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VII.2 March-April 2000
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Design brief: Liberate

Jim Palmer, Jim Fulker, Alex Liston, David Misconish, Perry Arnold

back to top  About Liberate

Liberate develops and markets software products that form a universal platform for information appliances. Hardware original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), cable and satellite operators, and Internet service providers (ISPs) use Liberate's software to leverage the power of the Internet.

back to top  Design Philosophy

Liberate's current products let network operators deliver applications that marry the Web's interactivity with TV. Our design vision for these products continues to be "Enhance the TV experience." So what does that mean?

Watching TV is fundamentally a passive experience, in which users slide from passivity to active control and back again. For example, as interest fades, users become active in the search for another channel (or perhaps engage in a more esoteric operation such as Picture-in-Picture (PIP)), but once they stop, they can sit back to be entertained or informed. In contrast, using a computer tends to be an inherently active experience: Users control the computer, and when they stop, interesting things (for the most part) don't happen. In general, browsing the Web is more active than passive, that is, more like computers than TV.

To enhance TV, we treat the Web as a platform and simply extend the range of options for users when they decide to be active. (When they are not active, the product must continue to present relevant, interesting content.) We break down the active tasks into three basic groups:

  1. Tasks endemic to watching TV, for example, finding out what is on now and next or recording a show.
  2. Tasks endemic to the Web, such as navigating to a page, reading email, or going to a chat room.
  3. Tasks that blend these two. This is a really a new area, but would include tasks such as buying a CD while watching MTV, playing along with a game show, or getting statistics while watching a football game.

Our goal is to keep the design center close to the familiar: Users know TV, and enhanced TV products need to build on that. We do not expect them to value Internet browsing and interactivity per se, but rather to value enhancements based on their convenience and opportunity. That means we must obey a prime directive: Don't mess with the TV. There must always be full-screen, unadorned viewing that is easily and quickly available.

Of course, TV brings its own design constraints and visual language, from taking account of the NTSC color space ("never the same color") to increasing font sizes and integrating visual transitions and animation. Tops on the list of constraints is the small amount of information that can be comfortably displayed on a TV screen. This constraint has a positive effect, however, in that it forces designers to bias the feature versus complexity tradeoff toward fewer features and less information on screen.

Finally, one of the most important enhancements for the TV is communication. Both the academic and business worlds have established that the primary driver of Internet usage is the ability to communicate—mail, chat, and instant messaging. The interesting challenge is to integrate these genres, which tend to be authored privately, into a social context in which more often than not there are groups of users.

back to top  Design Process

So how does the human interface team work toward our design vision? At Liberate, the feature set for a product is determined using a fairly typical product development process, one that involves engineering, product marketing, sales, and professional services. From there, however, the task of designing the user experience falls solely to the interaction and visual designers. Moreover, the interaction designers themselves implement a majority of the interface because the platform is simply HTML and JavaScript (with TV extensions). Typically, they proceed by establishing the key customer and business requirements and then begin to implement the product, producing general, lightweight specifications along the way. Our process is more biased toward building the product than toward writing complete specifications.

Several advantages to this approach exist. First, the designers own the final human interface, so each designer must manage the tension between design and implementation, a tension usually played out between engineering and HI teams. Second, the designers gain a strong understanding of what is actually possible on the platform. As a consequence, they make faster design decisions. Finally, the designers get a sense of satisfaction from actually building the product. What are the disadvantages? Because the goal is to ship products, the team can become completely focused on the tasks they must complete now, rather than on future directions. Moreover, if product schedules are spaced closely together, it can be hard to take the time to do a fundamental rethinking of a design.

back to top  Design Project Example

The following are two example design problems that we have encountered and our solutions:

Problem: How to present a menu of choices without changing the user's current (TV) context.

Solution: We chose a pop-up window approach and displayed a menu (done with Macromedia Flash and HTML) over TV. It does partially obscure the TV, but communicates to users that they have not changed context. At this point, they have a goal other than simply watching TV anyway.

Problem: How to continue monitoring TV while surfing the Web.

Solution: Rather than obscure part of the page, as a more traditional PIP would do, we designed a TV bar (Figure 3) When the TV bar slides on screen, the main browser window also resizes and the content is laid out accordingly. A quick TV/Web button allows the user to switch to full screen easily, and the extra horizontal space is another content opportunity.

back to top  Authors

Jim Palmer
Human Interface Design Center
Liberate Technologies

Jim Fulker
Human Interface Design Center
Liberate Technologies

Alex Liston
Human Interface Design Center
Liberate Technologies

David Misconish
Human Interface Design Center
Liberate Technologies

Perry Arnold
Human Interface Design Center
Liberate Technologies

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Pop-up menu over TV

F2Figure 2. Chat menu item

F3Figure 3. TV Bar

UF1Figure. Alex Liston, Jim Palmer, David Misconish, Jim Fulker, and Perry Arnold (left to right)

back to top  Sidebar: Company Snapshot

The Human Interface Design Center reports to the Consumer Engineering organization, but it is responsible for the user experience of all Liberate products. The Human Interface Design Center is currently comprised of a permanent staff of interaction and visual designers, as well as several outside contractors.

Job Titles for Design and Usability Positions
Interaction designer and visual designer

Job Qualifications
–For interaction designers, a bachelor's degree in a relevant field (cognitive science, computer science, or design), 3 to 5 years of industry experience, a background in a product development environment, and proficiency in HTML and JavaScript.
–For visual designers, a degree in graphic design, industrial design, or an equivalent, plus familiarity with the standard Web tools for graphic design production, and 3 to 5 years industry experience. We prefer designers with TV or video experience.

Number of Individuals Employed
Four interaction designers and two visual designers.

Breadth of Project Teams
One or two interaction designers and a visual designer.

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench

Favorite Publications
I.D. Magazine, the awards videotape from the Broadcast Designers Association, interactions, and DevEdge Online (

Liberate's interaction designers work on Windows NT and edit HTML and JavaScript using the editor of their choice (typically Allaire HomeSite or Microsoft Developer Studio). We use Macromedia Dreamweaver for all our documents. Also used daily are a bug-tracking system written in HTML and a source control application, Perforce. Visual designers work on Macintosh with the usual industry standard tools, including Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Flash.

Favorite Quote
We are trying to work against the following quotation from C.P. Scott in 1928: "Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it."

Sources of Inspiration
MTV, the SCI FI Channel, and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

back to top 

©2000 ACM  1072-5220/00/0200  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2000 ACM, Inc.

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