Enhancing Android TV App Development: A Journey of Innovation and Improvement
As engineers, developing a video-streaming app that lets people enjoy movies anytime and anywhere means expanding your reach across multiple platforms. With a limited team, it's crucial to ensure consistent support for development, bug fixes, and features. Prioritizing the most widely used platforms makes logical sense. In this context, the African market takes center stage – it's mobile-first, with users watching content on the go, during commutes, and while traveling long distances.
Previously at Showmax, we faced the challenge of catering to diverse platforms with a single mobile team. This team was responsible for developing mobile apps for both Android and iOS, as well as covering Android TV and tvOS. This approach seemed reasonable due to shared programming languages and potential codebase integration. However, the TV experience, known as "leanback" due to users typically leaning back on a sofa while watching on a large TV screen, brought unique design and product considerations. And unfortunately, the platform’s UX was a bit left behind.
The Technical Approach
When we set out to develop an Android TV app, we opted for a simple approach that adhered to industry standards. We built our application using the Android Leanback library.
Android Leanback library
This widely-used library is officially supported by Android, sparing developers from implementing all views, components, and intricate interactions (think of navigation in a 'touchless' environment). It offers solid system support out of the box.
Designing an app for the TV platform is cost-effective due to existing elements and limited design adjustments.
Due to technological advancements, the library has become somewhat dated, impacting the user experience and necessitating significant adjustments for TV app development.
As mentioned earlier, design and product decisions are constrained by the Leanback library's components and layouts.
One colleague, who is an Android TV owner and enthusiast, aptly pointed out the UX during a redesign demo: "Android TV users are simply used to [visually] suffering when using the apps."
The original Showmax Android TV application was constructed several years ago using components from the Leanback Library.
These challenges, combined with a heightened focus on mobile apps (given their prevalence in African markets) and a lack of dedicated design or product management for the Android TV platform, led us to approach the app as an MVP – a minimum viable product. While supporting new features, we prioritized basic functionality over specific or elaborate designs.
A Push for Innovation
With a commitment to allocate 10 percent of our time to innovation and approximately 30 percent to address technical debt and engineering tasks, we aimed for a more balanced approach. This ensured we weren't solely focused on external demands and features from other teams. Thus, we capitalized on this time to enhance our Android TV app.
Our initial step was a common one – identifying pain points collectively. With developers, testers, and app users, we unearthed numerous minor issues ripe for fixing. These low-hanging fruit were prioritized based on technical complexity and potential impact on user experience. We utilized our technical allocation to incorporate these improvements into our plans. This phase primarily involved resolving UI issues and refining navigation between screens. We conducted A/B tests and drew insights from other platform tests and improvements. Additionally, we integrated sought-after features already implemented by other TV teams. Our focus was on tasks demanding minimal Product or Design involvement, requiring limited effort on our part and no backend changes.
The outcome was remarkably positive – we received favorable internal feedback and users' reviews and questionnaires echoed the improvements.
Elevating the Platform
To kick start the process, we brought in a dedicated designer fresh from another project within the company. Additionally, we allocated 30% of one of our Product Managers' time to assist with the project. As the team leader, I dedicated half of my time to this endeavor. Furthermore, we appointed a Lead Android TV engineer from our team to closely collaborate with the group, forming a well-rounded product trio.
In conclusion, our journey toward enhancing the Android TV app involved simplifying the technical approach, tackling challenges incrementally, and nurturing innovation within our team. The outcome was a more refined and user-friendly app that aligned with the unique demands of the Android TV platform.
In our pursuit of enhancing the Android TV app, we embarked on an in-depth research journey. Building upon our initial issue triage, we conducted numerous customer interviews and testing sessions, effectively creating an extensive Design sprint. (The process of rethinking the solution and opportunity mapping was similar to what we have described in the blog post focusing on data driven design process). Through these efforts, we identified major pain points. However, we realized that many of these challenges couldn't be easily resolved within the confines of the existing Leanback library offered by Google. Addressing them would necessitate substantial investments in new development and a comprehensive app rewrite.
We started by a screen-by-screen analysis of the current solution with gathering feedback from all stakeholders to identify all opportunities.
Recognizing the need for analytical insights, we enlisted the aid of one of our Data Analysts. They assisted in the data crunching required to assess the current solution and support the tests and experiments we were eager to undertake. Armed with a solid justification for additional resources, we found ourselves in a position where innovation knew no bounds. Our platform transformed into a dynamic research lab.
Subsequently, Affinity mapping helped us identify the key ideas and assumptions to prioritize.
Taking a bold step, we bid farewell to the outdated Leanback library that had previously constrained us. This opened the door to entirely fresh designs, whether they involved individual elements or entire screens. Our approach now encompassed a spectrum of innovative solutions, often drawing from successful strategies on similar platforms. This approach led us to pioneer novel navigation methods – some of which were eventually embraced by other TV platforms. Additionally, we refined content promotion techniques and introduced a range of feature enhancements. During this phase, we also embraced a new Design system, a tool that greatly expedited the platform revamp process. Interestingly, while our Android team had hesitated to adopt the Design system for their mobile app due to its established functionality, they eagerly embraced it for the TV app, recognizing its potential as we built it from the ground up.
Finally, we prioritized the solutions based on technical feasibility and user impact using a simple prioritization matrix to determine what to address first.
A Fresh Approach and New Horizons
As our journey progressed, it became evident that our esteemed platform demanded full-fledged attention. In response, we took significant steps to reinforce our efforts. We welcomed a dedicated Product Manager exclusively responsible for Android TV. Simultaneously, we selected a developer from our ranks and elevated them to the role of Android TV platform lead, overseeing all matters related to ATV. The addition of the new Product Manager necessitated a reevaluation of our team's capacity allocation. The outcome was a balanced distribution – one-third for mobile, one-third for TV, and one-third for our team's internal technical initiatives.
In closing, our commitment to research and innovation transformed our Android TV app from a mere platform into a dynamic laboratory of ideas. Through tenacity and adaptability, we ushered in a new era of design, functionality, and user experience, propelling our app to the forefront of modern TV streaming platforms.
The reworked application has a modern appearance, employing custom-built elements and layouts derived from our in-house design system.
Our journey to enhance the Android TV app underscored the value of adaptability and innovation in a rapidly evolving landscape. What started as a quest to improve user experience culminated in a transformative process that redefined our platform's capabilities. By challenging convention, embracing research, and fostering a culture of exploration, we unlocked new avenues for design and functionality. The lessons we learned along the way, the hurdles we overcame, and the innovations we championed have paved the path for a future where the Android TV experience continues to elevate and captivate our users. With a dedicated team, a fresh approach, and a willingness to push boundaries, we are excited to embark on this new chapter of Android TV development, armed with the knowledge that every challenge is an opportunity and every innovation propels us toward excellence. Together, we journey onward, crafting a dynamic TV streaming experience that resonates with viewers in every corner of Showmax’s market in Africa.
Earlier this year, Google introduced a new Leanback library based on Jetpack Compose. We were proud early adopters of this library and are pleased that we could contribute to shaping the future of Leanback development through our participation in Google’s Early Access Program. Without our prior internal efforts to rework the TV platform, this would not have been achievable. You can find more information in our recent blog post on Baseline Profiles for Android or explore our talks on the Android TV transformation and adoption of Jetpack Compose for Android TV.