WebTV Networks, Inc. was founded in 1995 with the mission of bringing the Internet into people's living rooms via the television. The company today serves more than one-million users with a unique service that provides easy Internet access while enhancing the television-viewing experience. In 1997, Microsoft Corporation acquired WebTV Networks, Inc., and now WebTV Networks operates as a subsidiary of Microsoft. WebTV Networks drives Microsoft's efforts in the television arena, with the goal being to continue expanding the traditional role of television.
The development of a consumer electronics product aimed at the non-computer user brings with it many design and usability challenges. This article focuses on what these challenges are and how the design philosophy and design process at WebTV Networks helps to meet these challenges.
What Is WebTV?
In summary, WebTV is an inexpensive electronic device that connects to TV and phone line and enables one to surf the World Wide Web and send and receive email. Certain versions of WebTV also have interactive TV Listings and allow interaction with TV programs such as Jeopardy. What makes WebTV unique is that it is enables non-computer users to access the Internet.
Many WebTV customers buy WebTV because they are uncomfortable with computers and have not been exposed to them. Our design challenge at WebTV Networks is to ensure that we keep WebTV easy to learn and use, even as new features are added. WebTV could quickly become as complicated, overwhelming, and daunting as a computer. The design philosophy that WebTV Networks follows helps us meet this design challenge. Two fundamental aspects of this philosophy are as follows:
- Involve the user in the design process.
- Iterate, iterate, iterate . . .
When WebTV Networks was still a "secret" start-up called Artemis Research, it was recognized that WebTV needed to be easy for the non-computer user and that the only way to achieve this was to incorporate the user into the design process and to get user feedback early and often. To achieve this, the company founders hired a usability consultant to test their early designs. Before there was an established usability lab and before WebTV was available to the public, the first usability study was conducted in December of 1995 in a hotel room in a Holiday Inn. This study focused on testing basic navigation. Because the hardware hadn't yet been developed, the software was tested using a computer simulator. From this study and several studies that followed, it became clear that there was a lot to test in order to ensure that WebTV was easy to use.
By the spring of 1996, WebTV Networks began conducting at least one usability test every week! This frequency of testing allows us to iteratively test the same feature as many as five or more times during its development and prior to its release. Usability testing at WebTV Networks is viewed as an integral part of the design process and as a way to "improve" the product rather than simply to "prove" or validate the product.
Every week, eight new participants (half of whom have never used a computer or the Internet) are brought into the lab for a two-hour session. They are given a series of typical tasks that focus on a particular aspect of WebTV. Their feedback is observed, recorded, and analyzed. At the end of the week, "quick findings" are produced highlighting the top-level results. The following week a detailed report is written that provides frequency information regarding how many participants encountered a particular problem, as well as recommendations for redesign. A weekly highlights video illustrating the issues is also produced for the UI engineers and graphic designers. Every aspect of the WebTV product and service is put through lab testing with real usersfrom the out-of-box experience of setting up the WebTV device for the first time, to the user interface, to the phone tree users must navigate when they call the telephone number for technical assistance. User feedback is also gathered from field studies, questionnaires, and usability trials (beta studies). Listening to our users, watching how they use the product, and understanding that we cannot design it right the first time are the guideposts for design at WebTV Networks.
The design process at WebTV Networks is somewhat informal in that we don't have a rigid process with set milestones that are followed by each designer. The design team is typically multidisciplinary, consisting of at least one UI engineer, graphic designer, usability engineer, and program manager. Often, the initial design conceptualization comes from the UI engineer or graphic designer. Although the leader of the design process often varies from project to project, iterative testing of the design with "real" users is consistently employed for each design project. Each person on the multidisciplinary team has a fairly well-established role. The UI engineer is usually formally trained in computer science and is ultimately responsible for implementing the design. The graphic designer, who usually has a fine arts background with graphic design training, creates the visual UI components and layout. The usability engineer often has formal training in experimental or cognitive psychology and represents the users' perspective, helping to characterize who users will be and what tasks they will perform.
In addition to the core team, the customer service team provides data from customer calls and emails that are also fed into the design process. They may help drive the definition of requirements for the redesign. We also get information from the data warehouse team about usage of various features of WebTV to better understand how our customers use WebTV.
Because iterative testing and redesign are such an established and routine part of the design process, we have come up with some unique ways to keep the whole design team aware of the user's experience and problems. One way this is done is through the usability channel.
