Hope for TiVo?

I have written elsewhere (Leading with Vision: The Design of New Ventures) about the challenges for TiVo in today’s networked world. This morning TiVo and Yahoo announced what I sincerely hope to be a new strategic direction for the company:

TiVo Inc. and Yahoo Inc. said on Monday launched a collaborative service that allows TiVo users to program their digital video recorders remotely using Yahoo’s television information Web sites. Shares of TiVo rose 13 percent on the Inet trading system, as the deal appeared to help the company find new ways to compete with cable and satellite companied that offer their own video recording services. In the coming months, TiVo and Yahoo will also offer Yahoo services like photos, traffic, and weather available as part of the TiVo service

There may be hope yet for us TiVo fanatics, as the company struggles to move from being a box to being an enabling node in a larger network that its competitors, the Cable and Satellite providers, cannot or will not create.

In a world where anyone could design and source a digital video recorder (e.g., the HargaDVR) within a few months, TiVo has little advantage to offer as a stand-alone box. If you say superior user-interface, it’s the same as saying Charmin will hold its own in Walmart because of its superior user interface. That’s a nice thought, but when it’s sitting on the shelf next to a Walmart private label tissue selling for 25-50% less and you can’t (or won’t) experience the difference before buying, user interface is a hard sell.

Instead, TiVo’s biggest advantage lies in connecting the user to worlds beyond what the Cable and Satellite providers bring–making TiVo a valuable addition rather than interloper to the existing field surrounding the production and consumption of television content. If TiVo brings Yahoo into the television field, it brings a set of product features and user experiences that the CableCos could not. For example, Yahoo brings a TiVo-enabled network the ability to record programs from the ‘net whenever and wherever they think of it (TiVo2 could already do that, but not without visiting the TiVo site). With all of Yahoo’s content, that could be enormous. Yahoo already provides programming schedules. They could also provide long-tail recommendations for TiVo users that include more information about what and why, and integrate digital content along the way. And any ads Yahoo sells to the networks could carry its own “record this show,” getting rid of the need for viewers to actually remember to watch something. That’s just the beginning, or course, but a great leap forward for them.

In classes and executive ed, I have used the TiVo case extensively as an exercise to get people to see the enormous opportunities that come from viewing products as portals into networks rather than as ends in and of themselves, where the advantages come from what new networks you bring. I’m always amazed at the new markets that people think to bring in–from linking Leapfrog educational toys with network content (Blues Clues, Dora the explorer, etc…) to voting someone off the island to downloading old Leave it to Beaver episodes to inserting local and targeted advertising in programs (a la GoogleAds).

About 3 years ago, I had a conversation with the President of Fox, though calling it a conversation gives me too much credit. I told him I believed TiVo would change the television industry and he called me a thief for stealing his programming. The Networks responded in classic fashion to a new technology: threat-rigidity. Unable to see TiVo as both a threat and an opportunity, they chose threat and responded accordingly. The opportunity to grab and hold viewers with interactive features, to move them back and forth between the web and the screen, was too obscured by their own visions of what they provided for them to see. They too had their product and couldn’t see how their own future depended on expanding the networks of those surrounding them. In their defense, TiVo failed to convince them because they too saw themselves too much as a box meant to replace–not augment–the existing networks.

The art and science of design

Had a wonderful dinner with a few of the leading minds in the design and innovation area (feel free to have your own heroes): Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek, Chris Flink of IDEO, and Chip Heath of Stanford University Grad School of Business. Blogging seems like a nice pasttime, but doesn’t hold a candle to dinner and drinks (not necessarily in that order). I left with a number of insights (and books and blogs to check out).

Chip’s work lies in understanding what makes ideas stick–in individual minds and, ultimately, in cultures. Why does an audience remember stories exponentially more than they remember facts? Why do some stories morph from reality into relatively standard narrative templates over time and retelling (like the Edison as inventor myth)? This has obvious implications for anyone involved in designing new ventures, new products, new ad campaigns, new change efforts in organizations. As Chip describes in one article:

“If we could understand what kinds of stories succeed beyond all expectations, even when they are not true, we might be able to take legitimate information, about health for example, and change people’s behavior for the better,” Heath says. “Or if I were a business manager, I would love to have a mission statement for my organization that was as successful at moving through the organization as the most successful urban legends.”

There is a vast and untapped potential in bridging cognitive science and creative output–what makes one incarnation of an idea wildly successful while the same idea, presented another way, fails without so much as a whimper. More importantly for this topic, here is where the art of design runs smack into the science…where the folks in black turtlenecks and architects glasses will be forced to cede ownership of design to ordinary folks doing extraordinary things.

Who would benefit from a more accessible understanding of design–from a few simple design rules for the rest of us? Herbert Simon, the Nobel laureate and bridger of cognitive science and organizational theory, once said: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing exsiting situations into preferred ones…” So, technically, all of us. Whether it’s an ad campaign or a mission statement, a new product or a project proposal, the principles of design apply and a little scientific insight into those principles would be quite powerful. Add to this population Bruce Nussbaum’s post about the design habits of young web users:

According to Pew “Fully half of all teens and 57% of teens who use the internet could be considered Content Creators. They have created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations.

In other words, more and more of us are designing–or realize we have been designing all along–and the time is ripe to develop a few ideas about design that stick.