The process of finding what you want to watch on TV continues to be cumbersome.

Ever use Apple Maps? Apple Maps actually functions just fine. Given the millions of places Apple Maps could fail, it fails a very, very small percentage of the time. But that’s the thing with navigation aids: No matter how sophisticated they are, if they can’t get you literally everywhere you might want to go, they’re a disaster.

TV’s user interface (UI) – combining navigation, search, discovery and more – is as sophisticated a product as the TV industry has. But it doesn’t by a long shot get viewers literally everywhere they might want to go. “Disaster” might be too strong a word for TV’s UI, but whatever the appropriate description is, the difference is a matter only of degree.

For viewers, trying to find what they want to watch is one of the frustrating experiences of modern life. The technology is just not keeping up with the always-increasing deluge of content, a flood compounded by the proliferation of content sources.

Looking for a half-hour sitcom using the grid, you could easily miss half an episode in the time it takes to scroll through the list. And there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done to improve the grid.

But you can always search for what you want, right?

Unfortunately, search is still a profoundly awkward process, especially with a remote control. It’s getting better, perhaps, with input on second screen devices (and remote controls that are second screen devices).

Even so, the search facility itself needs improvement. Rovi recently released an astounding statistic: 70 percent of VOD viewers have given up a search after failing to find what they want to watch. More aggravating still, for a little over a quarter of those people (27 percent), the title they were looking for was in fact in the VOD libraries they were sifting through.

AT&T's U-verse Easy Remote appOne method designed to improve search and discovery is the use of recommendation engines. Recommendation engines sound great, but it turns out that their success is inconsistent under different circumstances. Further work here is necessary.

The thing is, the user interface has to do some incredibly heavy lifting. It’s not just the guide; it is the manifestation of each service provider’s brand, and it is the main vehicle of interactivity, which many TV people think is becoming a critical element of the TV experience.

“We know the user interface is extremely important,” said Maria Dillard, vice president of U-verse and video products at AT&T. “Navigating is extremely important. We have to enhance the guide, we have to get customers to interact and we have to keep it fresh.”

Robert MudgeRobert Mudge, president of Verizon’s consumer and mass business markets, told the audience at his keynote at TelcoTV in October: “I grew up in the traditional wireline business. In the world of content, discovery is far more essential than we ever thought of. I do believe our steepest learning curve has been that the discovery of content and the ease of discovery is paramount.”

Comcast Ventures just participated in the latest funding round that netted $15 million for Ramp, a start-up that provides a system that generates and manages metadata, used for enhanced video search, content management, indexing and publishing. Ramp’s MediaCloud platform is in use by Comcast, Fox, ABC, Meredith, Hearst, NBC and the NFL, among others.

One of the problems with improving the guide is the same problem the TV industry has with almost every other technological issue: There are multiple ways to solve the problem. You could solve it in the home, with more horsepower in customer premises equipment, or you could solve it by doing all of the heavy lifting in the cloud. Worse yet, for some, it might make sense to implement both options in a transition from one approach to the other.

Bob Shallow, senior vice president of service provider sales at Rovi, said one of the big challenges is the platform the guide was built on.

“There’s only so much you can do with the processing power in the set-top box,” he said. “It’s an inherent limitation – not an excuse, but a limitation.” When you bring in boxes with more memory and better graphics processing, you get over that limitation.

On the other hand, if you do all of the heavy lifting in the cloud, basing everything on a standard such as HTML5, that makes it easier to provide the same user interface and user experience on any device, no matter how little processing power it might have.

It all starts with the grid. Like that languishing serf in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the grid isn’t dead yet, though there are people around who’d kill it if everyone else would just look away for a moment.

Steven DaviShallow disparaged it as “the ol’ Excel spreadsheet,” and Steven Davi, CTO at SeaChange International, grumped, “We’ve been using the same crappy technology from 50 years ago, when we had only a few channels.” Peter Docherty, founder and CTO of ThinkAnalytics, agreed with the wording of the question put to him: “Yes, the UI sucks.”

