The Perils of Design Conventions

So I’m clicking away…Channel Up, Channel Up, Channel Up. Cycling through the channels on my digital cable box. 701. 702. 703. 704. While doing this, it dawned on my that this little interaction – skating up and down across a sequential list of channels – is awful.

Digital cable boxes have some amazing capabilities built into them. On-demand ordering. In-line TV guide. Information about programs. Yet we still have channel up and down. Now should flipping through channels go away? Of course not. But there is no doubt there are better ways to easily navigate around the 200 or so channels on a typical cable box.
Why not provide a grid-like listing, nicely categorized, that I can pull up at any time. Why not show me my most frequently visited channels in the same type of listing? In the example below, I don’t have to stick to one serial path to get to my channels. For example, from Fox Sports, I can navigate up and down to other channels and jump left and right to Fox News and Cinemax and navigate from there.

The above isn’t meant as a specific suggestion to redefine how we navigate TV channels. It’s really meant to highlight a danger that designers often overlook when leveraging older design conventions. The original old TV sets had a technical limitation that required you to “flip” through a set of stations by turning a knob. Each snap of the channel knob locked you into another frequency. It was an analog way of tuning to different stations.
The remnants of that interaction still exists today despite the leaps and bounds that technology has afforded. Digital TV is readily capable of doing just about anything, but designers are still locked into the way things used to work. The result is a sort of damaged peripheral vision that hinders us from conceiving of designs that are potentially innovative. It’s difficult to wipe the slate clean.
There is, of course, an advantage to leveraging how things used to work even when introducing newer technologies. Your users are already “experts” in channel surfing a sequential number and it’s wise to leverage that expertise. The holy grail lies in how we’re able to introduce innovative methods of interaction without breaking the already-learned concepts. Agreed-upon conventions are good…and bad.
Some other examples of interaction design conventions that may be an artifact of a previous time:

  • The Blue Web Page Hyperlink. This thing has served us well, but we’re sort of stuck here. What can we build upon here to accomodate different types of capabilities that have since become popular. Open in a new window? Open in a tab? Open a different media type?
  • The Cassette Player Interface Previous song. Rewind. Play/Pause. Fast-Forward. Next Song. Music media formats and CD’s can do a lot more than these controls allow. Queuing the next stong is still cumbersome. Organizing playlists is still cumbersome. Rewinding and fast-forwarding is also a remnant of older technologies. It’s how you got to the next song. What use cases drive fast-forwarding through a song today?
  • The Page-Flipping Paradigm. We’re about done with paper yet we still flip through pages to get to more stuff. Financial Reports. Articles. Etc. We’ve seen glimpses of ways to navigate large information landscapes (Apple’s Exposé comes to mind).

As designers, we work hard to make things easy for people. A great way to do that is to leverage what they already know. What we have to be careful with is to not get locked in to current conventions such that we discourage the idea of introducing something new – and potentially groundbreaking. Technology moves fast. We should reset our design thinking every so often and revisit the technologies available and what we can do with them. Invention lies dormant within. We just have to go get it.

4 Comments The Perils of Design Conventions

  1. Josh Tynjala

    Good points. I think that designers are scared to try innovating sometimes. Your channel picker is obvious, but I’ve only seen hints of such features coming to life.

  2. Douglas Clifton

    Oh man, you’re picking my brain. I was just thinking about this the other day. I would really be nice to have a separate device, with a screen interface and better design/controls for searching and selecting programs. My onscreen navigation menus even have ads that say “click here” — hahaha, with what?

  3. Rob Cameron

    I have a Motorola box from MOXI and it has an interesting interface. When you hit the MOXI button (kinda like Guide, I guess) you get several boxes arranged horizontally. One is a sequential listing of all channels, but then you also get boxes for categories like News, Kids, Movies, Sports and Favorites (which is dynamically built from the 10 channels you watch the most). Going to one of these boxes then opens up a vertical pane of boxes that represent the actual channels. There’s also a Find area where you can look for shows by title, keyword, etc.
    You still end up with a sequential list, but short of adding a keyboard to the remote control, how else are you going to “shortcut” right to the channels you want? Someone’s going to have to choose an organization structure that not everyone is going to agree with. Snd with the limits of TV resolution, not all of those options are going to fit on a single screen…


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