Modernizing the Electronic Program Guide (EPG)
The ultimate user tool isn’t user-friendly at all. Let’s fix that.
When discussing the Pay TV experience in OTT, we have to talk about Electronic Program Guides (EPG). The EPG is what we users most associate with the hulking set-top boxes (STB) of yesterday. EPGs on Operator STBs are often slow, janky, and cumbersome. They are the antithesis of a good user experience which is a shame because the concept is sound.
With live content, the EPG is the logical approach to catalogue a set of live streams. Users need to be able to see what’s playing, at what time, with the ability to navigate to/search what they’re looking for. But like any other design effort, thought is one thing, execution is another. The reputation of EPGs has been damaged due to poor user experience consideration and technology constraints.
With Operators extending their traditional Pay TV service into the world of streaming—where user-first design reigns supreme—EPGs have to evolve. Here’s how to reimagine EPGs for modern devices.
The Fundamentals of an EPG
First, a breakdown of the fundamentals for an electronic program guide.
- EPG Grid – A grid of different-sized cells, representing schedule information for X-amount of channels. The cell size is determined by how much time is remaining on said item.
- Time Labels – Time scale used to size cells on-screen. Time labels are commonly structured in 30 minute and one-hour increments.
- Time Marker – The current time is displayed on-screen and may overlap with grid cells.
- Channel Logos – Display of channel logos, names, or numbers on each row of the grid.
- Cell Metadata – Display multiple lines of metadata, images, icons, tags.
- Truncated metadata – Metadata displayed within cells is truncated depending on cell size and scroll position.
- Focus management – Highlighting cells/options in focus upon scroll (remote) or when tapped (mobile).
- Mini-Player – The ability to reduce the player window to navigate the EPG without missing out on playback.
Modernizing the Common EPG
“Modernizing” an EPG can come in many forms. We believe modernizing an EPG is to leverage successful elements from modern direct-to-consumer (D2C) apps and weave it into the overall guide experience. As I said, the format of an EPG makes sense. It’s how that format is delivered which is a sticking point for users.
If your EPG was placed next to the EPG of a competitor, would a user be able to identify which one is yours? Does your brand have significant exposure within your EPG?
Back when a handful of STBs reigned supreme, investing a unique brand look and feel wasn’t a concern. The box itself was the brand. Today, a user can have an Apple TV but the streaming apps they choose to download have nothing to do with Apple. D2C apps understand the importance of the brand. It’s how they stand out in a sea of similar services. Without their brand, the apps would suffer the same fate as ‘channels’ in STBs. They will have a name and logo but without a unique identity, they become just an “Apple TV app”. In other words, the box becomes the brand.
EPGs are a part of an app’s UI. They are a part of your brand and should be treated as such. Give attention to how the EPG looks, feels, and moves. If your brand is whimsical, does your EPG match that sentiment? Unique animations weren’t possible twenty years ago due to technology constraints but thanks to modern GPUs and advancements in rendering, they should be a no-brainer today.
Something users have become accustomed to thanks to touch-enabled devices like smartphones and Apple TV’s Siri remote is proper physics when scrolling. Our eyes intuitively pick up on unnatural movement. For example, if we swipe really fast on a scroll area, we expect the page to fly forward in that direction. If we hit the end of a scroll list, the page should bounce back as if it’s hitting a wall. When that doesn’t happen, we take note and it weakens the user experience.
Modern EPGs need to incorporate natural scroll physics to separate from the jumpy, Frogger-esque navigation in older boxes. Fluid animations, gradual easing, and validation of a users’ actions are a must.
Most standard EPG guides have minimal filtering options. With detailed channel metadata, filtering can be more personalized for the individual. Search by genre, type (feature-length, episodic series), and availability. It would be convenient if a user can select a filter to ‘show sports, hide all else’. Or, if they’re in the mood for a horror film; a combination of genre + type filters can display a grid of options that match that criteria. It doesn’t matter if the content is live or on-demand. Live can still be indexed by category.
EPGs are meant to facilitate discovery. By catering to a user’s needs with deeper filter options, the EPG can become a welcome feature as opposed to a necessary evil.
