Video on demand: 5 key behaviours and attitudes

by Philip Webb on 1 March 2011

Video on demand is a rapidly changing field. Our user research over several projects highlights the wide range of different hardware set-ups and how these set-ups and the viewing environment influences consumers' evolving habits. For example, service/hardware collaborations such as LOVEFiLM and PlayStation 3 are helping to bring the on-demand experience into the living room where comfort, space and viewing quality are more important. This in turn has an impact on whether the experience is social or solitary, planned or opportunistic.

Despite the proliferation of different set-ups there is a general trend towards wanting a one-stop-shop for all entertainment through services like MP3 Rocket and LOVEFiLM. Clearly the driver for this trend is convenience i.e. one account registration, one subscription, one user interface. However, the complexity and scale of creating one-stop-shops such as the recently delayed TV-on-demand venture YouView that aims to deliver content from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, demonstrates that satisfying this user demand will be far from easy.

Understanding the goals, expectations and attitudes of video-on-demand audiences is crucial to designing successful interactive experiences. This article outlines 5 key behaviours and attitudes with this aim in mind.

1. Viewers are loyal to particular shows

Many people are loyal to particular long-running shows (rather than channels) and often have these shows in mind when consuming video content online. The recent launch of the Sky Atlantic HD channel, although not on-demand, reflects this appetite for iconic long-running dramas. The mere availability of such shows on demand encourages viewers to watch them in a concentrated time frame, sometimes consuming the whole series in one go.

Loyalty need not necessarily be related to sequential dramas. For example, shows like Glee hook viewers with a familiar episode format and a cast of favourite characters. Such a show is perfectly suited to on-demand delivery because it both facilitates stand-alone quick fix consumption and concentrated series catch-up.

The clear formula of a show such as Glee would also facilitate a new kind of consumption where viewers take control, e.g. following particular characters, sub-plots or just the musical set-pieces. Offering a customisable route through content would be another way to reinforce show loyalty. Production technology is on the verge of providing tools that facilitate the making of shows where the content can be customised in this way. (see related blog: Merging interaction and narrative).

Related to loyalty is a reluctance to try new or unfamiliar content. The huge choice of content and the level of commitment required to follow long-running series are factors that reinforce this. Viewers need persuasion to move out of their comfort zone. Word of mouth is important but our research shows that people are less likely to be swayed by editorial suggestions or the opinions of those they don't know. Trusted recommendations from friends and family are far more important, which may explain why many people prefer to engage with social networks for recommendations rather than site-specific user-generated content, such as comments, ratings or number of views.

2. Nature of content affects experience

Water-cooler dramas are by their nature taken more seriously than comedy shows, and also since they're more linear, they're more likely to be the target of concentrated consumption and watched in sequence than comedy. Online consumption of an episode of a comedy show such as the IT Crowd may be more about getting another fix after watching an episode on TV, especially where the episodes are stand-alone rather than part of an ongoing plot.

However, some people still watch shows that are less linear in order because they try to remember what they've already watched and sequential viewing assists with this behaviour. This suggests the need for clear design features to access viewing history.

Our research also indicates that some people prefer to watch highly linear shows on scheduled TV because the order of episodes isn't clear through on-demand platforms, especially sites that aggregate content illegally. So, the fear of missing an episode may tie viewers to schedules.

3. Complete vs. incomplete content

Video on demand sites may offer both complete episodes and incomplete clips either as trailers for shows or compilations e.g. Top ten moments, but the different user experiences associated with viewing these have design repercussions.

Opinions are divided, although generally people prefer complete episodes of their favourite shows. This is consistent with the commitment people are prepared to invest once their loyalty has been earned. Indeed, it's likely that loyalty can only be assured once complete episodes have been viewed. Some viewers avoid clips because they may act as spoilers. Other viewers appreciate the chance to try out upcoming or new content.

What's clear from the research, however, is that grazing on multiple pieces of content is viewed as a different experience to watching complete episodes. Grazing is a time-filling exercise, whereas complete episode consumption is more of a planned activity. Consequently, many people view sites as offering one type of experience rather than another, e.g. YouTube may be seen primarily as a site to view clips but not complete episodes. Offering control over the way in which content is viewed (see Glee example in section 1) blurs the boundary between viewing standard full-length episodes and incomplete clips i.e. it gives viewers the option of a shorter but still coherent experience.

4. Attitudes to illegal download

Show loyalty is one motivating factor for some people who resort to illegal streaming or downloads i.e. to watch the next series which may be unavailable in any other way.

Illegal consumption is often not about ownership. Some people see it as acceptable if they've just recently missed a scheduled broadcast, if they intend only to view a download once before deleting, and if they don't profit from it.

It may also not be about the money since some people view the account registration and credit card transactions on legitimate sites as being onerous.

Piracy of music content is generally seen as worse than for video content because it may directly affect favoured individual artists.

The reasons for not consuming illegally are often about the low quality of the user experience: cheap sites with aggressive advertising which may be associated with virus threat; poor video quality; and difficulty in finding the desired episode.

5. Watching video can be both inactive and dynamic

Video-on-demand experiences are dynamic for those viewers who prefer to be in full control of discovery. These viewers may want functionality that enhances their active experience e.g. the ability to compile and share playlists that can be cued up to the player.

Video-on-demand experiences are inactive for those viewers who simply want to sit back and be entertained. They want sites to do the choosing and cueing up for them, especially if the chunks of content are short.

The key for some video-on-demand offerings must be to offer a range of functionality that satisfies both dynamic and inactive experiences.


This article shows that, as well as viewing environment and hardware set-ups, there are a number of other factors that influence video-on-demand experiences:

  • Loyalty to long-running shows
  • Word of mouth and trusted recommendations
  • Nature of content
  • The length of content (episodes or clips)
  • Previously watched content
  • Barriers to viewing (e.g. difficult account registration and poor video quality)
  • The demand for both dynamic and interactive experiences

Of course, the target audiences for particular shows, channels, services and entertainment websites vary enormously. User research with the correct demographic is the only sure-fire way to design successful video-on-demand experiences. However, attention to the factors above should help focus user research in this field towards making informed design decisions.

This article was written by Philip Webb, a consultant at the user experience consultancy, Webcredible. Philip's passionate about improving the user experience of websites and is responsible for implementing a variety of user experience projects including user interface design and helps run a fantastic Axure training course.

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