Striking a balance: How YouTube reinvented its TV app

Here’s a little secret about YouTube’s new TV app, which just launched on Roku streaming devices this week: It’s using the wrong shade of red.

YouTube user experience designer Henry Benjamin told me recently that his team intended to use the official YouTube red for the app’s new sidebar, only to find out during testing that it simply didn’t work. “It actually skews orange” when displayed on a TV screen, he explained, which is why his team decided to ultimately go with a slightly different shade.

YouTube's new TV app just launched on Roku's streaming devices.

YouTube’s new TV app just launched on Roku’s streaming devices.

Moving away from the brand-approved color may seem like a minor detail, but it shows how designing for TVs can be different from designing websites or even mobile apps. YouTube has been trying to get the experience on the TV screen right for some time. The Google-owned video service was one of the first to play with a leanback experience back in 2010, and has since rolled out three different iterations of its TV app. Benjamin and YouTube product manager Sarah Ali recently gave me a look behind the curtains on the evolution of the YouTube TV app.

The first version of YouTube's TV app had a too complicated information architecture.

The first version of YouTube’s TV app had a too complicated information architecture.

YouTube’s first full-featured TV app used a very hierarchical approach to organize videos. Users had to click through categories, channels and ultimately lists of videos to find what they wanted to watch. “Videos vs. clicks is a real key challenge,” explained Ali, adding that this first iteration was way too click-heavy, hiding the actual videos behind multiple layers and making it way too hard for users to actually find what they wanted to watch.

The second version of YouTube's TV app was flatter, but didn't put enough of an emphasis on channels.

The second version of YouTube’s TV app was flatter, but didn’t put enough of an emphasis on channels.

The second version of the TV app, which launched on the PS3 in late 2012 and found its way onto other devices in 2013, tried to do away with these layers by putting videos front and center, making it easier to just jump right in and start watching without having to seek out content and navigate through lots of menus. This resulted in tens of thousands of hours of more videos viewed in the first week alone, Ali told me.

However, by focusing primarily on single videos, YouTube also deemphasized channels and playlists. That ran counter to the service’s attempts to get more people to subscribe to channels and return to keep watching serialized content with higher production values, which is also easier to sell to advertisers.

The new app comes with a sidebar than can be accessed when needed, but otherwise remains invisible.

The new app comes with a sidebar than can be accessed when needed, but otherwise remains invisible.

That’s why YouTube launched a new version of its TV app late last year, which has since found its way onto Xbox One, Sony’s PS3 and PS4, Wii U, many smart TVs, and now Roku’s current-generation streaming devices. The new app is aiming for more consistency across devices, which includes a left-hand sidebar that is hidden until used, much like on YouTube’s mobile apps.

The slide-out option also gave YouTube’s designers a chance to use up more space: The previous version of the app just used small icons for the sidebar channel guide, and only displayed titles when actually scrolling through the list. The new app combines icons with words, allowing users to more quickly find what they want.

The new app introduces a channel view that's very similar to the way YouTube presents channels on the web.

The new app introduces a channel view that’s very similar to the way YouTube presents channels on the web.

Also new is a channel view, which more closely resembles the channel page on YouTube’s website or within YouTube’s mobile apps. The previous version of YouTube’s TV app simply presented signed-in users with a gallery view of the most recent videos of a given channel.

Now, they are being greeted by channel art, and have an option to watch the channel trailer, or even subscribe to or unsubscribe from any channel. The new channel view also offers access to multiple rows of content, allowing publishers to show off their playlists and other curated content on the TV, much like they’ve already been doing on the web ad on mobile devices.

A design exploration of YouTube's TV app next to apps on other platforms, as shown off at Google I/0 2013.

A design exploration of YouTube’s TV app next to apps on other platforms, as shown off at Google I/0 2013.

YouTube’s designers originally considered an even bolder and somewhat more cinematic approach for its new TV app, which they first showed off during Google’s I/O developer conference in 2013. The actual implementation is a little more subdued, and much closer aligned with the look of the mobile and web apps, something that has become a key goal at YouTube. Said Benjamin: “If there is a deviation in consistency, then there needs to be a really good explanation.”

You know, like a shade of red that just doesn’t look right.