The title of a recent report by Research and Markets about how tablets and over-the-top video are changing viewing habits is provocatively subtitled “The coming demise of the EPG and the remote.”

“It’s funny. Everyone says we have to get rid of it,” Shallow said, “but people like it. They’re used to it; they depend on it. Cox introduced a new guide a couple years ago that made minimal use of the grid. In fact, they made it hard to find. But based on the feedback they were getting, they had to make it easier to find again.”

Tarun Kripalani, senior director of platform product management at ActiveVideo, explained that there is a way to improve the grid that has yet to be fully exploited: letting viewers customize their own grids.

“You could easily build a Web app that lets you build your own lineup,” Kripalani said. “You could build a mosaic of your favorite channels.” Each person in the household could build their own mosaic, as well.

One thing that might help viewers is a grid that combines everything that’s available across all of the sources any particular viewer subscribes to, including linear, VOD and over-the-top (OTT) content. Creating a unified interface of that sort is, by all accounts, a straightforward thing to do.

Roku, for instance, has just launched a universal search feature, which will help viewers discover content across several OTT services available on its set-tops, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Vudu and HBO Go. TV Guide has an app that does something similar.

It’s just that some service providers would prefer not to encourage OTT viewership, and some of those who want to integrate it all find it difficult to negotiate the rights to do so.

The evidence collected so far indicates that viewer habits associated with how they find content to watch have yet to change all that much, so for the near term, the grid stays. But no one doubts that viewer habits will eventually change. Evidence shows that the use of search engines has plateaued, but everyone believes that as the technology evolves, more people will shift to using it.

Viewers have already become accustomed to having the ability to search, even if developing easier input methods remains a work in progress. A lot of work is being invested in improving the effectiveness of search algorithms.

“Even the best algorithm in the world will still miss stuff,” Shallow noted.

Voice input is something that many find intriguing as a potential input method, but anyone who has used Apple’s Siri or Google’s voice input knows that results can be flaky.

Voice input, Shallow said, “is something we’ve been testing. It’s not something with a lot of demand, and although we’re talking mostly to service providers, if they ask for something, it’s because they’re operating on behalf of their customers, and they’re not asking us. There are still concerns that voice recognition won’t recognize the viewer’s voice, or it might get confused. You don’t want to render wrong results.

“So that’s still a little ways away,” Shallow continued. “As it evolves on iPhones and gets hardened, you’ll see it getting used elsewhere more and more.”

“We’ve been doing experiments with gesture and voice,” Davi said, “and we’ve found gesture just will not work, especially with multiple people in the room. Voice can be good, though. Who wants to type in ‘find me a movie in World War II set in New York that has romance in it’? Eventually, we might be able to integrate with Siri and similar technologies.”

Another possibility would be to integrate not only the content from different sources into a single grid, but to integrate search results across those multiple sources.

Kripalani said, “A service provider could list their results first, and then list the others. That would depend on relationships, but it’s fairly straightforward and easy enough to do that.”

Docherty said it’s possible to leverage the grid to create recommendations for linear TV.

“Without forcing you to do 23 zaps to dig down into the grid, we can help you find things that are on now. You can give viewers a list of ‘just started’ or ‘will start in five minutes’ or ‘will start in 30 minutes,’” Docherty said.

Another aspect to recommendations that still requires work to achieve is figuring out who in a household is watching and then making appropriate recommendations, Shallow explained. The recommendations appropriate for a family all watching the TV in the living room in most cases will be different from the recommendations for adults in their bedrooms and kids in theirs.

“Then location and setting have a pretty broad effect,” Shallow said. “Even if you built a file for just one individual, you have to make adjustments. You might find that individual likes action movies. But if that person turns on the TV at 8 a.m., is that what they’re likely to be looking for?” Probably not.

ThinkAnalytics' Real-Time Intelligent NavigationDocherty agreed and noted that viewing device still makes a difference, too. A viewer might have a subscription to particular content but might not have permission to view that content on all devices or in all locations.

