Seattle’s pinch/zoom Designs BBC iPad Video App, Learns to Keep It Simple

7/29/11Follow @curtwoodward

Less is more. Obvious marketing messages fall flat. Users are more sophisticated than you think.

Those were some of the big lessons that Seattle mobile design shop pinch/zoom took away from its latest big project: designing the new iPad video player application for the BBC, the international TV powerhouse.

The new app, called iPlayer Global, is available for users in Western Europe—the U.S. will come later—but American users played a big part in pinch/zoom’s test phase as it was calibrating the product. And that testing delivered some interesting results that say a lot about how consumers are rapidly adapting to their new devices, says Brian Fling, pinch/zoom’s CEO

Here’s a run-through of four big things Fling says he took from the usability studies:

Keep It Simple
The design pros at pinch/zoom wanted to push the envelope with a marquee client like the BBC, and add as many bells and whistles as they could muster on the iPad screen. They promptly turned off the users in their study, sending the team back to a more streamlined design.

“We created some pretty crazy proof-of-concepts,” Fling says, with content zooming around in all kinds of directions. It was beautiful, but way too complicated. “Users always picked the simple version, which ended up being the final version.” Fling says that’s the major “Steve Jobs-ism” he gleaned from the project.

High Expectations
The “Apple aesthetic” is built in for users, even if they’re not what you would consider technically sophisticated. On the iPad, people want things to work simply, efficiently, and intuitively—and they’re hungry to experiment.

“We would put something in front of them and say ‘Don’t touch it, it’s just a picture.’ And 15 seconds later, they’re swiping it. You couldn’t have them not swipe it,” Fling says. That’s a big change in design studies. “On the Web, people deliberate and really consider the choices before they actually click on something. Whereas on an iPad, with Apple aesthetics, people will just touch things to see what happens. They’ll rotate the device to see if it moves.”

Swipe, Not Scroll
The device itself is still relatively new for the mainstream, but users—who ranged from longtime owners to iPad newbies—knew what to expect from a touchscreen, and didn’t want old-school Web-based controls getting in the way.

Testing their app design against video-on-demand leaders Netflix and Hulu showed that users found a Web-type of scrolling navigation to be cheap or low-quality, Fling says. “They wanted it to be different than the Web. That was really interesting to us. We didn’t think they cared.”

Keep It Real
Reaffirming some foundational mobile design guidelines, Fling says users were able to quickly sniff out obvious marketing messages in the content and quickly rejected them. Mobile devices are an intimate experience, and people just want things to work—not get served up with tons of advertising.

This isn’t the first big media name that pinch/zoom has worked with—the company also did mobile design for The New York Times. But the BBC actually has been the most open about allowing the agency to share the insights it garnered from the process, Fling says, which makes a difference because of the new things he felt the agency learned about tablet users.

“Even to a 10-year veteran of the space, there’s many times when I feel like it’s the first day of school,” Fling says.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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