Tablo is building a beautiful Roku app for its cord-cutting DVR

Thought all Roku apps look the same? Think again: Tablo is getting ready to launch a beautiful new Roku app for its DVR for cord cutters that doesn’t look like any of the old-school Roku apps you still see a lot on that platform. Tablo previewed the new app at the Pepcom Digital Experience event at CES in Las Vegas on Monday night, and Grant Hall, CEO of Tablo maker Nuvyyo, told me that he hopes to have the app ready before the end of this quarter.

Tablo's new Roku app.

Tablo’s new Roku app

A detail that developers will appreciate: Tablo is building this new app with Brightscript, Roku’s own scripting language. Roku has only allowed a small number of hand-selected partners to use HTML5 for their apps, and making visually stunning apps has proven to be a bit harder with Brightscript than it would be with HTML5.


Tablo also showed off a great-looking new app for Android TV and Fire TV at CES. Hall said that app will be available even before the Roku app.

Tablo's new app for Android TV and Fire TV.

Tablo’s new app for Android TV and Fire TV

Finally, the company showed its new Tablo Metro DVR, which comes with tiny built-in antennas that are able to pick up HD TV broadcast signals in metropolitan areas where a big external antenna isn’t necessary. It’s a little bit like Aereo’s dime-sized antennas, albeit with a slightly different technology, and for the DVR in your home.

Those star-shaped patterns are tiny TV antennas.

Those star-shaped patterns are tiny TV antennas.

Tablo is currently only selling its DVRs online, but Hall said the company may start selling them in retail stores later this year.


The marriage of set and set-top

Consumer electronics hardware makers, predictably, began the connect-TV era by trying to do it themselves, standing up their own apps platforms and trying to add as much functionality as possible to their own devices. Just as predictably, the result was fragmentation, consumer confusion, and limited development. Most of all, it meant that while lots of connected TVs got sold, but not a lot of use was made of their capabilities.

At CES this week, CE companies seem to have reached the stage of accepting they have a problem and have begun to embrace third-party partnerships to add functionality to their devices.

Chinese set-makers TCL and Hisense are each introducing new lines of connected TVs co-branded with Roku.  The sets will have full access to the Roku Channel Store and will hit U.S. stores in the fall. For TV makers, the Roku “reference design and software stack,” as the company is describing its contribution, the partnership allows them to incorporate access to the full range of content available through a Roku device without having to persuade developers and content owners to create custom apps for their connected devices.

Also at CES, Dish Network is touting an embeddable software version of its DVR functionality called Virtual Joey. LG has signed up as the first TV maker to add the software stack to its connected sets. Sony will add Virtual Joey to the PlayStation 3 and 4 via firmware update.



LG has something in the cards

With Apple, Google and Microsoft all trying to turn the TV into an extension of their respective mobile ecosystems, LG is trying to turn its smart TVs into mobile-ized devices on its own terms.

Turning up the DIAL on OTT

The launch of DIAL could represent a major step toward turning second-screen mobile devices into a primary means of discovering and accessing content for the first screen. That has the potential to be far more disruptive to traditional linear TV platforms than are mere over-the-top channels because it promises to deliver a qualitatively different viewing experience in a user interface not modeled on or controlled by any of the traditional gatekeepers.

Showdown on the second screen

Viewers increasingly chat in real time about what they’re watching using second-screen devices and social-TV apps. So naturally those second screens are becoming contested ground as more marketers plant their flags.

Attention app developers: Take our survey!

Develop apps for smartphones, tablets or TVs? Take our survey: we’d like to hear more about what you’re working on, what screens and platforms you develop for, how you monetize your work, as well as what categories of apps.

Flingo raises $7m to make your TV smarter

Flingo has raised $7 million in a Series A funding round led by August Capital. The San Francisco-based startup, which integrates streaming video and interactive advertising into smart TVs, has also added two new board members: August Capital’s David Marquart and Howard Hartenbaum.

Cox is latest to bring live TV to the iPad

Cox Communications is making live TV available on the iPad, with the release of a new app that lets subscribers watch shows in their homes. The Cox TV Connect app makes it the latest pay TV operator to extend its service to new devices.