UI Lessons from a Terrible Interface

Or, 40 reasons why DirectTV sucks.

Let me preface this by pointing out that I have many, many years of experience with DVR recordings, originally (and still) using various TiVo boxes with Comcast/Xfinity cable, and more recently, almost three years with DirecTV (AT&T) and their Genie DVR.

Despite the claims in their commercials, DirecTV is objectively worse than cable television with a TiVo box.  The quality of recordings is noticeably lower in any viewing circumstance, and where there is motion involved, DirectTV just falls over.  Anybody who thinks otherwise must either not be discerning, have poor eyesight, or have never seen decent cable.

A few years back, TiVo redesigned its user interface to focus more directly on providing an interface for both cable recording and streaming services; I was not thrilled because it added some complication for me, who (at the time) did not use any streaming services.  However, the interface had a clear goal and it achieved that goal with few major glitches.

Earlier this year, DirecTV, presumably as an initiative of AT&T which acquired them just before we signed up (coincidentally), launched a massive interface redesign that completely changed the way customers used the DVR, and not for the better.  Unlike the TiVo redesign, this one was very poorly designed, and also poorly executed, resulting in the worst user interface in recent memory.

In this article, I critique many of the failures, large and small, with commentary about the UI principles violated and how we, as developers, can avoid making the same mistakes.

Quality Issues

The fundamental concern about any software is that it performs its function correctly and consistently.  It should be properly tested and prove robust before being presented to (or inflicted upon) the general public.  Generally, all issues are issues with quality, but there are some that are specific problems with quality assurance:

  1. The new interface was rolled out to customers before proper testing had been completed.  The sheer number of issues listed here is evidence of a massive failure of quality assurance.  Lesson: Always test your software completely before release.
  2. The interface locks up regularly, simply failing to respond in any way, requiring one to turn the DVR off and back to regain control.  This is what is known as a “showstopper” bug, one where a user cannot continue.  Lesson: Never, ever, ship a piece of software with a known showstopper.

Functionality Issues

The whole purpose of any software is to perform a function.  If software fails to perform that function correctly or completely (or at all), then the design and user experience are irrelevant.  Here are some of the issues with the DVR simply doing its basic job:

  1. Recordings arbitrarily start late or stop early.  The most fundamental purpose of a DVR is to record a program as requested, not only a portion thereof.  This happened with recordings both done in my absence and with live recordings I was actively watching (terminating the recording after only a minute or two).  Lesson: Be certain that your software actually performs its basic function before anything else.
  2. The DVR would get confused and schedule (and perform) simultaneous recordings of the same show, on the same channel, at exactly the same time.  Lesson: Do not release software that behaves illogically; it will annoy and confuse customers.
  3. Before the redesign, one could either record a series on any channel, or on a specific channel; this important functionality was removed, even though the interface still assumes that this is possible.  Now, every new series is scheduled for ‘All Channels’, which is especially problematic for heavily repeated or syndicated shows.  Lesson: Do not remove useful functionality in software upgrades.
  4. Arranging a list into priority order is just completely broken.  Changing the order of scheduled series causes the addition of duplicate entries into the list.  This is fundamentally terrible programming, the inability to handle a list properly.  Lesson: Do not hire programmers who cannot sort a list without making it grow.
  5. Using the back button to return to a previous page does not always work; instead, it often gets “stuck”, but one can do something like opening the list view, then go back multiple times to go back even further.  The full undo stack is there, just not working correctly and ending prematurely.  Lesson: Be sure to completely test new features.
  6. The ‘on demand’ functionality provides different (lesser) access on the DVR than from the mobile app.  The DVR will report that a show is not available, but then it can be immediately watched on an iPad without difficulty.  Lesson: Be consistent with content on multiple platforms; secondary platforms should not have better access.
  7. The “upgrade” did not fix the playback and compression issues; the recordings still get very blocky and almost unwatchable when there is motion on screen.  Lesson: Fix major problems with software before adding new features or other changes.
  8. The “upgrade” also did not fix the myriad audio issues, where sometimes a recording will start playing without any audio, or live recordings have an audio stutter, or a paused recording will make random pops and clicks.  Lesson: Test all aspects of a software interface, not only visuals.
  9. Now, however, the video also blanks out entirely for a second or two when playback speed is changed (for example, fast forward is started).  Lesson: Design a test plan that incorporates current and past bugs to prevent regressions and buggy releases.

