Navigating and Expanding the Multi-Screen Ecosystem

Throughout the course of the day, most consumers handle and view multiple devices with screens, including smartphones, TVs, PCs, eReaders and tablets. In a 2012 Google study, 52 percent of respondents indicated that they were engaged with a mobile device while watching television. What can’t be clearly established is what users are doing on their second screens while keeping an eye on the first one. Are they using their laptops to answer work-related emails while watching The Voice on TV? The second screen may not be as complementary to the first one as we think, but rather part of a more complex ecosystem.


A Multi-Screen Ecosystem Involving Technology as Well as Real People


The multiplication of content viewing devices in recent years has given rise to a whole array of new consumption behaviors (replay, on-demand, streaming, downloading) that have completely transformed the television viewing experience. Over the course of the past year, the Nurun Lab developed and undertook a design-thinking project to better understand how consumers watch TV. Our intent was to take a closer look at how the TV viewing habits have changed in light of the emergence of connected devices and the explosion of content across platforms.

At the beginning of this project, we set out to understand the impact of these changes on real people. We knew that gaining this human-centered, in-depth knowledge could inspire innovative ideas and business solutions. By understanding the role that multi-screen interactions play in TV viewing, we can change how people interact with their TVs for the better. While broadcast figures from Nielsen, the leader in media monitoring, show a drop in the size of TV audiences, our findings demonstrated that people are watching just as much television than ever before, just in a different—and more individualistic—way.

Our research also demonstrated the need to inject seamlessness into the multi-screen TV viewing experience. Moreover, even though the ability to watch any content on any screen has freed users from the tyranny of a TV schedule, people still crave the social dimension of watching TV at set times and talking about it with friends in real time. The bottom line is that TV viewing now involves the encounter of particular content, on a specific device, in a certain social context. In this regard, our recommendation to stakeholders (producers, channels, manufacturers and cable companies) is to think of the TV viewing experience as a “responsive ecosystem,” in which each device plays a different role depending on the other devices available at the moment of use.


Different Screens for Different Needs


According to a recent Nielsen Report, the most popular activity for smartphone and tablet owners while watching TV is social networking. However, users who have more than four screens at hand are more likely to search, socialize, and shop based on what they’re watching than those with fewer screens. Users have now become accustomed to jumping from one screen to the other depending on their needs and location. In fact, it’s becoming harder to pinpoint exactly what users mean when they say that they are “watching television,” as it could mean a dozen different things. Are we talking about a TV set connected through a cable provider or is the video signal coming from a Wii console streaming Netflix content or an iPad playing iTunes content on the TV using AirPlay through an Apple TV box?

A recent State of the Internet Report produced by comScore shows that smartphones are most commonly used for starting online activities such as email and social media, while PCs are the initial device for more complex activities, including managing finances and online shopping. Tablets are usually the starting point for trip planning and watching online videos. However, the role of each device is not always so obvious. As consumers diversify how they navigate the multi-screen ecosystem, we can no longer assume that they are engaging exclusively with one medium. We need to figure out what kind of relationships the users are more likely to develop with each screen and focus on building an optimal experience that spreads across multiple touch points.


First Screen Becomes Second, Third or Any Screen


Since users have started to explore the multi-screen ecosystem on their own, we have to wonder if the industry is reacting fast enough to this transformation. Creating online content that compliments to the primary screen is a start, but it’s not the end point. For most users, the multi-screen experience is less about looking at different screens simultaneously and more about alternating between screens for different purposes. The more we understand that any screen can be the first, second or even the third screen, the better we will become at enhancing the customer experience across that ecosystem.

While it’s important to know where and when the majority of consumers use different screens, it’s also necessary to understand how these screens interact—or don’t interact—with each another. Continuously testing and exploring new ways to interact through different screens is probably the best way to gain insight into the consumer’s ever-evolving behavior. Just as new experiences and platforms are developed every day, consumer behavior is shifting and evolving with them. We need to make the most out of every opportunity to observe and listen to customers to understand how they engage with content.


Different Modes of User Engagement


Evidently, the way users interact with digital content is partly driven by the device itself. It is natural to assume, for instance, that a desktop PC or a smartphone prompts the user to create a deeper engagement with the content, while a more passive behavior is usually expected to happen with TV or tablet usage.

The terms “lean forward” and “lean back” have been used to describe these different levels of engagement. This distinction originated in the field of interactive television, which most of us conceive as being a “lean forward” activity, while watching standard television is “lean back”. But in a constantly evolving multi-screen ecosystem, this kind of dualistic distinction does not reflect the complexity of the situation. We are starting to see that almost any device can be used in either “lean forward” or “lean back” style.

In an illuminating essay, designer Craig Mod suggested the terms “bed, knee and breakfast” style—or near, medium and far mode—to describe the multiple ways in which people use different screens concurrently. “Bed” content is consumed in a reclining position with the tablet or laptop close to the user’s face. “Breakfast” content is accessed with the tablet propped up or the laptop screen at a distance with limited usage of the user’s hands (watching video or reading news headlines while eating is the typical setting for such behavior). “Knee” content is anything that happens halfway between the two other positions, whether it’s a commuter on the bus playing a game with his tablet in his lap or a parent sitting on the couch with a laptop on her knees, catching up on email while the kids are playing nearby.

This new terminology can help us better understand the different modes of user engagement and the continuously evolving behaviors of users who move from one screen to another throughout their day. It’s also important to consider the fact that certain mobile apps like Pocket, Evernote or Flipboard can transform “knee” content into “bed” content as a user can glance at news headlines during the day and save some content for later consumption when he has more time to spare.

When we design apps and websites, it’s crucial to consider the differences between these engagement styles. An app that aims to match a user behavior in a “bed” or “breakfast” style of engagement will typically call for a simple and easy-to-use interface while a user in “knee” mode will welcome a more sophisticated tool that offers additional options.


Transmuting the Multi-Screen Experience


By taking into account the fact that a user interacts with multiple devices in different ways for different purposes depending on the context, we can get a better understanding of engagement styles and design optimal user experiences that can adapt to each screen. Our ethnographic findings gave us a solid foundation to support the development of a seamless multi-screen viewing experience for customers of Videotron, one of the leading cable providers in Québec. Vidéotron wanted to spread its entertainment offering to every screen. We created a common environment between the company’s website ( and tablet applications (iPad and Android) in order to cater to the varying viewing habits of Videotron’s customers.

In a constantly evolving and growing landscape of content viewing devices, the industry always has to be on the alert for emerging consumption behaviors. Flexibility and continuity are the keys to the successful execution of a multi-screen experience in this new responsive ecosystem that consumers have started to explore and outline on their own.

In the past months, as the knowledge gained from our design-thinking project sank in, we have started to share our findings with a few of our clients in the telecommunications industry. After building a few prototypes, we are now beginning to see how our findings can help our clients face new competitors by enabling them to create differentiated value propositions that will attract viewers who have started to navigate and map the multi-screen ecosystem.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Further Reading

A Design That Fits More Than One Screen

Q2 2013

The lack of any standard interface mode between multiple screens is forcing users to develop their own mode of navigation in the multi-screen ecosystem.

Read more

Designing From the Bottom Up

Q2 2013

Responsive design is a technique that challenges the traditional way of building websites.

Read more