We Watch

One of the things we’re doing at Rattle are once a month ‘hackdays’. We’re doing hackdays to rapid prototype ideas we have, learn new technologies and have some fun.  Previous hackdays have produced things like Wordr, Social Scoreboards, Pretend FanOpen Plaques and the Job Box.  This month we created We Watch: a way to see what your friends’ are watching on the telly tonight. You’re probably coming here having played with the web app. If not then it’s probably worthwhile doing that first.

This post sketches out our design process and thinking on this mini-project.

The Itch

To find out, at a glance, what’s on telly tonight and what other people are watching.

Context: The Living Room Problem

There are a heap of people innovating in this space, trying to create more sociality around media consumption, and yet the living room is still a loosely coupled set of technologies. We don’t see that changing for a while, mainly because of our learnt behaviours and perceptions about this space. Rather we think the way to join up our experience is through existing lightweight solutions (why try to force new behaviours through a TV?) that build on second screen use.

The Use Case

Assumptions We Made

  • The TV schedule is still an important means by which people structure time and what they watch, and especially tonight’s TV.
  • Original programming is more likely to create “appointment to view” behaviour than repeats (with the possible exception of repeats of classic programmes on Christmas Day).
  • Watercooler moments happen more with programmes with stronger “appointment to view” behaviour.
  • Twitter enables us to flag shared TV experiences in appropriate, lightweight fashion, through second screen behaviour.
  • Intention to view is just as important for recommending programmes, as actual consumption.
  • Having original TV programming you can consume at a glance is useful when faced with the paradox of choice the modern EPG presents us with (both on TV and also in daily newspapers).

These assumption are based on past research we’ve done as well as anecdotal accounts we’ve heard and documented. But they are also, essentially, what we’re concept testing with We Watch.

Why “Intending To Watch”?

This behaviour borrows from the “like” behaviour on Facebook, that is to say it’s not intended to convey anything other than “I would like to watch this”, much as “like” says “I like this”, and not “i’ve bought one of these or I’ve been to this place” etc.  The intention to watch has been practised for years by people circling programmes in listing guides:

Our belief is that this ‘circling’ has value, and acts as a flag to others to consider watching it. And like all good recommendation engines, this is not based on altruism but rather is based on selfishness: the tool is first and foremost useful to you and then in turn it becomes useful to others.

Many recommendation engines are based on the premise that you actually ‘consume’ media. However, this requires effort: you have to actually watch the media! Metabroadcast’s Test Tube Telly project was based on people having consumed the programme and then recommending it.  But for original programmes upcoming on TV tonight you can’t have seen them, so you can’t recommend them. So, how to create a useful service for finding worthwhile things on telly to watch?  We think “Intention to View” is good enough.

Now plenty of other services capture intentions to view, not least the Sky (or Freeview) EPG and it’s bookmark service which reminds you when a programme is about to start. But the Sky EPG doesn’t support viewing “at a glance” and it presumes you’ve already sat down and decided to stay in tonight to watch TV. When actually many people look at the TV guide in advance to decide what, if anything, is worth watching. Pushing back from the ‘now’ toward the future is something that enables sociality, and planned social TV experiences. This got me interested in time…

Structuring ‘Time’

Matt Jones in his talk All The Time In The World highlights the importance of time in designing experiences and, crucially, how time is culturally constructed. He uses the light cone to show an observer’s relationship to space time and how there is no ‘now’, ‘now’ is constructed, from the different measures of when ‘now’ is to the events that now essentially refers to. Rather than perpetuate linear time, Matt and the Dopplr team, sought to work with cultural time and “create a system that increased the happy little co-incidences in your life as you travel through the world”. I like that.

And with We Watch we aimed to create a similar effect, happy coincidences.  TV is different from travel but the principle of increasing the coincidences in the future are the same. So, with We Watch we aim to show what friends and strangers are planning to watch, to enable you to act on those coincidencies, through discussing the programme with them during or after transmission.  As we know from using Dopplr, few plans actually result in a meeting with a friend or contact (in my case one), but can lead to a stronger sense of relatedness and social cohesion.

If We Could Have…

This web app was done in a day (and a bit).  And is intended as a proof of concept.  Of course there are lots of things we’d love to do including:

  • Have a more comprehensive broadcaster / programme catalogue (We Watch only uses BBC programme data as other terrestrial and digital TV data has rights issues preventing their reproduction).
  • Improve Twitter integration: add a background job where we decouple the retrieval of friends from the main Rails process and then use an ajax progress updater to indicate friends retrieval progress on being returned from Twitter.
  • Enable you to save programmes you plan to watch as calendar events (e.g. iCal files).
  • Have a page per ‘user’ to see all the programmes they planned to watch as an archive.
  • Experiment with other ways to promote programmes based on past decisions (e.g. by TV strand like Storyville, or programme brand or director e.g. Adam Curtis) or popularity (geography e.g. “Popular in Sheffield” or friends of friends).

If you have any suggestions of what you’d like to see or just want to tell us what you think of it do please let us know via @we_watch


We review feedback from people using it and market viability in the New Year and based on this we’ll decide whether to make it into a proper product.

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