Distance to content

One of the things that I think a lot about at work is the idea of distance to content. Every streaming service works hard on content discovery, and we all shout about the breadth of content we have, but this idea of the distance between the viewer and the content is one that gets neglected.

The way I think about this distance has two aspects: firstly, that it often exists as a result of IA and UI that we take for granted, and, secondly, that, given its existence, we’re missing opportunities to celebrate it.

Creating distance

Everyone I’ve spoke to who works in this space has the goal of creating a more TV-like experience[1]. Me too: it has a flat structure, it leads with content, and it uses navigation when you need it, not as the start of your journey. How can you say no to that as an experience for an entertainment product? Especially when our alternative currently looks like this:

  1. Turn on TV/laptop/phone/device
  2. Launch app
  3. Navigate to content, which might, if you’re very decisive, involve some of this:
    1. Choose to view movies
    2. Choose action movies
    3. Choose a movie
  4. If you’re anything like any of the people I’ve observed in testing, or anything like me, you’re not that decisive, so go back to step 3 another couple of times. Maybe make a list of a few different things you could watch, and pick one later.
  5. Press play

But I think we neglect some of the differences between TV and VOD when we make the comparison, and I think some of the nuances are valuable:

1. TV is simple

Whereas a VOD service has a catalogue of hundreds or thousands of things available to watch instantly, TV is much more limited, both in terms of the scope of its offering and the breadth of its content. Because it’s live, TV is essentially a list of single items – channels showing something available to watch now – and, even with the most deluxe packages, the number of channels never approaches even the smallest VOD service. The navigation is simple because it doesn’t need to be complex.

VOD, on the other hand, has the challenge not only of conveying the breadth of its content to a user, but of getting the user through that breadth to the single thing they want to watch right now.

2. TV is serendipitous

I have no evidence to back this up, but my feeling is that watching TV is like fire-gazing; people are relatively happy to turn it on and stare at it, and deliberate viewing is something you briefly flip into when that thing you want to watch comes on. I think this is partly down to the simplicity, and partly down to patterns of use; because there’s a limited set of content available, and because - again, I guess - people tend to watch at the same time of day, the fact that the TV turns on to the last channel you watched makes it very likely that you’ll enjoy - or at least accept - the first thing you see. And if you don’t, then it’s a number of small hops to something more palatable.

VOD, though, has a deliberateness to it; it’s a destination that users have to choose to go and explore, not one that gets piped directly into your living room. And once you’re in it, the fact that everything is simultaneously available makes it very difficult to meaningfully reproduce that instant TV experience; we have to choose between movies and TV shows, between all the genres we have, and pick something you haven’t seen before, and hope it’s something you don’t want to watch deliberately later. And we don’t really know who you are. It’s so difficult to get this right, and so important not to get it wrong, that people have shied away from it.

3. TV doesn’t do navigation well

When TV needs to stop being simple and serendipitous, when a user moves from browsing what’s on now to planning their future watching, it sort of falls apart. The EPG that everyone falls back on is one of my pet hates; I don’t think it represents any of the values of TV, and it’s usually so clunky to use that it sucks the joy right out of what should be a relaxing experience.

Celebrating distance

One of the principles we’re working to as we evolve things at NOW TV is that the experience of using the product should be as enjoyable as the content you watch; and that means that things should be clear and simple where they need to be, that journeys should be exactly as long as necessary, and, most importantly, that navigation and structure should support those journeys, not shape them.

In my head, this sort of translates to accepting that the deliberateness of VOD needs to create a distance between the user and their content, and then using that distance to create a beautiful experience. Maybe it’s as simple as allowing the experience to change based on the type of content a user’s looking at; maybe it’s something that scales according to content volume; maybe transitions change speed based on a user’s pace through the journey. I don’t think anyone’s solved this yet, but, personally, I think the answer lies in recognising that we’re looking at something new, and not trying to fit a TV or a web paradigm onto it.


  1. In fact, if you go and listen to Roman Mars on Let’s Make Mistakes, you’ll hear a discussion of exactly the same problem as it relates to radio and podcasts. Right around the 35-minute mark. But listen to the whole thing.  ↩

Sam Dobbin