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  • Author John Archer
  • Published May 12, 2014

How LG’s webOS found its way to simple glory

We find out from Colin Zhao, Director of Product Management at LG webOS, how endless user research and memories of TV days gone by have revolutionised smart TV…


We find out from Colin Zhao, Director of Product Management at LG webOS, how endless user research and memories of TV days gone by have revolutionised smart TV…
Not long after you’ve started using LG’s webOS, you’ll realise you’re smiling. From the moment you first fire it up, LG’s new Smart TV interface begins wearing down any resistance to smart TVs built up by other allegedly “smart” interfaces over previous hardware and software generations.
webOS’ friendly appearance and efficiency are the result of the potent combination of dreams of a simpler time for TVs and extensive, nit-picking user research. To find out how the two combined, we spoke to Colin Zhao, LG’s director of product management, on a recent trip to the company’s sunny Silicon Valley HQ.
Your childhood informed LG’s webOS?! How did that work?
We were inspired by the emotion behind TV from way back. I remember coming home after school tired and I’d sit on the sofa and turn on the TV with the power button. Then I’d use the channel up and down button, and that was it. It was an easy, lean back experience with a feeling of serendipity. You’d always be able to find something to watch that you didn’t necessarily know you wanted to watch before.
Have modern TVs lost that simplicity?
TV has evolved. You have hundreds of cable channels, different ways to stream content, and you have your Xbox, your Playstation, and your Blu-ray player all plugged into the TV. At the same time, manufacturers have decided the best way to operate a smart TV is just to blow up that tablet/phone user-interface and fit it to an HD TV screen. Phones and tablets are devices you use to do something, such as making calls between meetings or researching stuff. This is wrong for a TV experience – we want people to feel relaxed, to enjoy TV. It should be playful and entertaining.
How did you turn your webOS visions into reality?
A huge part of it is user research. Our user research lab tries to recreate a typical living-room scene – except we’ve got video cameras and one-way glass! We invite people in and watch them watching TV. We’re able to see everything from how they look at a TV screen to how they react to the menus and even how they use a remote control. We analyse this behaviour, look for sticking points, then solve the problems.
Do you just leave the test subjects to get on with it themselves?
We guide them. There are different ways to do this, but one very effective approach is to give them a task – “switch to the Xbox or PlayStation”, for example. We watch how different people try to figure it out. Some people use the input button, but often they overshoot the target input with this approach, as well as having to go past inputs where nothing’s connected. We can see them cringe or exhibit other negative micro-emotions at these points – and these represent the best opportunities for us to learn. I say “no problems, no profit”. So seeing users having problems is great because you can solve them and so create value for the consumer.
What happens when you see a problem that needs fixing?
During the development stage we can build prototypes to solve problems quickly. These prototypes don’t always have to be onscreen; we can print something and ask users “hey, to change an input, what would you click on the screen?”. Then we can follow their thoughts to see if they’re clicking the right things. It’s important not to ask leading questions – we get this evil kick out of watching users flounder. That’s where the opportunities for improvement lie. Though I promise we’re not evil people!

How long does it take to research a version of a UI?
There isn’t a set time, but we’ve spent thousands of hours on consumer research cumulatively. Usually we focus on one task at once.
What have been the most important findings?
We wanted to take something complicated and make it simple. First, switching between not only your physical sources, but also between streaming sources. The TV is a big switcher, so it’s important to see webOS make switching between many inputs better. Next, there’s discovery of content. There’s so much content that finding things is arduous, we knew we had to make finding new things enjoyable. Finally, we came to understand the importance of simplicity – anything from second-screen connectivity to the first time you connect to a new device. The question was, how do we take set up from something that looks like a Windows 95 environment that’s kind of clunky and cold into something where we have an emotional bond. Which brings us back to that involuntary smile you get when you start using webOS – you never got that with Windows 95…
Consider your fancy tickled: now head over to Stuff.tv to see what the team made of webOS when they were handed a hands-on preview session.

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