The Problem with Video Online

Retro TelevisionWow! It’s been a while since I’ve penned a blog post; but this isn’t down to laziness or lethargy! I’ve been really busy here at Channel 4 working on our video propisition. A week ago we launched ourĀ  online 30 day catch-up service, but that isn’t where it ends. Ever since Project Kangaroo, the video on demand collaboration between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, was canned by the Competition Commission we have been working on our own solution for getting of our archive content online; and I’ve been doing all the IA/UX work on it!

It’s been a really interesting and exciting project to work on, making a user-friendly video proposal that will fit into the current Channel 4 site without too much impact, while making sure video is simple to find and watch. I think that the solution we’re implementing meets those goals. One challenge was making sure that Video home page did not get too catch-up centric and promoted archive material adequately. While the main user goal is catch-up, our current 4oD service shows us that archive material is becoming more and more popular.

But there’s a problem when you come to design a particular aspect of the online video user experience: advertising.

And when I say advertising I am specifically referring to pre-roll (the ones that play before the video) and centre break adverts. The particular aspect that I mention is the pop-up player experience. Channel 4, unlike the BBC, relies on advertising for revenue, which means that like on TV, our online video needs to have advertising. This advertising comes in the form of ads before the video the user selected plays (pre-rolls) and in the middle of the video (the centre break). There is a specific business rule with adverts online, and that is that users cannot fast forward through them. This is fine in principle, and other than the usual annoyance that users get from online advertising, it has little impact on architecting the user experience around video… until you think about how pop-up players work.

Video Player showing Pop-Out viewing option

Video Player showing Pop-Out viewing option

When there is no advertising in a video, users should be able to open the video that they are watching in a pop-up player at any time; with the video beginning from the point that they clicked the pop-up button. With video containing advertising this is problematic. Allowing users to pop-out at any point during video playback means that they need to watch the pre-roll advertising again and perhaps the centre break also (if they opted to view pop-out three quarters of the way through the episode). This is not a good user experience, not a good user experience at all!

The solution that we are implementing means that when a user chooses the episode that they wish to watch, they are given the option to play in the page or to watch it in a pop-out. Once the video starts playing the option to view in a pop-out player is no longer available. Now, I know that this is now at all ideal. However, given the constraints that we are working in, this was deemed the best solution. What makes it palatable is the fact that user research has shown is that most people make the decision to view a video in a pop-out at the very beginning of their video viewing experience, and rarely at a point during playback. Meaning that our solution meets the needs of the majority of users.

The BBC is in a really envious position in that they have no advertising, so can allow the user to switch to a pop-up player at any point and fast forward to the appropriate place in the video, commercial broadcasters and online video sites don’t have this luxury! This is the solution we’ve come up with. I’d love to hear your comments and any suggestions for a better approach!

About the Author

An experienced, commercial and creative user experience professional with a proven record in UX leadership, strategy, people management, branding and innovation. Responsible for the design and delivery of several high profile, big brand web sites and enterprise software applications. All opinions here are my own.

6 Responses

  1. Jesper Apr 07, 2009 -

    Why is a pop-up player needed? Usually, embedded players allow for full-screen viewing. There’s also the possibility of fading out the rest of the window i embedded mode (sometimes referred to as cinema mode). So different modes of playback can be covered without pop-up players.

    I’m not sure I understand the need for a separate window for the player. Is it to allow video playback (with the player on-top) even though users might be browsing other websites? Or is it so that users can close down the web browser and continue watching?

    In short, is this a need identified through user research or one of those things where it’s expected functionality, so people might miss it if it’s gone?

  2. Alex Horstmann Apr 07, 2009 -

    Hey Jesper and thanks for your comment.

    The main need for the pop-up player window is exactly as your mentioned: people want to continue browsing. While full screen seems to be the most popular way of watching video online, people at work tend to like to have the video playing in a pop-up, in a corner of the screen, which the watch while working. This is something that we learned from research.

    It’s interesting, some broadcasters (certianly here in the UK) have it and some don’t. Those that don’t are commercial stations and I’m guessing that they hit the same problem we did!

  3. Jesper Apr 07, 2009 -

    I did a quick review of Swedish broadcasters. Only one (the non-commercial one; our bbc) have the option of a pop-up player. The others range from flash players to an embedded windows media player. Some implementations are sleek, but some seem quite shoddy (mainly the windows media ones). Not all who don’t have the pop-up option have advertisements though, so I guess they have other issues with it (or just haven’t done the research).

    I do kind of miss the pop-up option when it’s not available, now that I know it exists. I hadn’t considered it previously. :) Can you mention anything about how common it was that users wanted it, and if there was any difference in what type of content viewed when watching via pop-up vs fullscreen? It seems a bit weird to work while watching, for instance, a sit-com. Although I can see the value in keeping an eye on something relevant in the corner of the screen.

    Great blog btw.

  4. Alex Horstmann Apr 08, 2009 -

    I know – once you start to think about a pop-up experience, you get annoyed when one isn’t available!

    From user testing, there is a real user need for a pop-up experience. While home useage is almost exclusively in full-screen mode, there is the persona of the office worker.

    Let’s call the Persona Alex. Alex has a slight female gender bias, early to mid 20s. Generally has a college education. Is working in an administrative role, either part-time or full-time, until s/he goes travelling or find the job s/he really wants.

    Evenings are hardest. When working on reception things get quiet after 3pm and s/he is looking for a way to pass the time. S/he loves going out at night so missed the last 2 episodea of Scrubs. S/he will want to watch at work, but in a pop-up window, so that s/he can pause and minimise quickly if her boss walks by.

    This was a surprisingly common scenario. There are a couple more. IT workers who have a more relaxed office environment will work while watching/listening to a quiz show or documentary in a pop-up window.

    I would go as far as to say that full-screen viewing and pop-up player viewing are more common ways of watching online video than the embedded experience.

    Thanks!!

  5. James Page Apr 08, 2009 -

    I really like the new player.

    Is there a way of limiting advertising to a certain amount per hour. If we take the scenario that I watch 5 mins of one program, 5 mins of another, then another 5 mins of another, I will probably end up watching more ads than programs.

  6. Alex Horstmann Apr 09, 2009 -

    Hey James,

    You’re absoutely right, in the scenario you mention you could end up watching more ads. To limit we would need to either have user profiles or do some fancy cookie work… It is something that we discussed and continue to talk about.

    Cheers!

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