that necessary compromises preserve the design's intent.

Viant measures its design success according to the success of the client's overall initiative. Successful initiatives are rarely those that simply win design awards, use exotic technology, or represent the best-laid plans. Truly successful, innovative solutions need a mixture of all three. To be successful, solutions must be viable, appropriate, and reliable. A user-centered approach that reaches across disciplines impacts all three of these objectives, in particular because what is viable, appropriate, and reliable for some users may not be so for others.

back to top  Design Process

Viant's design development process can be described as integrated, user-centered, and iterative. It is integrated in that most projects involve at least some strategy, design, and technology work. Viant thrives on the generative power and the comprehensiveness of different viewpoints. It is user-centered in that end-users of the intended product are involved from the earliest contextual research to participatory design sessions to quality assurance testing. It is iterative in that a sequence of rapidly produced prototypes is used to efficiently assess design directions with key stakeholders, and to test any unproven technology.

Viant structures its engagements with four phases: Envision, Experience, Launch, and Growth. Envision is strategy-driven and seeks to determine what product to build and why. Experience is design-driven and seeks to develop a specification of the product to be built that will carry out the initiative. Launch is technology-driven and seeks to complete the initiative by delivering a digital product to the market. Growth is marketing-driven and seeks to build market awareness and expand the new digital business.

Roles in the creative discipline include Design Lead, Information Architect, Content Architect, Graphic Designer, and Creative Developer. Design Leads are facilitation-oriented. They lead group sessions with users and clients, coordinate the work streams of the creative team with those of the strategy and technology disciplines, provide design direction and mentoring to the team, and communicate design issues to the team and to the client. As communication and coordination play a big part of the Lead's role, there is considerable delegation of design development to the creative team. Information Architects are organization-oriented. They plan the mental model (high-level organization), navigation, and interaction (low-level organization and input/output sequences) and develop site maps, low-fidelity mockups, and event diagrams. On content-rich projects, Content Architects are editorial-oriented. They develop and organize the digital content and oversee the content inventory. Graphic Designers are visual-oriented. They generate brand identity concepts through mood boards (swatches of existing brand images), develop screen designs, help develop low-and high-fidelity product prototypes, and produce final visual assets for launch. Creative Developers are technology-oriented. They actually design and build the workings of the "front-end," or user interface, of the digital product. They develop the code-driven experience effects, as well as produce the working final product.

Creatives work with a number of colleagues in the strategy and technology disciplines. Viant Strategists and Business Analysts identify market forces, trends, and opportunities to form viable business strategies and develop financial and operating models. Functional Analysts are responsible for gathering product requirements and then determining, documenting, and tracking evolving product functionality. Technologists design the product technical architecture and program the functionality of back-end systems. Marketing Leads develop brand strategies and marketing plans. Project Managers coordinate project logistics and respond to the needs of the Viant team. Client Partners represent the Client's needs to the team and hold overall project responsibility.

Team cohesion and focus is very important to Viant's process. However, at certain points in time projects need specialized resources, or different perspectives, that team members cannot provide. This is often the case when a creative team needs to explore a variety of different appearance design approaches in a short time period. For these efforts, Viant organizes a "SWAT" team, a temporary set of volunteers, mostly Graphic Designers, who work from schematic layouts of key product screens to design a variety of different approaches to a product's visual appearance. The project team provides the SWAT designers with written brand or identity objectives as a guide, and the ensuing designs are evaluated and revised according to how well they support the objectives.

Viant's design process is itself evolving. In response to a deep analysis of how Viant executes project work, the company is currently making its development process even more user-centered by pioneering the roles of Experience Strategist, Experience Analyst, and Experience Architect. These roles will further focus the team on the actual needs and intents of the users of digital products. The experience leads will focus more effort on how factors from the three disciplines can be combined to improve user experiences. As a start, Viant plans to conduct more primary research early on in projects in order to inform the design process with observations of real behavior from real users.

back to top  Design Project Example

Viant recently designed and developed, a Web site that allows owners of ReplayTV personal digital video recorders to manage their digital video assets via the Internet. is acknowledged to be the first mainstream Internet product able to control a home appliance.

ReplayTV markets what is essentially an enhanced digital VCR. Digital personal video recorders (PVRs) are set-top boxes that digitally record live TV programming and save it to a hard drive within the unit, allowing users to pause, rewind, and fast forward TV shows as they are beingbroadcast. PVRs also provide "time-shifting," the ability to record broadcast programs for viewing at a later time, and can repeatedly record shows on a daily or weekly schedule. Using keywords, users can program their PVRs to "find" shows in the broadcast schedule, record them, and then collect them to form custom Themes." ReplayTV also provides Channels of its own, called "Zones," which it fills with a variety of categorized content, such as "NBC Sitcoms" or "Oscar-Winning Movies." The goal of is to allow users to control some or all of this functionality via the Internet.


