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A post by
Tim Bleasdale
April 8, 2024

Can Channel 4 become a digital leader again?

Can Channel 4 become a digital leader again?

A post by
Tim Bleasdale
April 8, 2024
min read

In light of Channel 4's announcement of deep job cuts and a refocus on digital, our Executive Creative Director, Tim Bleasdale talks about why he believes it’s time for a rethink. Channel 4's digital future has the potential to be bright once again.

Ostmodern worked on some of the first streaming platforms in the UK, including Channel 4’s 4oD product. In light of the refocus on digital at Channel 4, we wanted to reflect on how their streaming services have evolved, review the current state of play, and ask what could be in the future.

Personally, I think the focus on digital is long overdue and it would be great to see Channel 4 leading the way with their digital products again. I think it’s time for the broadcaster to emerge from a period of non-existent design and complacent product development, to shape the future of digital broadcasting.

Channel 4’s  brand has always been brave and exciting. Every time we worked with them it felt like there was a desire to push forward and pioneer the next stage of digital evolution. They were always ready to use advancements in front-end development to bring their brand to life as a mark of quality

  •  In 2006 they were the first linear broadcaster to release an online streaming service in the UK with 4oD
  •  They were the first to offer exclusive online content to registered users 
  • They were the first to put On Demand at the centre of their online experience with 4oDs rebrand to All4 in 2015

But somewhere over the last 8 years it appears something has stalled.

A product development trap?

There is a classic product development trap that companies can fall into. It often comes with the shift from a product  launch, to ‘business as usual’; responsibility for product growth and evolution is devolved to disparate workstreams, each responsible for the performance of product fragments, rather than whole experience. Each fragment is governed by metrics that demonstrate their isolated performance, but not the performance of the overall experience. This tunnel vision can lead to businesses having blind spots in their holistic design strategy; some changes that appear to be creating efficiency, actually detract from the product as a whole and miss opportunities for audience or revenue growth. I fear that Channel 4 may have fallen into this trap or experienced elements of it.

When you are dealing with a brave and forward thinking brand like Channel 4, I think this represents a death by 1000 cuts.

The Channel 4 responsive web homepage
The Channel 4 responsive web homepage

“Altogether indifferent”, a look at Channel 4’s current streaming services

Content streaming has often been, and can still be, a challenge, especially when advertising is part of the equation. Unfortunately there is no amount of beautiful branding or user interface design that can make up for the video experience being interrupted. The single most important thing for a streaming service is to make sure the technical infrastructure is robust, can deliver, and is comparable in quality with other “benchmark” services that users will measure against. I still remember some poignant user feedback from 2010 (on the platform now known as “X”), relating to a shiny new redesign of 4oD that simply said, “****ing buffer you ****”. There could have been so many reasons why this user was experiencing a poor service, especially in 2010, but they chose to vent their frustration at the streaming service and this highlights why technical infrastructure is so important.

"Unfortunately there is no amount of beautiful branding or user interface design that can make up for the video experience being interrupted."

The adverts, the adverts

Ignoring the legacy issues with video streaming, the main thing that seems to affect user enjoyment of the content on Channel 4 is the adverts. The adverts, the adverts, the same adverts, repeating adverts in the same break. Sometimes 5 minutes of adverts in a break and sometimes none. Worse, many ads are inserted in the wrong place so that ad breaks cut off the content, an effect that is supremely jarring (and remains unresolved almost 15 years after I raised it as a bug).

The technology that inserts ads into video has moved on considerably since 2010, yet Channel 4’s seems a bit outdated. Adverts are necessary of course, and I believe that well executed advertising can even enhance the viewing experience - providing a much needed tea break. There are many creative ways to deal with advertising and sponsorship that have been tried over the years and are still emerging. From the ability to skip ads, or watch prerolls to save ads from popping up in the programme, to FAST TV models, or the recent phenomenon of Virtual Product placement; there are certainly options to explore. Not least the ability to pay to get rid of the adverts! Fantastic! £3.99 per month or £39.99 per year gives users a much more reliable service with fewer glitches. 

Unfortunately the upsell of this service is let down by promotional designs that are decidedly pedestrian and disappointing. As is the upgrade process which is missing some much needed attention to detail; it doesn’t seem very desirable and misses CTAs to upgrade at key touch points.  Purely from the perspective of marketing and branding, ITV-X, which shares some infrastructure with Channel 4 does a much better job of making their premium product feel like it is special and will add value for users.

A Channel 4 Plus promo
A Channel 4 Plus promo
An ITV X Premium promo
An ITV X Premium promo

Now, I appreciate that none of this is quite as simple as it seems. There is an entire system behind the selling of advertising that governs the volume of ads and so on. I wonder if this itself is now rather antiquated and neither provides a compelling experience to the user or, perhaps more importantly, the companies who want to place their ads on the service.

This leads me on to advertising in the UI itself. As a designer I believe you must think of advertising as an integral part of the experience and design an interface with that in mind. The integration of sponsorship into Channel 4’s UI used to be something the broadcaster was always keen to develop and lead the industry on, however this has failed to develop and even depreciated in recent years rather than evolving into a space that is desirable and compelling for buyers and users alike.

When many small issues become one big problem

Depreciation is unfortunately a bit of a theme here. There are many small examples where design and user experience feels neglected. Unfortunately when added together these small issues compromise the service as a whole.  Channel 4 provides their streaming service across multiple platforms including mobile and TV apps, game consoles and a responsive website.  A big undertaking in the early years of streaming was to ensure broadcasters had a ubiquitous and consistent offering. Though every platform may require different interaction patterns to succeed, users still have a mental model of what to expect from a service no matter where they use it. This includes brand expectations as well as content and structure - and Channel 4 achieved this. But over time this consistency has been lost, with platforms looking or behaving quite differently from one another. 

