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Interview with Margret Schmidt

Margret Schmidt is among our speakers at MX 2009, taking place 2-3 March in San Francisco. Her extensive experience heading up design at TiVo has given her a deep understanding of what it takes to deliver a great experience in a high technology product. A few years ago, she answered detailed questions about the TiVo UI for Matt Haughey's PVR Blog, and I don't plan on covering the same territory here.

Peter Merholz: I’m grateful that you’re participating in our upcoming MX 2009 event. For 10 years, TiVo has been a leading light in delivering great user experiences, and combining that with advanced technology. All too often, consumer electronics companies deliver unsatisfactory experiences. The most common problem being overwhelming interfaces offering too many features, a symptom of an organization where departments don’t work together, and throw in a lot of functionality simply because they can. Also, if you look at other DVR systems, they’re pretty bland, as if the company is afraid of appearing distinct. How has TiVo maintained not just a highly usable interface (even with increased functionality), but an interface with personality?

Margret Schmidt: Thank you for the invitation Peter. I look forward to the event. At TiVo, we were fortunate that the team that designed the very first TiVo DVR realized they were making something revolutionary, and they wanted the interface to reflect that. Back in 1998 they created a list of mantras that they kept in mind during design. It included things like “It’s entertainment, stupid.”; “It’s TV, stupid.”; “It’s video, dammit.” and “Everything is smooth and gentle.” These were to remind the team that users didn’t want to think of TiVo as a computer - they were going to be leaning back on their couch, 12 feet away from the screen, looking to be entertained, and they didn’t want to have to think a lot or make many choices. (Which is very different than hunching over a computer trying to get some work done.) Everything about the interface then (and now) tries to reflect an understanding of that environment. Even as we add more complexity to the system we try to make smart choices for users and make sure that TiVo “just works”. What you give up when you do this is the high configurability of many other consumer electronic devices. We try not to have many settings and preferences. This means your neighbor’s TiVo DVR will pretty much behave just like yours, and you probably won’t “mess your TiVo up” by changing a setting you don’t understand. I like describing the TiVo experience as “Smart. Simple. Fun. Connected.” As far as organization style, we have clear roles and responsibilities between Product Management (sets product requirements), User Experience (designs the UI and writes specifications), and Engineering (implements the specifications). So, nothing gets to be “thrown in”. As a company we understand that the user experience is our brand and we ALL have a responsibility to maintain it.

PM: Say more about the organizational structure. Are Product Management, User Experience, and Engineering at equal levels on the org chart? Whom do you all report to? Also, you mention that Product Management sets product requirements. Typically, in the practice of User Experience, things emerge that should affect product requirements. How do you work with the product managers to ensure their requirements are sensible?

MS: The VP of Product Strategy, the VP of User Experience (me!) and the VP of Engineering all report to the SVP/General Manager of the division. We have different divisions for the TiVo DVR you can buy at retail versus the TiVo DVR you can get from a cable or satellite company. The Product Strategy and Engineering executives are different for the two divisions, but I live within both since we need to keep a consistent experience among all of our products. We keep the requirements (and the experience) “real” by working together as a team. Even though the requirements are “owned” by product management, they are created collaboratively with design and engineering, since some requirements might be too hard to fit within the time frame, and some might not be all that desirable. The same collaboration happens with design. We do a lot of sharing of in-progress designs with all stakeholders, since we all need to get behind the effort that is captured in the design. (And everyone at TiVo is a passionate user.) However, it is NOT design-by-committee. User Experience is responsible for ensuring that it all holds together as a cohesive design — some feedback/ideas we take, others we don’t. Our new HD UI for TiVo Search is our best example to-date of the three teams working closely together to make something cool happen.

PM: Let’s dig more into your comment, “HD UI for TiVo Search is our best example to date.” Doing some web searching, I see that you debuted the TiVo Search at CES last week. While I’m tempted to ask about the design challenge and solutions, for MX 2009, we’re more interested in the organizational challenges and what it took to ship something new. I’m sure the case study for TiVo Search could be a book in itself, but I’d appreciate it if you could distill the key points. What was the genesis for TiVo Search? How long did it take to get from initial idea to launch? How was leadership handled for this new functionality — did an individual maintain the vision for search, or did it emerge from collaboration and iteration? How did you know it was ready to ship?

MS: We have spent the last couple of years adding a lot of new content to the TiVo box (Amazon Video on Demand, YouTube, Netflix, Rhapsody, Music Choice videos, etc.) and we wanted to make it easier to discover this great new content. It seemed like an update to our existing Swivel Search feature with a more visual look (optimized for HD) and richer metadata was a good place to start. It was a probably a six-plus month project to design and implement the new TiVo Search. There were keepers of different aspects of the vision. The lead UI designer kept us true to the design, even when we hit technical challenges and had to make compromises. The engineering management team kept us on schedule to ship before CES. Product management made sure we were adding enough new value to the feature, and were not just changing the way Search looked. The executive team spent a lot of time thinking about quality, release readiness, and impact to our brand. In the end, we knew the feature had a lot going for it, and only a couple of shortcomings. We decided to release it as “Beta” (a first for us) so that we could get even more feedback about how it works for users in their homes and what they like and don’t, since this was a new look for a TiVo feature. All TiVo product releases involve usability studies (in our lab), alpha testing (employee homes) and beta testing (user homes). What was new was calling it “Beta”, making it available in a different area of the UI, and actively soliciting user feedback via email and forum participation. We have many employees reading every email sent to us about the new TiVo Search. It has been a great opportunity to connect with our users.

More discussion will follow in a later blog post. Feel free to pose your own questions in the comments!

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