Striking a balance: How YouTube reinvented its TV app

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

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Source : Striking a balance: How YouTube reinvented its TV app, Janko Roettgers ( )


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