Thursday, December 10, 2009

TiVo vs. AppleTV for Video on Demand

I’ve had a a TiVo Series 2 for years. Its user experience for selecting, recording and watching TV shows left everything else in the dust. So when TiVo teamed up with Amazon a year or two ago to offer video-on-demand movies and TV shows via TiVo, I had high hopes.

These were quickly dashed. The Amazon VoD UI embedded in TiVo is unresponsive, clumsy, cumbersome and unpleasant—everything the TiVo UI itself is not. When one chooses “Video on Demand” from the TiVo menu, one arrives at a menu screen featuring something like 8 different VoD vendors whose delivery medium is TiVo. Never mind the fact that as a movie watcher, I could give a flying fork whether “Jaman Movies and Shorts” or “Disney Video” or “Blockbuster” or “Amazon Video on Demand” supplies the title I want to watch; as a customer, I’m focused on content, not content vendors.

Yet amazingly, not only is the TiVo UI organized by something as meaningless as vendor, but each of the vendor submenus takes you to a different, yet uniformly awful, user interface. Here are some misfeatures common to all of them:

  • Each button press on the TiVo remote has a UI response time between 700 and 1500ms. Yes, that’s right, it can takemore than a second to get any visual or auditory feedback that your button-press actually did anything. This is far above the established thresholds for perceptual causality (~100ms). In contrast, when using the “native” TiVo UI, it feels snappy and responsive.

  • Each VoD source has a different menu-driven UI for search, “top titles”, browse by genre, etc. The user has a simple goal: “I want to find (or browse) movies.” Yet each submenu has a different structure, for no defensible reason. As a user, what do I care which of the vendors is providing the content?

  • The GUI is not only entirely textual, it is designed in such a way that less than 50% of the already-scarce screen real estate is actually devoted to browsing. The rest is devoted to TiVo templated elements and blather from the VoD vendor about how thrilled I should be that I had the wisdom to select them.


The UI is, in short, astonishingly bad.  It is all the more frustrating because this truly awful UI, which makes me want to hurl the remote at the screen, emanates from the same device that gave us the effortlessly superior TiVo UI.

What happened?

Bottom line: when it comes to video on demand, TiVo has provided an unresponsive, inconsistent, confusing and non-thought-out GUI in which various competing vendors of VoD media fight for your eyeballs with unattractive, unintuitive, arbitrarily-different GUIs that violate every basic GUI tenet, including those to which the original TiVo GUI hews so faithfully and well.  In contrast, AppleTV, for all its bashing, has a nicely-thought-out, consistent, aesthetically appealing GUI that does the one thing you want to do: find the damn movie easily, and start watching it as soon as possible. The search interface is fast and responsive; the user experience is,well, Apple; and you can usually start watching movies within 1-2 minutes of clicking “Buy”. (The last time I used Amazon VoD on TiVo to watch a 30-minute TV sitcom episode, I had to wait 20 minutes before I could start watching, even though my TiVo enjoys access to exactly the same broadband network as my AppleTV. How is 20 minutes “video on demand”? I could have made a trip to the local video store and been back in less time than that.)

Shame on you, TiVo.  DVR hardware is commodity; what had set you apart was your UI. As you continue to add vendors to your hideous VoD user experience, you will start running out of feet in which to shoot yourselves.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I’d like to disabuse early-career grad students of certainmisconceptions…


  1. You are rarely the best judge of the most important material or best presentation strategy for your talk. Corollary: Give one or more practice talks.

  2. Writing is much harder than you think. Corollary 1: You are not that great a writer. Corollary 2: If you don’t have a solid draft 1-2 weeks before the conference deadline, you’re starting with 2 strikes.

  3. 80% or more of submitted papers are rejected. Corollary: You need feedback from colleagues and outsiders to improve your paper. A poor way to get feedback is to submit the paper, wait 6 months, and get a rejection with cryptic reviews. A better way is left as an exercise to the reader. (Thanks to Mike Franklin for this particular way of looking at the “get feedback” issue.)

  4. When you write up your work, remember that nobody cares what you did but only why it advances the state of the art. Edit accordingly. Corollary: edit an outline and paragraph map before you start writing. It’s much easier to rearrange/eliminate at this level than at the prose level.

  5. The reviewer has 20 other papers waiting to be reviewed and is looking for a reason to set yours aside and move on. Corollary: your job is to ensure no such opening is provided—whether by unsupported statements, poor writing, rambling style, etc.

  6. Your goal is not that your work gets the approval of your advisor, but the approval of the research community, as represented by the (usually anonymous) reviewers who will be evaluating your paper. Your advisor can bring her/his experience to bear and give you advice (hence “advisor”) on how to maximize the likelihood of this, but don’t mislead yourself into thinking that your goal should be to please your advisor.  If the community is pleased with your work, chances are excellent your advisor will be too.  Corollary: Get lots of feedback on a paper from people other than your advisor—i.e., people representative of the reviewers who’ll evaluate it—before submitting it.
  7. Every written statement in a research paper is either a statement supported by your results, a statement supported by your or others’ prior work, or an opinion. If it’s not obviously one of the first two, reviewers will assume it’s the third. Corollary: if it’s an opinion, you’d better either back it up or explicitly present it as such. If it’s not an opinion, make clear why not.