The Usability Channel
Everyone at WebTV Networks has a TV in his or her office, which allows for very efficient and unique communication of the usability test results. Live usability testing and video highlights tapes are shown on a company-wide cable TV channel, enabling designers, product marketing, and others to observe usability testing easily from their offices. Often developers won't have time to watch two-hour test sessions in the lab; instead they can observe testing on the usability channel while at work in the office. This enables our developers and designers to be more informed about the test results because they have often seen the problems first hand.
Redesigning the Web Home Page, Our Most Visited Page
The Web home page is the initial launching point for all WebTV customers who want to browse the Web, send email, or participate in chat rooms or newsgroups. The design challenge was to redesign this page to improve its usability, visual design, and layout without requiring unnecessary relearning for existing customers. Too many changes and iterations were made to detail fully in this article, but some of the more fundamental changes are highlighted below.
- We moved the title "Web Home" from the bottom left hand corner to the top of the page to increase its visibility and make it more consistent with the TV home page. The TV home page is part of the WebTV on-screen interface that provides enhanced TV and interactive TV listings. This was primarily a usability improvement in that we found many WebTV users were not always clear which "world" they were in (Web or TV).
- We combined the Explore and Search sections into one section. This change was driven by usage data showing that new WebTV customers initially tend to use Explore but quickly stop using it and begin using Search and other non-WebTV search engines upon becoming more comfortable with the Web. Explore is basically a directory of categories (links) to the Web. It is a directory of Web sites intended to help people find information in which they are interested. It was developed because usability has shown that people often have trouble formulating searches (queries) and get lost in the web of information. But the distinction between Explore and Search was often not clear to people, and because they both were really ways to browse the Web, we decided to combine them. This combination resulted in a major redesign of the search page to encompass the categorical approach of Explore.
- Content-specific centers were added. In the initial Web page design (Figure 1), the bottom portion of the page called My WebTV rotated through user-customized information about stocks, sports, news, etc. The goal of redesign was to increase the amount of useful information shown on the home page. To provide an informative experience through passive viewing, the content area in the center of the page was changed to display a rotating "teaser" containing a high level information for categories like stocks or news. Also, links to more information regarding each category were added to the bottom of the home page (Figure 2).
Redesign of the Web home page involved a multidisciplinary team consisting of UI engineers who implemented the page, graphic designers who established the layout and created the graphics, and usability engineers who provided input on requirements for the redesign based on usability feedback. This team also reviewed each iteration of the Web home page. Because this page is so prominent to our users, we did not stop at getting feedback through lab testing, but conducted a usability trial in which a representative sample of customers tested an advance version of the software with the redesigned Web home page. The customers provided feedback through questionnaires. This redesign project is just one example of the ongoing design work at WebTV Networks. With the expansion of WebTV Networks into more television-oriented products such as satellite and digital video recording, we are faced with many diverse design projects. Regardless of the product, our design process and philosophy continue to focus on user feedback and to involve multiple iterative cycles.
WebTV Networks, Inc.
Job Titles and Qualifications for Design and Usability Positions
User interface engineer: A degree in Computer Science and programming experience (C++, Java script, HTML, etc.) required
Graphic designer: An advanced degree in fine arts, experience with Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash etc. and experience as a graphic designer in the multimedia and/or television industry required.
Usability engineer: An advanced degree in psychology or human factors and some prototyping experience using tools such as Visual Basic, Director, and HTML required.
Number Employed in Design and Usability
10 in usability engineering, 7 in graphic design, and 20 in UI engineering.
Breadth of Project Teams
Multidisciplinary teams include UI engineers, graphic designers, usability engineers, customer service representatives, program managers, and marketing and quality engineers.
Norman D.A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Double Day Press, 1988.
This classic book examines design from a psychological point of view. This book is suggested for people new to the field.
Petroski H. The Evolution of Useful Things. New York, Random House, 1992.
Looks at the design from historical and engineering points of view.
Rubin J. Handbook of Usability Testing. New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994. Rubin's book is good for designers, engineers, and programmers who want to do usability tests of their designs.
Bad Human Factors Designs (http://www.baddesigns.com). A great collection of bad designs, with comments about why they are considered bad.
Alertbox: Monthly Column on Web Usability by Jacob Nielsen (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/). A good collection of Web usability issues.
Interface Hall of Shame by Brian Hayes (http://www.iarchitect.com/mshame.htm). A collection of examples of common interface design mistakes.
Some of the tools include brainstorming, pen and paper, Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Director, and Web authoring tools.
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . ." Ralph Waldo Emerson
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