Samsung Customer Experience Lab Team: Jonathan Gaiser, Mike Darnell and Richard Titus.

Samsung Electronics wants you to know that it’s hard at work figuring out what you are going to want to do with your TV and how you want to interact with it today and tomorrow.

The South Korean TV giant is busily monitoring trends and user behavior patterns to determine the best ways to deliver those experiences to your living room.

Samsung recently brought HD Guru and a group of product reviewers to its Mountain View, Calif. Samsung Customer Experience Lab where we got a first-hand look at the lengths to which Samsung will go to ensure your use of their televisions is as easy and enjoyable as possible.

Research conducted at the site using customer user groups, goes into fixing, refining and even developing products on the market, coming to market or under development for the future.

In fact, that research, which involves lengthy and detailed analysis of subjects from various user demographics and how they interact with Samsung equipment, was instrumental in bringing about the 2016 Samsung SUHD TV models on sale in stores right now.

Those TVs use Samsung’s Tizen operating system with newly refined and crafted user interface software that enables operating the TV and all of the connected source devices via one tiny hand-held remote. That device has just a few buttons to highlight and activate source devices and content apps, in a fashion that makes switching the picture from a Blu-ray Disc title to a baseball game on live TV as effortless and fast as changing channels.

On our trip we met with Richard Titus, Samsung Senior VP of Customer Experience, and his team including Mike Darnell, Samsung Research America principal user researcher and Jonathan Gaiser, Samsung Customer Experience Lab designer, to get a feel for what goes into making Samsung’s smart TVs smarter, so the user doesn’t have to think as much about what he wants to watch and how to get there.

Among one of the more outstanding features to come out of this year’s batch of Samsung Smart Hub TVs is the ability to instantly recognize and identify from on-screen tiles arranged in a pair of stacked, scrolling rows any source connected to one of the TV set’s HDMI inputs and be able to switch to it quickly.

Read more of our QA and session with Titus after the jump:

What sort of work goes on here at the Samsung Experiece Center?

Titus                                                  Samsung Senior VP Richard Titus

Richard Titus: We focus mostly on our display products, speakers and similar AV products and also our smart phones, refrigerators and some of our digital appliance partners. We are always thinking about the broader uses of our products here at Samsung.

A lot of what we do is considered design thinking. Design thinking is the ability to understand the users’ needs ahead of setting up a timeline of continuing products.

The idea of Samsung using design thinking is really a very 21st Century idea. I’ve concluded that it is the same sort of thing that industrialization for mechanization was for the 20th Century.

Customer experience, which is our evolution of design thinking, is about reminding every factor interaction from the first idea for a product to when you open the box. How is the manual going to work? When they open the box what is the first use going to be? What are the kinds of things they do when they open the box and turn the television on?

What goes into customer research?

Experincecenterobservation                                       Observation Room at the Samsung Usability Lab

Mike Darnell: We think about customer research broken into two main chunks. That’s all about finding out what people are actually doing out there. Then usability research is after we put out a prototype of a product we bring it into the lab and iterate on it. We put it in front of representative users doing representative tasks. As they use it, we find issues and problems and the designers are there watching to fix the problems that might come up.

Another thing we do early on in the process is we do in-home studies. So what we do, for example, is install relay equipment in [willing] people’s homes, recording them watching TV over a period of time and then we interview them and talk about what they are doing, so when we bring people into our usability labs we know what we have to do to make our research more relevant.

Again, it’s not just about how products work after we’ve built them. It’s about understanding viewers’ intentions before we even conceive of them.

Titus: So when you think about the customer experience, and you have all read in the past few months about the rise of artificial intelligence, what all that really is about is the rise of customer experience as being the primary value-com for the next century or the next revolution.

Samsung is really at the forefront of thinking about this customer experience. And being a key differentiator, or frankly the key buy driver for all of our products and services. So I’m really excited about having such a wide array of products and services.

How did this go into the 2016 TV Line?

Titus: The first driver in today’s TV interaction is the rise of streaming titles on the TV itself, with the key players being Netflix, Hulu et al.