Anchor links are similar to filters as they make it easier to navigate to content. The difference is filtering takes options out of the grid whereas Anchor links jump to specific sections of the guide. Anchor links can either rearrange the guide by format (numerical, alphabetical listing) or jump to areas like PPV rental, music, family content, etc. This is a great addition for users who know where they want to go but don’t want to scroll through hundreds of cells.
Back to Top/Current Time
Users sometimes want to go back to the beginning of a list when the time updates. Configuring either a physical or software button to pop an EPG back to its starting point can ease navigation. The same can be applied to scroll the view back to the current time if the user travels ahead to see what’s coming up.
Now that we’ve talked about EPG fundamentals and ways to modernize the feature, let’s dive into the fun stuff. EPGs are the ultimate user tool and there are plenty of additional advancements that can be made to realize that sentiment. For example:
Secondary Cell Actions
One of the great things about VOD apps is the ability to view multiple pieces of information at once (thumbnail, metadata, rating, etc.) just by hovering over the item. This act lets the user make an informed decision in a short amount of time. How can that method be replicated with EPGs when cells pack virtually any bit of whitespace? The answer is to add the ability to perform secondary actions on a cell, either by an extended hover, press and hold, or double-tap (all options applicable to remote and touch devices).
With secondary actions, a user may be able to perform a variety of actions outside of ‘watch’. Consider DVR, timers, view more, favourite, etc.
Opening up an overlay window during a secondary action also introduces room for more information.
Jump to Live During Playback
A twist on a popular feature; jumping to live during playback.
Most apps that specialize in live content give users the option to start from the beginning or join the stream live. That option is only available at the point of selection, not during playback.
Imagine a scenario where a user wants to rewatch an amazing touchdown during the SuperBowl. They should be able to rewind in the stream, watch the highlight, and then jump back to live without exiting playback.
This can be achieved by adding two functions to playback:
- A live tracker icon that highlights where the current live stream sits.
- The ability to snap to the live tracker; either by scrubbing to the live tracker icon or an interaction convention (e.g. double-tap).
Miniature EPG component that can be embedded in a lander or player.
Mini EPGs are condensed versions of an EPG. They’re often single panel guides used to browse what’s playing on other channels right now, without having to deal with the entire schedule. Mini EPGs can be implemented for TV-connected devices but they are optimal for mobile viewing. Having an entire EPG grid overlay take over playback on a mobile screen can become annoying due to smaller screen real-estate. Implementing a Mini EPG remedies that problem. Bonus points if the single panel guide lists “favourite channels” or “most visited” options at the top for better navigation. Bonus bonus points if the Mini EPG can expand to a full guide (and vice-versa).
When you have all those eyeballs visiting an EPG, not taking advantage of the space with promotional imagery or advertising doesn’t make much business sense. Finding ways to monetize the humble EPG guide with large hero images or in-grid banners can bring in ad revenue which is appealing for AVOD providers who want to keep their content ungated behind a paywall.
End Bumper Squeeze
Sometimes, the simplest way to keep a user in your app is to show them what else is available. Like VOD apps, EPGs have the power to trigger recommendations once credits start to roll. A squeeze back feature deepens discovery for users and adds an extra element for promotion.
EPGs Aren’t Going Anywhere
If you thought the electronic program guide would die-off with streaming, then you would be mistaken. As lines between Operator boxes and OTT devices continue to blur, EPG guides will be more important than ever thanks to:
- The push for live content on streaming apps as evidenced by Hulu and Viacom’s purchase of Pluto TV.
- The prominence of live sports; both traditional (DAZN, FuboTV) and eSports paving the way for streams competing in the same time slot.
- Mass consolidation from behemoth apps like Peacock and HBO Max—which means large libraries of content will need better tools for discovery.
- The growing trend of EPGs on set-top boxes listing streaming services like Netflix or YouTube as a “channel” in existing guides.
With dedicated design thinking, modern features, and a focus on user experience, EPGs can be a vital, successful tool in any streaming services’ arsenal.
You.i Engine One has been proven to build contemporary program guides with custom brand experiences, fluid performance, and cross-platform flexibility for organizations like DIRECTV, Fox, and Sky. If you’re in the market for bespoke EPGs that speak your brand truth and help scale your streaming service, book a virtual one-on-one demo with a You.i Engine One expert.