UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 496 March 2, 2010

The UX Design Process for the Boxee Beta

More than a year ago I very proudly announced that Boxee, the much-loved social media center software company, had hired me as the user experience designer for their beta. In the five months that I worked with them, I conducted user interviews and usability testing to identify people's needs, behaviors and frustrations, and redesigned the app's navigation and key screens.

Earlier this month the Boxee beta was released, and the consensus so far is that the overall experience is a huge improvement over the alpha. While I have not been formally engaged with Boxee since May (such is the life of an independent consultant), I am incredibly pleased to see that many of my ideas were implemented and made all the better by Boxee's small but outstanding team of visual designers and developers.

The Process

I conducted interviews with six prospective users (people who at the time had never used Boxee) and five existing users. I also performed usability testing with five existing users (three on their laptop and two on their home TV).

For the user research, I asked a boatload of questions about people's media consumption habits and attitudes. Of the 11 people I interviewed, two people subscribed to basic cable without DVR, five people subscribed to digital cable with DVR, and four people did not subscribe to cable at all.

Everyone I interviewed watches TV and movies using their computers, at least in part; approximately half had substantial personally-stored media collections and almost all used streaming media online. All interviewees also consumed digital music and photographs to some degree.

These individuals all considered themselves tech savvy, but represented both ends of the spectrum: from tinkerers to zealots. While some were programmers, others worked in technology only tangentially as business analysts, writers, designers, and sales representatives. They also had varying use of social networking websites, Web applications, blogs, and other websites.

The questions I asked during my interviews are below.

User Interview Questions
  • Tell me a bit about yourself. Where do you live? Where are you from? What do you do?
  • What kind of computer do you have?
  • What kind of TV do you have? What stuff do you have hooked up to your TV?
  • Tell me about your TV watching habits. Cable? Satellite? How often? Where?
  • Who do you usually watch TV with? How do you decide what to watch?
  • What kinds of shows do you watch? Are there shows that you watch regularly? How do you remember to watch them?
  • What are your movie watching habits?
  • Do you watch movies on your computer? How? Where? When?
  • Do you watch videos, movies or TV shows online? How? How often? Where?
  • Do you subscribe to Netflix or similar? How do you use it?
  • Do you use Hulu, YouTube or other online video sites?
  • What is your personal movie collection like?
  • Are you using any media centers now? Which ones? Experience with them?
  • What is your personal music collection like?
  • What are your music listening habits? How and where do you listen?
  • Where do you find music?
  • Do you listen to music on the Internet? Where?
  • Have you ever played music at a party you were hosting? How? Where?
  • Have you ever played music through your TV? What do you use? How do you navigate? Keyboard/remote
  • What is your personal photo collection like?
  • Where are your photos stored?
  • What photo applications do you use?
  • What photo sites do you use?
  • Have you ever displayed your photos on your TV? How? What do you use? How do you navigate? Keyboard/remote
  • What websites or blogs do you frequent?
  • Do you comment on blogs? Review sites?
  • Do you use Facebook? How?
  • Other social networking sites? Twitter?
  • Other Web apps?
Usability Testing

Not only did we want to get to know prospective target users of the Boxee application, but it was also important that we receive input on how existing users are currently using the system. To measure the ease of use of several areas of the Boxee experience, I conducted usability tests with five existing users: three of whom most regularly use Boxee on their TVs, and two who primarily use Boxee on their laptops.

The usability tests started with each user simply walking me through their typical usage scenarios, from launching Boxee, to finding a movie or TV show to watch, to scanning through their music. Then after approximately 30 minutes of this natural navigation and discussion, I asked each participant to perform a series of tasks. This helped to identify breakdowns in user flow, usability flaws and bugs, or generally any problematic areas in the experience.

The tasks were as follows:

  1. Start watching one of your favorite TV shows.
  2. You just realized that you've already seen this episode. Switch to the next episode.
  3. You're done watching this show for now. Switch to another favorite TV show.
  4. Our friend is in an episode of Army Wives. Find it.
  5. Now you're in the mood for some music. Play one of your favorite songs.
  6. Check out the latest episode of This American Life on NPR.

These usability tests resulted in a wide array of findings, and several themes emerged across participants. I have collected the most pervasive and significant areas of difficulty and have provided my recommendations on how to resolve the problem. The issues are organized by content area.

Personas and Scenarios

To aid in the design and development of the beta, I developed three personas derived from insights I learned in my research to depict Boxee's target users; I called them a Practical Dad, a Techie Bachelor, and a Principled Fan. The personas do not reflect a single person, but rather are an amalgamation of various interviews. There is a lot of intellectual property captured in the personas so I will refrain from sharing them here.

I also developed a set of high-level scenarios to describe how each of the personas would interact with an ideal Boxee application. The scenarios helped us envision the right workflow, step-by-step, and allowed us to identify the key features necessary to meet users' needs. A selection of the scenarios we aimed to support are:

  • I want to see if a movie is available online
  • I want to subscribe to a current season of a TV show
  • I want to pick up where I left off in a movie or TV show
Features

From the scenarios I was able to draw out an extensive list of features across multiple areas of the app that would need to be implemented in order to meet our target users' needs. Overall, we wanted to provide users with greater ability to discover content across sources, easier ways to sort and filter lists, and quick access to their favorite programming.

It was a long, long list, and not everything that ideally belongs in the app was realistic for our release schedule so we were forced to triage. We started first by prioritizing scenarios, and then marked each feature as Must Have, Should Have, Nice to Have, and Won't Have. This helped focus the team on what we needed to tackle immediately.

Flows and Wireframes

Now with the full set of features we were intending to implement, I set out to weave them together in an easy to use way that would make for a pleasurable experience. I drew flow diagrams to indicate how a user would navigate from screen to screen, and then created a series of wireframes of the key screens to recommend layout, prominence of features and content, necessary functionality and data display.

