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More than just watching TV

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Richard Titus Richard Titus | 10:20 UK time, Tuesday, 28 October 2008

One of the more inspiring parts of my role as Controller of User Experience & Design is when we do truly formative research into user desires and behaviour on our digital products and services.

Earlier this year, some members of my team did some really great work into how people interact and behave with digital media. This work helped inform our work on BBC iPlayer and many of our other digital services we've launched. Adam Hutchinson has written about it below and also created an infographic which we've been repeatedly asked to share.

Click here for full-size [7.3 Mb JPEG]

Watching TV is more than just watching TV - how you need to understand people to create successful technology
by Adam Hutchinson

adam hutchinsMy job as an interaction designer in the BBC's User Experience & Design team is to ensure that BBC technology focuses on what our audience finds useful and enjoyable. To do this, we have to understand how people use media and what their needs are.

In early 2008, we studied how people find, play, personalise and share programmes across different devices and services - like BBC iPlayer, Sky+, YouTube, peer-to-peer and traditional TV and radio. We discovered what is important for people and what problems they face.

We asked ten members of the public around the country to take part in our study. They kept "media use" diaries for two weeks and were interviewed in their homes about their entertainment habits. We found that people watch TV or listen to the radio not for its own sake, but in order to achieve a range of goals - such as to relax, to keep up to date or to spend time with each other. This is not new. What we also saw was how these goals are being achieved in ways we didn't expect.

By paying attention to the activities that come before and after the watching or listening (like finding, personalising and sharing programmes), we learned a lot about what people find important. For example, a lot of people feel overwhelmed at the amount of choice there is. They skip through programmes or channels and don't settle on one, as they feel they could be missing out something else.

BBCUXD_detailed_media_use - click for largeAnother fascinating insight is how watching TV is an enabler for socialising. Gossiping about plotlines and being up to date with a programme is a form of social currency (eg "Did you see Heroes last night?"). What we often neglect to consider is that people like to watch programmes together. We saw how a group of teenage boys would watch Dragons' Den and try to impress each other with their business knowledge. If one of the friends had already seen the episode, they were barred from the discussion, because they could "cheat" as they knew what was going to happen.

Some people have enormous media collections, and take great pride in them. Often they won't listen to or watch everything in their collection because it's the collecting they enjoy. We were also surprised at how people mixed and matched old and new technologies to fit in with their lives. People who use the latest gadgets also go through the Radio Times magazine with a pen to plan their week's viewing - because that's the easiest way to do it. People who blog about music trends also burn CDs to give to their friends, because a physical object somehow means more than its digital equivalent.

Interesting stuff - but what next? Well, for me it gets really exciting when you take take our existing products and think about how we can improve them based on these insights. But the main message is: understand your audience and you'll understand what makes a product successful.

Included in this post is a rich picture that expresses some of these insights [7.3 Mb JPEG], and a link to a detailed findings poster [6.7 Mb JPEG]. Thanks to Jamie Hill who planned and ran this project, the team of researchers from BBC User Experience & Design, and Flow Interactive who helped with the analysis.


  • Comment number 1.

    "We asked ten members of the public around the country to take part in our study".
    Sorry... is this a typo? TEN members of the public? This is in no way a meaningful sample?! Are results on this kind of sample size worth reporting?

  • Comment number 2.

    Emphatically yes!

    Thanks for raising this fearoffours. This is a point often raised about this sort of study by those who are only familiar with statistical research.

    This piece of work is qualitative, which means it focuses on human behaviour and the reasons for that behaviour. To understand these properly, we need to talk with and observe the participants. It's impossible to do this with everyone we're interested in, so we have to use a representative sample.

    Your question is how many people do we need before we can say it the sample size is representative of the population. With quantitative, statistically based research, measures can be used to say how certain a finding is based on the sample size.

    With qualitative research, such measures are more difficult. So how do we determine the sample size in qualitative research? Strauss & Corbin in their "Basics of Qualitative Research", use the notion of 'theoretical saturation'. This means you include more and more people until you're not finding anything new that you haven't already seen. There's a little more detail to it than that, but they acknowledge (and embrace) the fact that this is subjective and depends on the experience of the researchers, but, if done properly, the results are scientifically valid.

    Google "qualitative research sample size" for plenty more on this.

    So is a sample size of 10 valid? Without knowing more about the findings you can't say.

    Are the results worth sharing? Absolutely.

  • Comment number 3.

    I agree with the points you make, Tom, and i agree in principle about the notion of 'theoretical saturation' and the fact that qualitative material can be far more rich than quantitative surveys. However, i would argue that, with your demographic sample being so vastly spread, that it would be difficult to say anything meaningful about each demographic, specifically with regards to the 16-34 age group (of which only 3 people were sampled). - presumably the biggest users of TVOD?

  • Comment number 4.

    I apologise for getting your name, wrong, Adam :)

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi Adam, thanks for the interesting blog. I'd like to see your diagrams but the links don't seem to be working. Could you get them checked? thanks!

  • Comment number 6.


    I agree this is the principle weakness in this piece of work.

    But what's interesting is that this seems to be one piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle.

    Check out https://www.olswang.com/convergence08/default.asp
    which is an interesting survey that touches on a lot of similar issues.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hey Adam, thanks for sharing this image. Very nicely done and an interesting summary of the research. Regards.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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