In July of 2000, ReplayTV asked Viant to design and launch in time to impact the critical Christmas buying season. This meant a release date of early November, calling for a sixteen-week project duration. Viant categorized the project as a "compressed Experience/Launch" project, and staffed its creative team with a Design Lead, Graphic Designer, Information Architect, and two Creative Developers. The overall team included two Functional Analysts, a Strategist, a technical team of five Developers and a Lead, and the Project Manager and Client Partner. To develop concepts for the visual design of the site, the project organized a "SWAT" team of four non-project graphic designers to design alternative visual approaches.

The vision for has three aspects. The first is to provide full control of users' home ReplayTV unit(s) from remote locations via the Internet. The second is to supplement the current TV unit functionality with internet-enabled features, particularly those related to third-party editorial content, peer-to-peer interaction, and others. The third is to eventually extend Internet access to hand-held, wireless, and voice devices. However, the team's first challenge was to design a user experience that would be valuable to users, and be deliverable, in the first release.

The first release had two user experience guidelines. The first was to have the user experience of match that of the PVR unit as closely as possible. The second was to not blindly follow the first objective at the expense of ignoring the unique constraints and opportunities of the Web. In other words, we were to make the site like the TV unit, except where this made for awkward or inefficient user interaction, or ignored key opportunities for innovation.

The accelerated project schedule immediately caused us to modify our normal process in two ways. First, we needed to deliver an appearance design for the site to be used in ReplayTV's printed marketing materials. Typically this work is done later in a project, but within two weeks we developed our best guess at the functionality and the appearance of key screens. The client accepted these with the caveat that the design would likely change noticeably before the site was launched in November. Also, to mitigate risk, the technologists started development in parallel to the design effort. While the technologists started building the most difficult of the preliminary designs in August, the designers proceeded to design secondary functionality and to engage users to discover problems or opportunities. This user feedback would then be applied to the design later in the project, prioritized according to difficulty of implementation and likely impact to the user experience.

The team used Illustrator for schematic layouts, Photoshop for screen rendering, Director for testing mockups, Javascript and DHTML for the show menu picklists, and Flash for the splash animation.


ReplayTV technologists were responsible for the API that would connect the site to the main database, so we first prioritized with them what features could be supported for the first release. Concurrently, we conducted user research to observe how current ReplayTV users interact with, and feel about, the TV product. We spent a day visiting the homes of current users and videotaped them using and talking about their ReplayTV units. We discussed and brainstormed about what we observed, and in the process confirmed or discovered several valuable uses for

The most obvious use for the site was for last minute scheduling of shows when a user is "in town" but out of the house, such as at the office. Access to third-party content related to users' TV-related interests, such as movie reviews, was important, as was the ability to control the unit remotely when traveling out of town. Uses involving multiple users included sharing requests or content with friends, and how remote access in a crowded household (even if it was from the next room) could be a useful way of interacting with the ReplayTV unit while another family member was using it. We noted that all users had created a specialized TV viewing environment that was separate and distinctly different from that of their desktop computer systems.

When we finalized the feature set for the first release, we realized that one of the product's main user benefits would be compromised. Users' Web accounts would only be able to contact their TV unit once per day, creating a lag time, or "blackout period" lasting up to 24 hours, during which users' Web-generated requests would not be sent to the TV unit. This meant that users would not be able to remotely schedule their last-minute recordings. Signaling and explaining this limitation in the user interface was very important to prevent initial user frustration. In the example shown, we designed a striped "blackout period" panel in the timeline, and included a menu item in the show cell picklist called "why can't I record this?" that links to an explanation. It was important that the design provide a smooth transition to imminent future releases that will not have this limitation.

Based in part on our field research, we developed four personae representing key archetypical users. We then wrote use scenarios that depicted these personae using the site to accomplish specific tasks in particular contexts, and built semi-interactive paper prototypes that supported these scenarios. We tested these prototypes with a wider base of user representatives. Most of these representatives were unfamiliar with the ReplayTV product. A key learning was that users quickly gravitated to the "Find Shows" functionality versus browsing the Channel Guide to find what they needed. This reflected a general finding that users interact with the Web in a different way than they do with the TV. This phenomenon has been described as the user "posture"; with the Web, or a desktop computer, the posture is "lean forward" and intent, and with the TV the posture is "lean back" and relaxed. Users' Web searches were more focused than we expected, probably because their intent when using the Web is not to watch TV immediately (what shows happen to be on now?) but to plan for future watching. Users viewed the site as more of a research and reference tool than as an entertainment device.

In support of these findings, we took advantage of the higher screen resolution afforded by computer monitors to provide users with more information per screen than is presented with the TV interface. We also provided the richer interaction made possible with keyboard/mouse inputs versus with the TV remote. We used smaller relative font sizes than on the TV because users sit much closer to their monitors, and because their computer sessions are rarely a group activity.

Six weeks from our launch date, we conducted more formal user testing with current users and with friends and family. We held two-hour sessions with eight users who worked on set tasks using a linear, yet high fidelity screen mockup built in Director. Findings from these sessions drove us to revise our relatively complex login and registration process, as well as to further clarify the recording blackout period.

back to top  Author

John Armitage
Design Lead
Viant Corporation
Tel: 415-659-3105

back to top  Figures

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©2000 ACM  1072-5220/01/0300  $5.00

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