The Outcome

Take a look at some of the key screens of the app below, and see how my wireframes laid the groundwork for the beta's redesign.

Home Screen

Home screen wireframe

 

Home screen final look

Navigation

Navigation wireframe

 

Navigation final look

TV Shows

TV shows wireframe

 

TV shows final look

In the Press

Ars Technica
1/13/2010
"The program's user interface has undergone a significant transformation that simplifies navigation and makes Internet content easier to access."

TechCrunch
1/07/2010
"The new version is really a complete overhaul of the app — it's received a new, sexier UI that makes it easier to browse through the service's content (and anything you might have saved locally too)."

Mashable
1/07/2010
"The UI overhaul is significantly better…"

Wired
12/31/2009
"Yes, there are many methods for putting web video on your TV, but Boxee is the most elegant solution I've seen. For the beta release, the whole user experience has undergone a slick redesign."

CNET News
12/09/2009
"…new beta has a completely redone interface that is far superior to the alpha's."

Lifehacker
12/07/2009
"From the outset, it looks a whole lot more pretty and user friendly."

Gizmodo
12/07/2009
"What looked impressive during the demo was how cleanly it aggregated both local and online sources of video content."

Engadget
12/07/2009
"We're particularly fond of the new global menu for quick shuffling through the menu and to shortcuts."

What Do You Think?

If you're a Boxee user, I would love to hear your thoughts on the beta. Praise, criticisms, and questions are all welcome.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Whitney Hess is an independent user experience design consultant based in New York City, a strategic partner with Happy Cog, and user experience consultant for Boxee, among other startups and major corporations. She helps make stuff easy and pleasurable to use. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and a Master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University. She writes about improving the human experience on her blog, Pleasure and Pain and can be reached via Twitter @whitneyhess.

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Comments

34
35

I really like the interface at this point. I've used the alpha quite a bit and the changes were dramatic. I was also able to learn the new interface very quickly. My one issue with Boxee is that even though it's in alpha, I still seem to find software bugs with it. I'm not an active participant in reporting this issues. I am however looking forward to the Boxee Box! Which I'm sure will be stable and quite a lot of fun! I hope they can get the price down under $200 USD.

Great job with the interface although I'm sure there's a lot more that can be done. Keep it up!

28
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Regarding David's comments on non-techy audiences: I understand your frustration, but that simply wasn't Boxee's target audience for the beta. Their set top box, coming out sometime this year, is the product that is meant for more mainstream audiences. Keep in mind that their desktop app is still only in beta and the whole team understands that it has a ways to go before it's a truly mainstream product.

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Its is a great reference for the rest of us moving into de the user experience arena. I believe it means so much for the community, I look at what you do and it is, for the lack of a better word, inspirational.

Thank you

Whitney

30
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Thank you for a look behind the scenes, and being so open with your process(something missing in the design community).

Great Job :)

Aaron I

34
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Excellent, thank you for sharing.

30
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@Kamran - If you have an iPhone, there's an app for that... (at least the remote part of your comment) :)

29
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I use the Boxee beta on my laptop connected to my HDTV (so, 1920x1080 resolution).

One thing that irritated me was lack of a better remote than the keyboard. You can use the mouse pretty well, but it would have been nice for the beta to support Xbox 360 remotes (since I was using my Xbox before). I was able to get it working in a limited fashion using Xpadder but it got complicated because Boxee uses different keys when navigating and when watching a video (making it not-so-easy to configure a controller). If it was built-in, it'd be a lot better.

I also noticed that Boxee crashes or just has a hard time doing anything in a limited internet situation. It won't close right away, it crashes, everything takes forever to load, etc. if the net is slow or being interrupted.

31
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Interesting article on how X designers actually work.. Insightful. I recommend the use of Justinmind Prototyper that allows to do all this in a single app (remote user tests, navigation flows & scenariios, specs docs, wireframes and prototyping) and without a single line of code!

33
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The overhaul is a significant improvement. The interface was always what kept me from using Boxee in Alpha. And this insight into the redesign is great to read.

But I still don't think the interface is nearly good enough. Here's why:

Practical Dad, Techie Bachelor, and Principled Fan. Those are great people to design for. But in my opinion, an important group was overlooked: the Non-techy family member or girlfriend who will also have to use it.

If I were still a bachelor, I would definitely cancel cable and go full-Boxee, even in Beta. I think it's good enough. If my wife were a savvy techy, we would both enjoy the benefits of Boxee. But I'm married to someone who's not a techy. This prevents me from making the leap. She wouldn't want to always ask me for help whenever she wants to watch a show. She knows how to use the DVR, or watch TV. If Boxee can be that simple, I'll consider switching.

Most of this is not Whitney's fault. It's just the weird way the app works: Some TV networks' content is found under Boxee Apps (CNN, BBC, etc). Others have shows listed in the TV section. If a person isn't used to the idea of a cable box that has apps, with all sorts of options all over the place, and different areas for different kinds of content, how are they supposed to find anything?

It's definitely much better than it used to be. But I think it still needs a lot of work. Boxee shouldn't ignore non-techy family members if they want wide adoption. Bachelors don't have to consider this, but people with families need lowest-common-denominator simplicity in design, with all the power still under the hood.

(I'm not a UX Designer. Just a consumer who wants to quit cable).

31
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Thanks for the valuable insights! I hope that the majority of redesign projects will follow this UX Design process soon in the future :-)

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I'm not an active user of Boxee but I do love the app and have used it from time to time since the alpha.

Mostly I would like to compliment you on an excellent article, I loved reading about your process and admire your frankness in revealing how you work. Great job!