The first thing we did was move access to all of the things you need the most into one place where you can access, consume and discover all of this content. So we made a very content-centric user interface. This is really the first time that we’ve taken this users-only content and put it up front and center on the home screen. With a simple click of the home button, there are all the providers front and center on the screen.

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The second thing we did was turn the home into a gateway. So before we had different ways to access different home-use accounts: a menu button on the remote, a home button on the remote, an inputs button, etc. After our extensive testing we decided to consolidate all of those into one simple teaser menu.

This is really revolutionary because in TVs before now – live television was at the center of the experience. So in this TV there are many experiences centered around you the user.

Jonathan Gaiser:  What is unique is that you have one simple home button.

And then the third thing that we’ve got, one simple remote to control the living room. And there are two main ways, the first is an auto-detect function. Anything you plug into an HDMI port – whether it is a Roku or Xbox or whatever, the TV automatically detects that and shows the brand or logo next to the input number on the screen. The second thing is that once that device is identified our remote is automatically programmed to be a universal remote. So there is zero setup effort, and the user is getting a branded concept tile and they are able to control that device with the TV’s remote.

On the screen these all look like applications, but some of these things can be inputs, so now it is just as easy to switch between live TV and an OTT app, or a Blu-ray player, as it used to be to change channels. So if I browse out over to Amazon we find they are publishing out or recommending out certain content to users. Similarly, if we go over to HBO it had an opportunity to show My Favorite content or content that users are watching frequently.

Darnell: What we found with some of our in-home studies is that when people choose a TV program to watch, around 66 percent of the time, it’s a show that they’ve already been watching. So in actuality when people watch TV they are actually watching a very small number of different programs. A lot of them fit right on the tile out front so the user doesn’t have to click into the app to get to the program.

Gaiser: So what’s so great about making a content-centric device is that if I’m in the middle of watching Mozart In The Jungle, I just hit home and it’s right there.

The success of this system, even in the early stages, has been phenomenal. Some of our partners do a lot more personal-based Internet content.

What demographic groups and viewer patterns did you use in developing the remote and user interface layout?

Titus: The way we watch television is changing all the time. My daughter didn’t realize that the number keys on a remote were actually there as an alternative way to change channels on live television, because she had never watched television that way. But for people who used are watching a lot of TV over the air or via a set-top-box, still rely on some of these things. Fortunately, all of those set-top-boxes come with their own remotes.

Darnell: When Samsung develops a SKU it’s for the whole world, so what we put into it becomes a balancing act. It may not be perfect from one extreme to the other, but it’s a good compromise. If we see that in our lineup, I could theoretically show you from last year that there’s been a net improvement in user experience in overall TV watching.

Titus: The big moment when people buy their first big TV is typically in their mid 20s. The thing about Millennials is that we love having a TV that they love and we also like to have a great picture and all the other attributes. We are constantly adapting our products and thinking about how do we make them broad and simple to use for the end user.

Darnell: In the usability lab we test TV products and the other products that we work on. We generally use about 8 to 10 different people for a usability study. They’ll come in individually, sit on the sofa, and we’ll give them an over view, and tell them if they have any problems it’s not their fault, it’s our fault. We never stop learning how to try and improve the user experience.

We have various camera angles and with remote control we can change those camera angles. We have an intercom that we use to give the participant guidance in what to do but not how to do it. So we might ask, find something to watch on TV and then follow them on what buttons people are press and so forth.

This is the observation room, so generally the designers and other interested parties will come in here and sit and watch our subject studies.

We use a couple of different recruiting companies who find us people and send them over here. The subjects are paid for participating. There is one that has to do with the empty nesters and what solutions they are buying; there is another study that has to do with DVR fanatics who record everything that they watch; there is one that uses people who are more premium TV oriented who watch a lot of HBO for example and premium sports; and we have a persona that fits the cord-cutter pattern and they use an antenna as their only live TV, or Sling TV, and then use streaming for all of their other content.

Frequently, each group has their own different problems, but overall, if something is not designed properly everyone will have issues with it.

