Network: Better understanding of consumer desires and abilities will be needed to meet the challenge of interactive TV.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Digital television is not yet here, but our TV screens are already full of fast-moving tickertapes, flickering displays of the temperature in Tirana, and other, usually gratuitous bits of information, all overlaid on pictures of confused presenters.

As British cable penetration goes up, the competition between channels is increasing. The fight is led by the "I have more bits of data on my screen than you" school of TV programming.

Looking at some of the worst culprits, from NBC and Bloomberg to Channel One, we could be forgiven for thinking that broadcasters are valued for the number of information displays they can cram on to screens.

We are witnessing the beginning of an Internet-triggered trend towards information-based TV entertainment. But the difference is that the Web- based services are designed by information architects such as Delta Bravo or Meta - specialists whose job it is to design clear, concise communication that is ergonomically suitable to the human mind. We are not 10-eyed, mega-RAM multiprocessor machines who can digest whatever Bloomberg TV throws at us on its cable channel.

Judging by the dense mass of useless information on TV displays, television producers have never heard of information architects. News editors seem to use whichever editing gizmo falls into their hands, and then use it twice to get value for money.

Why have only one tickertape if you can have two, and why not make them move at different speeds, as on NBC's news channel? Last time I looked, Homo sapiens had only two eyes, but NBC in Europe obviously thinks we have evolved faster, and that visual complexity worthy of a nuclear power station's information display is a piece of cake for the average viewer.

Bloomberg gets top prize for making a grand mess of information design, while pretending to be super-informed. Where a moment ago were horoscopes, now there is a report of the Hong Kong dollar going down. Where there was a promotion of 10 per cent off car insurance, now there is a report about the Clinton sexual harassment case. It is tickertape hysteria and a mindless collage of information fragments, with useful data lost in the barrage of superfluous nonsense.

Bloomberg manages to break nearly all the rules of ergonomic display design, in particular ignoring the maxim governing consistency of location of different types of information.

The mind boggles as to why we bother spending money on regulating the height of desks in offices or providing ergonomic chairs to protect our posture if at home we are attacked by an amateurish interface design brigade who would quickly drive the fastest mind to a cognitive collapse.

Channel One is another great proponent of out-of-control information overload. Its manic rate of change makes its television listings unreadable while wasting a quarter of the screen with a nice big logo of, guess what, Channel One. That logo hasn't changed for years, so short of egomania there is hardly a reason to waste screen space at the cost of cramming useful information into a tiny corner - and then moving it across the screen at the speed of light.

The history of information architecture goes back to designing display screens for nuclear power stations, where, in case of emergency, many different types of data had to be displayed for operators to diagnose the problem. Nobody could predict what could be useful at the point of catastrophe, so all possible data about the state of the power station was crammed on to small screens. That is where tickertape displays came from.

Similarly, this is why City professionals who need several types of data at the same time get the crammed treatment of the Bloomberg financial service.

But at home on Saturday morning I have absolutely no reason to be simultaneously fed 13 different types of information by Bloomberg's consumer channel. It makes me not more informed but anxious I am missing crucial developments, only to discern at second glance last night's stock exchange figures from Bulgaria.

If I want to know the temperature in Rome, I go to the Internet and request a page with that information, not wait in front of Bloomberg until the carousel of cities gets around to Italy. Many television producers seem to be overwhelmed by the availability of editing tools that let them place the humidity in Prague on our screens. But using carousel displays in a non-interactive service is both inefficient and irritating.

NBC and Bloomberg should watch QVC, the down-market shopping channel that has polished its information display skills over several years of having to squeeze price, size, product name and the sales pitch on to tiny TV screens.

Retailers are the great unsung heroes of information architecture, as they not only have to inform potential buyers quickly about key features, but also entertain and persuade consumers at the same time. That achievement is a great skill of QVC.

Eurosport, with its concise but spot-on information display during, say, the skiing, also deserves commendation. Although it could easily have gone the Bloomberg route, Eurosport has a disciplined and user-friendly approach to the statistics it provides, taking care not to overwhelm the main picture on the screen.

Abundance of display is no substitute for interactivity. Television is an old-fashioned, linear medium that cannot be asked questions, except on Teletext. And the gratuitous use of information will not keep viewers loyal to a channel. Rather, a better understanding of consumer desires and abilities is needed to take up the challenge of interactive television.

The skills are there among the pioneers of the Internet design revolution. But the lack of awareness among television editors presents a bottleneck to future TV "digitainment".

Send your views about the information on your TV screens to