Design Issues

Good software begins with good design, which is responsible for the entire user experience.  The user experience (UX) incorporates the aesthetics, flow, and interface, and generally works towards making the software easy to understand and use.  These are some design issues where the expressed intent works against the user:

  1. First and foremost, a design should be purposeful, providing a benefit to the end user.  This design change adds no value, yet makes the user learn a new way of doing things (at least, the things that can still be done).  Lesson: Never change a software interface just for the sake of being different; change must have a purpose.
  2. In 2018, the DVR still does not have any way to recover accidentally deleted recordings; if you accidentally delete a recording, it is gone forever.  (TiVo has had this functionality for more than a decade; Apple has used the concept for 35 years!)  Lesson: Always incorporate expected features first.
  3. In the play list, when multiple recordings of a program are put into a folder, the description chosen is that of the latest recording, which description is most likely to contain spoilers.  If one is getting ready to binge a season, the last thing one wants to see is something like, “In the aftermath of the death of <major character>…”  Lesson: Consider how the user is going to actually use your software in practice.
  4. Recordings of marked episodes show the latest (highest episode number) on top, but unmarked episodes (say, with only an episode name) are sorted to show the earliest recording on top, essentially the reverse order.  Lesson: Be consistent in presentation, even where the data may not be complete or consistent in format.
  5. Entries in the ‘to do’ list no longer show the number of upcoming recordings, so to get this useful information that used to be available at a glance, the user now needs to enter (then exit) the information screen for every entry.  Lesson: Provide important information immediately (at a glance) rather than requiring additional actions.
  6. Changing priorities in the ‘Series Manager’ now no longer has a move (drag) selector where the up or down arrows move the entry up or down in the list.  There are now separate up and down buttons which need to be pressed with the ‘select’ button.  This requires more effort and is far less intuitive.  Lesson: Never change an intuitive interface to require extra actions to perform identical functions.
  7. Because of the change in the move interface, one can no longer move an entry up or down by a page using the ‘page up’ and ‘page down’ buttons.  If you add a 100th entry, and you want the priority to be near the middle, you could have to press the select button 50 or more times to get it where you want it to be.  Lesson: Always test with a large data set simulating the real world, especially on interfaces that must scale.  Bonus lesson: Always eat your own dog food.
  8. The ‘manage’ option is no longer on the menu anymore; now it appears in the sidebar of the play list.  This is an illogical arrangement.  Every other selection on the sidebar has a (usually filtered) play list, so ‘manage’ does not belong.  Lesson: Be consistent when providing functionality at the same level (e.g., menu).
  9. The ‘to do’ list (and ‘series manager’) is buried under ‘manage’, rather than somewhere easier to access.  It is at the same level as ‘recording history’ and ‘purchases’, which are so rarely used as to border on pointless.  Lesson: Frequently accessed features should be more easily accessed than rarely used features.
  10. The DVR has a completely different behavior than the mobile app, which functions much better.  The platform dictates some differences between DVR and mobile app, but there is no design consistency between the two.  Lesson: All supported platforms for a software product should have consistent design and functionality.
  11. If a recording of a show appears directly in the play list, not in a folder, the episode name and number are not shown.  This is annoying for a scripted program with a description, but ridiculous when the episode name is the only relevant information.  Lesson: Provide the most important information, that which a user will most want to see, at a glance, and only require additional actions to access less important data.
  12. The ‘to do’ list, likewise, does not show the name or episode number for a scheduled recording, so you have to go to the information page just to see whether this is the desired episode.  Lesson: Consider the purpose for which a customer would be using a particular view to determine which information is important in that context.

