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Building Echo: How Apple TV Forced Us to Rethink Mobile UX

Adam Fingerman Chief Experience Officer of mobile app design and development company details his experience developing one of the first games for the Apple TV: Echo, from ArcTouch – a free retro-style game that tests your memory, and your reflexes.

“The future of TV is apps.”

This is what Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said at the company’s keynote back in September when it launched the new Apple TV. With the number of cord-cutters continuing to grow – 19 percent of young adults in 2015 ditched cable TV – it’s clear that apps are becoming the new norm for how we consume media and entertainment.

So when Apple said it planned to open an Apple TV App Store, we couldn’t ignore this tremendous opportunity to help build the future of television.  

We received special developer units four weeks before the new Apple TV started shipping, and immediately pulled together a small team to prototype, experiment, ideate and ultimately build an app for the new platform. The team had one overarching goal - be live in the app store on launch day - which gave us just about 3 weeks to get this done, and have about 1 week for app store review and approval.

The result is Echo, a fun and addictive game that echoes the retro-games of our childhood and translates them perfectly to the living room. Through the process, we were reminded that apps on the small screen need to be thought of quite differently from apps on the big screen. It’s not just dimensions of a phone vs. TV, but the way people interact with the TV screen is fundamentally different. Instead of touching and controlling the screen in your hand, you are engaging remotely with a device connected to your television. Creating a successful app for this environment required our design and engineering usability experts to think outside of the “mobile” box where we’ve excelled for years -- and focus on this very different user experience.  

What type of app makes sense on the big screen?

Internally, we were excited for the chance to play around with the new platform as soon as we received the pre-release development kits. Our playtime quickly morphed into action. After brainstorming, we narrowed in on three ideas: creating a game, a digital yule log or – because we’re a little nerdy and developed the official CBS Star Trek Padd app – a Trekkie-related concept.

We also wanted to explore the new Siri Remote’s potential for interactive entertainment, so we ultimately decided that a game was the way to go.  

We arrived at a concept that was both familiar and foreign: a simple game that harkens back to some of our favorite memory and party games of the ‘90s. It was foreign because we’re not typically game developers. However, we are big fans of apps that do simple things really, really well. Some classic hardware games like Simon and Bop It provided the inspiration because they were incredibly easy to learn, yet highly addictive. They allow you to play a quick, short game when you just have a few minutes, but they also make you want to come back for more to compete against family and friends for the best score.

Developing an Apple TV game in 3 weeks

After we settled on the concept, we quickly moved into prototyping the basic concept to get it on the big screen. Given the new platform, we needed to validate that our game would successfully interact and work on the TV and with the new Siri Remote.

We put several of our top Swift engineers on the job, who started by creating a rough, unstylized version of the game, with programmatically created shapes that translated to clicking, shaking, and swiping on the Siri Remote. Developing for Apple’s new tvOS was similar to iOS in many ways, so we were mostly in familiar territory, however we did have to learn new profiles for the remote.

We then put the prototype in the hands of a couple of our resident office gamers to validate not only that our concept worked on the big screen, but that it was actually fun to play.

The design kicked off in parallel with our engineers laying the groundwork for the app. By the end of week two, we focused on what was technically feasible to implement for our minimum viable product (MVP), and scoped down our design to match.

In week three, our goal was refinement and to output a new, improved release every day. We shortened our sprints down to 1 day each (vs our typical 2 weeks) and each day agreed we would only add a new feature if it added true value to the game players, and only if it could be completed in one day or less. In these subsequent releases, we added a custom soundtrack, a leaderboard and some incremental user interface improvement, all of which added to the living room experience.

By the end of week three, we arrived at Echo, a retro-style game that tests your memory and reflexes. Echo is a fully native tvOS application, built entirely using the Swift language, created in just under three weeks, from initial concept to application submission and approval.

It’s not about the app. It’s about the experience

Apple TV is a tremendous opportunity for brands and businesses to connect more deeply with their customers in their living rooms.

But this opportunity needs to be approached with care. Because the differences between iOS and tvOS are relatively minor, iOS apps could fairly easily be ported to this new platform. However, just because you can port an iOS app to tvOS, that doesn’t mean that you should. To put it simply, an iPhone app that’s ported hastily to Apple TV will fail. The strategy involved with defining, designing and developing applications for Apple TV must make sense on the big screen, and offer an experience worthy of the living room -- an intimate place for today’s families.

I agree with Tim Cook’s notion that the future of the TV is apps. But an app is just a bundle of code. Whether it’s a phone or a connected television – two very different platforms – what makes a great app is the experience it offers to its specific user. The future of television will be thoughtfully crafted, deeply engaging experiences – tailor made for the living room. And, apps are, without any doubt, first-rate carriers of these highly engaging experiences.

Sweet Success

Building our first Apple TV app from scratch was a beneficial educational exercise for us. The ultimate goal was to immerse ourselves in the new platform, learn as much as we could, and ultimately share what we learned about Apple TV app development with our clients and friends in the Apple developer community. We’ve taken our learnings and are now hard at work creating new experiences on this emerging platform for some of our media clients, and are looking forward to seeing them in action.

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