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How design can give OTTs the edge

By Tim Bleasdale, creative director, Ostmodern

In our digital world of OTT apps, websites and on demand products, it can be tempting to think of design purely as creating ‘pretty pixels’. In reality, the way an end product looks is only a small part of the design process. In fact, it’s only a fraction of what a ‘visual’ or user interface (UI) designer has to think about during the product design process.

Design is a way of thinking

For example, the ultimate visual layout and implementation of an interface is often preceded by a multitude of creative and strategic challenges, which need to be thought through or “designed”.

At this point, I need to be clear about what I mean by ‘design’. It’s a word that has different, subtle meanings which have evolved throughout the years. Design can mean:

  • ’To make, shape’
  • ‘To mark out, point out; devise; choose, designate, appoint’ (14th Century)
  • ‘An intention to act in some particular way’ (18th Century)
  • Or the rather sinister: ‘to contrive, plot, intend’ (16th Century)

Design encompasses so much more than just:

  • ‘To plan execute and fashion with artistic skill’ 
  • Or ‘a drawing, especially an outline’ (17th Century)

It is important that designers not only gather the information they need to make creative decisions, but help others to apply creative rigour to their own thinking. For this reason, we always encourage others to think like designers. This is the idea of ‘design thinking’ that you may have heard about. My favourite element (and I believe the most important) of the ‘design thinking’ concept is ‘empathy’.

It’s crucial to begin with empathy towards everyone who is integral to a product’s development. This means empathising with and understanding: your audience; the demands of the business; and the people who will help you deliver the product. Understanding their expectations helps to create products which are very close to what all these groups need. This means that after launch, the number of iterations and improvements required to keep a product successful, and to anticipate change, will be much easier to manage. Too many times, I’ve seen businesses that do not empathise fighting a losing battle, trying frantically to engage their users after the fact, constantly labouring to reduce churn, and always being on the back foot.

Form should follow function

This saying is an old but good one. It is increasingly relevant in the diversifying marketplaces of video content and broadcast.

Looking at the high functioning products in this space, it’s tempting to follow what they do as best practice for everything. I hear so many people referencing Netflix, wanting to be the ‘Netflix of this’, the ‘Netflix of that’. But we forget that Netflix is designed from the ground up to compete in a particular environment, and if that’s not your environment, then maybe you don’t need to be like Netflix. In fact, it’s probably best that you’re not like Netflix.

I’ll concede that there are certain paradigms that these high functioning products like Netflix popularise. They offer methods of interacting that people come to understand or even expect. However, that doesn’t mean that copying these products feature-for-feature will be right for your business, content, or audience. It’s a common myth in this industry that a product has to have every single feature going in order to compete – a sort of feature space race. At Ostmodern, we don’t follow this thinking. We believe that if you are always following you’ll never innovate, and subsequently you’ll never fulfil the needs of your audience. You’ll never create a standout product. It’s also worth remembering that if your aspirations don’t fall within what’s feasible you may not even be able to launch your product: your product will become the Netflix of lost causes.

The 80/20 approach

This is why empathy is so important. If you understand the expectations of your audience, your business objectives, and any complexities of the build, you’ll be able to get the most out of delivering a lean set of features. This leads to what we refer to as ‘the 80/20 approach’, which is a nice way of ensuring your product asserts its personality and stands out from the start – without breaking the bank or gambling on a crazy feature set.

When developing a new product or conducting a reset, our focus is to launch a product that can evolve with its users in the right direction. However, the key objective has to be that it will just work. In the case of video and broadcast products, this usually means that people need to be able to find and consume the content efficiently. It’s the bread and butter of the products we make – for a launch product, this is probably what you should focus 80 per cent of your effort on. This leaves 20 per cent of the effort to implement a unique interaction brand and features that differentiate your product and resonate accurately with your user base.

It’s for this reason that we always meet and get into the mindset of an audience when defining product strategy. Understanding how they want to be spoken to, and what they really care about, is going to save a lot of time and money.   

Where are your principles?

To develop a truly differential product, an understanding of your uniqueness needs to be referenced and reinforced throughout the development process.   

This can be done by turning that empathy and understanding into rules or ‘product principles.’ Having ‘product principles’ which are driven by an audience makes further design decisions easy. Done well, the design process can work as a kind of snowball effect where each individual decision makes the next decision easier. Living by ‘product principles’ is the best way to avoid the pitfalls of ‘design by committee’ and ‘scope creep’, allowing you to build a brand and product with its own personality, where its users feel at home.

The freedom to embrace change

I believe that taking a rigorous design approach to a product makes it much easier to flex and evolve in the way your business need to. It helps to reduce risk in what is already a risky broadcast industry. It could be the difference between struggling to stay relevant and having the freedom to become a leader in your space.

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