This depreciation is most evident on the responsive web platform where there are superfluous steps in the content selection flow and various  other flaws in the user experience. The UI “design” of all platforms has been simplified so much that a lot of attention to detail has been lost, and whilst I’m a big fan of less is more, I think over the years this has become a case of less is less for Channel 4.

There follow some key points on this from a review of the product as it stands: 

  • In places, the UX fails to deliver what users might expect. There are inconsistencies in interaction which can make for a jarring navigational experience. This can delay users being able to start watching content. 
  • Content curation and promotion fails to really sell the content, which is a must for a channel with a predominantly online audience. 
  • Categorisation is cumbersome and difficult to navigate, it does not do a great job of facilitating content discovery. 
  • This is exacerbated by the use of multiple promos per show which do not really compliment each other and are delivered in a plethora of different aspect ratios throughout the UI. This, along with badly  implemented  typography makes it difficult to scan and digest information. It feels like the number of images required has led to a workflow where imagery is created with the  minimum of finesse in a small amount of time. 
  • One thing which creates problems design wise are the multiple black overlays over imagery which make the entire visual experience about as zesty as vantablack. It seems these must have been put in place to mitigate accessibility issues with text over images rather than rethinking the design approach as a whole.
  • Because the product has not been developed significantly over the last few years, it fails to capitalise on the evolution of new paradigms or accepted user behaviour that have become the norm and are now largely expected by users. This means that when you look at the service from a benchmarking perspective it falls quite far behind the curve.

Representing a classic brand 

I think the single biggest disappointment is that the product fails to transfer Channel 4’s exciting broadcast brand to digital. The brand should dictate the quality and approach to product development and user experience.

A bold wholistic approach to UI could deliver content in sync with the brand and stimulate user engagement — Ostmodern

Channel 4’s Future 4 strategy states that the broadcaster should continue to be “as noisy and unruly as ever… finding new, inventive and entertaining ways of engaging people with the most important issues”.

"as noisy and unruly as ever… finding new, inventive and entertaining ways of engaging people with the most important issues”. —  Future 4 strategy 

As previously outlined, I think Channel 4 has been, and continues to be, a design classic in terms of brand. The brand is executed so well, with intelligence and style via their linear channels on TV that it throws the streaming service into stark contrast. Any effort to transfer this attitude and collateral to their streaming platform seems to have evaporated. Over the last few years, any visual branding of the streaming platform has been distilled to purely type plus an accent colour.

When a user arrives on any digital service they need to be given a clear statement, a feeling of what the service stands for, what world are they entering. I feel this is sadly lacking on Channel 4’s digital platforms. The only nod to this seems to be the apologetic hashtag “altogether different” on the homepage (which in itself stems from a marketing campaign that is 3 years old).

How can Channel 4 find new, inventive and entertaining ways of engaging people?

There is no easy fix. It will be a journey, but one that can be done with the right team, technology and vision.

First let's look at some quick fixes. There are so many UX gaps and UI design issues that can be sorted in the front end. A review and redesign of these will at least make the service palatable. Even a short term review of workflows to create efficiencies in managing the service can go a long way to improving a product suffering from neglect. Particularly, decent curation - imagery - would help the programmes put their best foot forward. There is obviously a convoluted workflow  at the moment which isn't working. Shows have multiple promo images which don’t really compliment each other or live up to the brand. Putting some thought into simplifying this workflow will allow editors to  create a stronger brand presence for shows and will lift the service as a whole.

An example of some overall quick fixes to UI styling and user experience — Ostmodern.

It may seem daunting to question entrenched legacy systems but to review and streamline the technology where possible will be essential. Get to the nub of what is really affecting usage. Do what you can to create efficiencies and  fix video delivery. Do what you can to make advertising a seamless and compelling part of the experience. 

"Engage and entertain us in ways that feel natural, seamless and easy, beyond our imagination. It's what we know of them working together in the past, and they can do it again."

This journey will definitely warrant strategic realignment with the Channel 4 brand. How can strong elements of the broadcast brand be used to communicate and sell content on digital? Where is Channel 4 going as a broadcaster? Where will users consume the brand in the future? What is the future of their advertising and sponsorship model? How can Channel 4 once again stand out as a content brand against other similar broadcasters? This will be emphasised by the increasing need for aggregation  initiatives like “Freely” from “Everyone TV”.

Noisy, unruly, inventive and entertaining? Yes please

Ultimately there is an opportunity here for Channel 4 to realign and engage with users in a way that brings together the  brand, business needs and realises the full potential that technology provides. 

Ostmodern worked on ’Project Kangaroo’, a proposed streaming platform from ITV, BBC and Channel 4, that aimed to bring together the UKs broadcasters in one service. It was due to launch in 2008, but was blocked by the Competition Commission at the time due to “a danger that the platform could be too powerful”. Channel 4 were very much a leader in that project, pushing for the most pragmatic and forward thinking ways of using available technology to engage users. This spirit continued through early iterations of 4oD. 

Despite their product shortcomings, I still believe today that Channel 4 is the perfect brand to be leading the next generation of streaming services in the UK, (an industry that leads the way for the world). It has the power and the potential to engage and entertain us in ways that feel natural, seamless and easy, beyond our imagination. It's what we know of them working together in the past, and they can do it again.

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