The way people use and watch TV is changing, but it’s not like the old ways no longer exist?  When my daughter didn’t know what the number keys were on a remote control that shocked me. It was a huge insight. How could she not know that? But after I thought about, she never had to watch TV that way. You and I spent hours and hours when cable arrived flipping up and down. CNN was 200 and HBO was 500. She never had that. That’s not part of her mental experience that she would ever have as part of her TV consumption. The flip side is for me a very awkward way of interacting with electronics because there is no trust in there. So when Mac arrived, I didn’t really trust it because I didn’t really trust what I couldn’t see was happening. But for my daughters, this is their way of controlling all of their electronics from their phones, devices, etc. So we as designers need to be thinking about these things and be ready, but also help our users on the journey so that we aren’t going too far ahead of them.

Gaiser: So, I can add to that. I know from research that almost 80+ percent of households still have live TV. That’s still a lot of households. Even though we are keeping our eye on this shift, live TV is still predominant. That’s the key. So there are some really cool design things that we’ve done as part of the Smart Hub that sort of support some of these live TV main things that we are working on.

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Titus: We just simply shifted the center of the universe a couple of degrees from live TV, because we found that assumption was no longer correct.

Are you also looking at developing alternative revenue streams through the user interface and do you use data mining to generate any of that?

Yes, we do look at different ways that we can generate revenue through the user interface but I think that we add value by developing the user experience higher than any other metric.

Does this department do anything to teach the installers who set these TVs up in customers’ homes to find out from the customer how they like to watch their televisions so they can be programmed properly?

Titus: Our focus is on the end user, and my goal is to make our TVs so easy to use that everybody’s cable in the house can plug in and boom, it’s all set. But it’s a goal that you never have to ask for help on Google or on the journey.

Every content player has the same goal and that is to make things as easy as possible for the user. When it comes to bundling everyone is trying to figure out, Where should I be? How should I prioritize? Frankly, the TV is kind of a no brainer. You’ve got to be there. You really do have to balance the needs of the content partners and what they want and what the users want , which is something simple, consistent and effective. So that’s what we do within the customer experience is make sure that we balance those two things.

Are the 2016 TVs now up to date with the set-top boxes for DirecTV?

Titus: America has to be the most impressive TV marketplace anywhere. We have what? Five cable companies, three satellite companies, a couple of [telco TV] providers plus more OTT providers than anywhere else in the world. I think we did pretty well in 2016 making that experience. Obviously, one of the things you have to do is constantly evolve and update.

How do the 2016 Samsung models improve upon previous years?

Gaiserlab                Jonathan Gaiser shows off the 2016 home screen.

Gaiser: We wanted to make it easy for our users to access and discover all of their content in one simple experience. So, we consolidated everything into the home button. It’s a really great and easy experience, because it basically makes it impossible for them to make a mistake. Before, we used to have an inputs button that took you to all of the inputs, a menu button to take you to settings. But now we’ve consolidated them down to this one interface where we have all of the sources right here, all of my most frequently used settings. As I browse, these are the accelerator and launcher tiles. So if I were to click on one of these launcher tiles we would be launching that application.

As I browse these launcher tiles, the upper area we call the accelerator, that’s giving you a list of content previews. If you look at our DirecTV box, DirecTV is actually a source that’s been saved and set up on the launcher row. So if I can select DirecTV I can just slide directly into wide TV. So now you can see that by switching to home menu it is just as easy to switch between live TV and Internet streaming.

What happens when you switch the input to live TV on the remote is that the buttons are being remapped to control the DirecTV box. Earlier we were talking about, how do I support this huge percentage of households that still watch live TV? We know from testing research that it is all about tons of people going to the guide. So one of the things that we’ve done is provide quick access so that I can jump straight into the program guide and then without having to change remotes or switch around, now I’m controlling the guide with this one remote.

Our tests showed that where there are a lot of buttons on a remote there are a large number of them that people never press. And because there is a limited number of buttons on our remote we feel that the discoverability is actually quite high.

By Greg Tarr


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