“A good recommendation engine has to take in platform availability,” he said. “You don’t want to recommend content for an Android device that’s only available on iOS.”

Docherty said it’s also important to have a recommendation engine that doesn’t overreact. A viewer might watch something he or she might never intend to watch again. If the recommendation engine seizes on that one instance, it could end up serving up recommendations that are not only not of interest, but which can potentially annoy the viewer. A good recommendation should evaluate what each individual watches over time.

ThinkAnalytics advises its clients to align its recommendation results with its business objectives. Netflix, which has lost access to much of the newest content it once had access to, has refined its recommendations to drive its subscribers deeper into its library.

Similarly, “MSOs need to encourage subscribers into specific behaviors,” Docherty said. For example, if an MSO wants to improve loyalty and reduce churn, encouraging VOD usage has been demonstrated to be an effective strategy, he explained.

Second screens
“No one is going to search on a TV unless it’s a Smart TV,” Davi said. “You’re going to search on a handheld and watch it on the TV.”

Different guides from different service providers are developing at different rates, Shallow said, “but one thing you’re seeing, with the introduction of iPods and iPads, is service providers experimenting with moving the guides to those devices.”

Davi agreed, though he sees evidence that while some operators will move to the second screen for navigation, some will stick with the onscreen guide.

Examples of companies that are moving toward the use of the second screen include Comcast’s Xfinity, Verizon’s FiOS, and recently AT&T’s U-verse.

Dillard said AT&T research shows that consumers are still using the guide, and still using search, and of course some are still going straight to the channels that they want to watch, in proportions that are still holding fairly steady. But it’s clear that a change is going to come, and that’s why the guide for U-verse is moving to the second screen.

“We’re extending it to personal devices,” Dillard said. “Personalization is what we want to use to keep viewers engaged.”

The company recently created a guide that viewers can customize. Intended for hearing- and vision-impaired customers, buttons can be moved and made larger. The company is also working on speech recognition.

And, of course, the company is looking to improve engagement with the TV by introducing more TV-related applications.

“We’re looking for apps that are U-verse-enabled. If I can use this device,” she said, brandishing her smartphone, “to engage further, that’s great.”

Once viewers are consistently using the second screen as an adjunct to their TV viewing, that opens up all sorts of possibilities for offering interactive applications and new opportunities for advertising.

Mudge told the TelcoTV audience: “We know engagement is a key driver to customer satisfaction and loyalty. It fuels customer retention and also leads to upsale of premiums.”

Davi said: “You used to be able to do pre-, mid- and post-rolls, but now you can do banners, click-throughs, bugs – and you can measure engagement. If you see something in an ad, you can store it or engage with it right then and there.”

On the way
SeaChange's Nitro UIOne of the things SeaChange is working on integrating with its Nitro navigation platform is social networking with recommendations, in a way that goes way beyond giving you the option to ask your Facebook friends what they’re watching – because that just doesn’t work.

“If I have a hundred friends on Facebook, maybe only five of them have the same taste in video that I do, so there’s no point in posting ‘What should I watch?’ because I’ll get 95 recommendations that I hate,” Davi observed. “So we’ve got to find a way to let users create social circles of people with like tastes.

“We need to develop the ability to look at everything people are posting on Facebook and Google Plus and take all that unstructured data and put it together so that it makes sense,” he continued. He said SeaChange is working with universities and research groups, and eventually it wants to go to social networking companies to accomplish that vision.

“Personalization is going to be big,” Kripalani said. The next generation of user interfaces is going to let viewers set preferences, just as they do on their smartphones. “It’s a direction people are moving toward.”

“Looking ahead, with the networks that many service providers are putting into place, they can move a lot of the data in the headend,” Shallow said, explaining that can include not only the guide data, but also data on consumer behavior that can be used to make more accurate recommendations.

“We also expect to see application logic moving into the cloud. There’ll be thin clients on devices, with much of the support for services moving into the cloud,” Shallow continued. “Then it’s an issue of how to deliver the video. In the home set-top box environment, it’s QAM. In the TV Everywhere environment, it will be IP.”