Usability Issues

Even with a good user interface design, there can be implementation issues that adversely impact the usability of the software and ruin the user experience.  Here are some issues where the implementation detracts from the impression of the product:

  1. The interface has poor performance in general, always feeling sluggish and slow.  Lesson: The first rule of user experience is to make the software responsive.
  2. There is a delay when playing a recording before switching to display the video full screen, so if a program begins immediately, one needs to back it up.  Lesson: Where performance is poor or a wait is required, handle it gracefully; either indicate or mask or the situation with animation, sound, and/or other feedback.
  3. The selected recording on a play list shows an oversized listing (which looks like an ad banner) but removes the normal listing.  Lesson: Do not remove the fundamental item view when expanding to provide additional details.
  4. Pressing the ‘select’ button performs different functions depending on which list the user is viewing at the time, or which level of that list.  Lesson: Be consistent with the functionality of a button; do not use it for different purposes depending on context.
  5. The ‘play’ button on the remote does not play the selected recording at all levels.  Lesson: Do not disable logical (consistent) functionality on certain views.
  6. The ‘record’ button has different behaviors on different lists and different levels.  Lesson: Provide consistent behaviors for global buttons, regardless of view.
  7. Pressing the ‘record’ button in the information view for a recording in the ‘to do’ list removes the entire series, rather than only the episode.  Lesson 1: Do not have a button do more than the logical intent.  Lesson 2: Never allow a destructive behavior to be performed, without confirmation, on the press of a single button.
  8. Selecting the ‘move to top’ function in the series manager causes the selected program to move to the top of the list, but the selection then changes to the next item in the list.  Lesson: Do not change focus from a selected item unless necessary (i.e., the item was deleted); users expect the same item to remain highlighted.
  9. When duplicates exist in the series manager (a bug unto itself), moving a program up causes the selection to change.  Lesson: Again, do not change the item focus.
  10. The play list undo stack is not balanced; a user must press the ‘back’ (or left arrow) button twice after pressing the ‘list’ button to return to the original view.  Lesson: One action (forward) should require only one ‘back’ press to reverse.
  11. Pressing ‘back’ to return to a view where a (now) deleted recording was highlighted causes a completely incorrect recording to be highlighted, often within a folder (i.e., one level down), which is very confusing for the user.  Lesson: When a highlighted item is no longer available on reversing, select a logical default (e.g., first item).
  12. The current viewing position of a recording is lost, seemingly randomly.  Lesson: Do not lose, misplace, or corrupt user information; it frustrates customers.
  13. The choice of font size is too small for some users (as reported frequently online).  Lesson: Test font readability extensively and provide options for users with impaired eyesight, including colorblind users, if necessary.

Support Issues

Any significant software product is likely to have some bugs or usability issues.  Some issues are problems with the customer support provided by the company, such as these:

  1. This major “upgrade” was rolled out to the entire customer base very quickly.  Lesson: When making major user interface changes to a product, test properly with a smaller subset of users to avoid providing a substandard product to everybody.
  2. The many issues with the new version of the software were seemingly ignored.  Lesson: Always listen to customers and address issues as soon as possible.
  3. There is no way to refuse the upgrade, nor to revert to the older software.  Lesson: For a substantial product change, allow users control over when to upgrade and provide a method of reverting (as a failsafe).
  4. The customer support area is loaded with hundreds, probably thousands, of complaints about many of the above issues, but DirecTV/AT&T rarely ever address any of them, and never with anything positive, personalized, nor useful.  Lesson: Always, always, let your customers know that you have heard their complaints, that you appreciate their feedback, and how the issue can or will be addressed.

Conclusion

Frankly, we only signed up with DirecTV because it was the only choice at our location in Los Angeles, and after our experiences, we intend to never use them again.  (We have now cancelled the service, with some difficulty and annoyance.)

My message for AT&T is: If you want to actually improve your service, stop spending so much money on advertisements lying about DirecTV being better than cable and spend some on actually making it competitive.  Fire the DVR team and use your mobile app team instead.  Quit trying to make people bundle your mobile service with your television service, and give them a reasonable monthly price, like the one you offered us only after I was leaving the service.  (Offering a 50% discount to stay just pissed me off a lot more.)

And for the sake of everyone, dump that crappy contractor, Consolidated Smart Systems, who is making your company look even worse.  They do not have a one star rating on Google, Yelp, and with the Better Business Bureau for nothing. 🙁

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