‘Discoverability’ and platform compatibility are among the other primary drivers of app development for the still fast-growing smart TV market.
The global smart TV market is already very substantial and is set to continue growing steadily for many years yet. That’s the opinion to be derived from recent reports by organisations such as Grand View Research, which reported sales of 268.9 million units in 2020 and predicted a compound annual growth rate of 20.8% from 2021 to 2028.
It’s only logical, therefore, that app development for smart TVs remains a highly dynamic sector. With customers tending to use more apps in a given time-period, and sometimes exhibiting reduced loyalty towards individual apps, there is undoubtedly a focus at present on discovery and the delivery of a seamless user experience. But beyond that primary emphasis, there are plentiful signs that app developers are continuing to identify new features and refinements to pique consumer interest.
Chris Bray, VP product at digital video specialists Zype, confirms: “Discoverability is still a moving target even on established platforms, and all platforms are adding features in this area. Providing easy-to-use solutions that go beyond the basic core parameters is an area where we believe that there is still a lot of room for new products, new features for existing products, and value-added services.”
‘An integrated experience’
There is a general consensus around the view expressed by Bray that the current trend in smart TVs for an increased focus on discovery places an onus on app developers to support “an integrated experience that blurs the boundaries between individual apps. This means implementing support for the content search and discovery features on every platform, and working with our customers to make sure that their content and apps are properly prepared to fully participate in this model.”
Bray draws a parallel with developments in the world of Free Ad Support Television (FAST), which has itself been the subject of a flurry of new channel and distribution announcements in recent months. “You can see the same kind of thinking driving FAST channels, which is another way of bringing content out of niche apps and moving it to a place where it is more discoverable to users,” he says. “In a way, the resurgence of ad-supported models like FAST is also an indirect way of improving discoverability, by removing the paywall barrier that stopped many users from ‘finding’ the content.”
With discoverability being a primary design driver, it’s not surprising to hear that personalisation is also having an increasing impact on app development. “Interfaces that are built around personalised content recommendations will continue to be a key area in 2022,” asserts Bray. “If any doubt remains that observing user consumption as a way to make smart recommendations is the best way to drive engagement, then the success of TikTok’s algorithms should fully answer that question. However, there is still a lot of work to be done in [terms of] exactly how those personalised recommendations are calculated. There are new AI-based models that can add a lot of interesting insight to that, and there is UI work to be done to make sure that those recommendations are presented to users in ways that makes engagement feel natural.”
Meanwhile, Zype continues to work on improving other core aspects of the user experience, including the provision of “more flexibility in how [customers] are laying out different app screens, providing ways to tailor specific portions of the UI to highlight or present keystone content in particularly appealing ways, and in general just trying to move the experience beyond what has been common for the past several years.”
‘Nothing is set in stone for long’
Alexey Zaberezhniy – video solution system analyst at Oxagile, custom software development company with decade-long expertise in smart TV app development - also depicts a sector where the pace of development is such that app providers can’t really “set anything in stone for a long time. […] Obviously there are certain industry standards. You can’t imagine a smart TV app today without an EPG or TV archive. HD or sometimes even UHD is a must-have; adaptive streaming is a prerequisite. However, we have a lot of room for further innovation.”
Zaberezhniy highlights smart TV apps’ “unique characteristic” of enabling direct interaction with viewers and the collection of their feedback as one specific target for attention. He also highlights an industry-wide awareness that “a major stumbling block for smart TVs is navigation. It’s difficult to design multi-level menus and provide complex navigation to allow for implementing some sophisticated functionality, which eventually feels native and is a breeze to use.”
Hence he thinks there will be ongoing efforts “to ‘extend’ UI from TV screens to other devices to make navigation and interactions simpler and friendlier.” As the convergence of platforms proceeds, smart TV developers “can take advantage of this multi-device use to improve experience. [For viewers] the ideal workflow would be when they can start an app and begin watching what they’ve come for in a few clicks. To implement this workflow, you’ll need to introduce smart content recommendations a carefully built hierarchy of screens.”
In terms of helping clients to deliver this capability in the context of increased convergence, Zaberezhniy points to a recent request “to optimise the development for smart TVs and other platforms. To help them deliver faster we’ve started working on a front-end framework that will eventually allow our client to use a low-code option when going live with new apps for multiple platforms. Our main task has been to find this convergence at the app functionality level, leaving platform-specific UI features to narrowly focused front-end teams. They keep an optimal balance of UI simplicity and native look and feel for each platform – and it looks like we are going in the right direction.”
As for the smart TV market as a whole, he indicates that the recent evolution of effective tools for ad selection and targeting should inspire more “personalised content recommendation initiatives”. The combination of granular analysis of user watching behaviour and an “interest-based matrix” for each viewer can yield the creation of personalised content offerings for each viewer. Beyond that, “the next step is to stream content to an individual user rather than to a cohort like kids, gardeners, football fans or other aggregated audiences. Such an approach looks like the most wanted by users and the most efficient for online video businesses. This is where data intelligence and machine learning skills take the centre stage and can help bring to life interesting and creative solutions to this challenge.”
‘A separate calculus that governs apps’
The convergence that is taking place within the smart TV sector inevitably raises the question about whether we might see a similar consolidation occur among technology providers, including those in the app segment. In the case of OTT content itself, suggests Bray, the current tendency of consumers to engage with four of the mainstream OTT brands at any one time is likely to continue.
“But,” he adds, “we also see a completely separate calculus that governs apps tailored at content that goes beyond purely mainstream offerings. Many of our customers provide content that you simply will not find in a mainstream app, and represent brands that are seen as being highly authentic in their space. Brands like Outside TV and AKC.TV are great examples. We therefore expect to see significant growth with these kinds of customers – not just at the SMB level but also at the enterprise level as these larger organisations begin leveraging next-generation toolsets (such as those that are in development at Zype) to stand up new apps quickly, and [thereby provide] content to a variety of customer segments with a wide range of diverse interests.”