29: Mystery meat MENU

The more Apple TV apps I install, the more confused I become. I'll happily take some of the blame, but I feel that the lack of clarity is partially the platform's fault. Specifically, input to the Apple TV is deliberately limited, with just six buttons on the Siri remote, and this increases ambiguity, and perhaps user anxiety.

The Siri remote has been dragged through the mud enough, so I won't belabor it here. But figuring out what its buttons do — not what they are labeled — is part of the tvOS learning curve. Eventually you come to know that the little TV icon means "home" and "MENU" means "back". But back to where? I frequently find myself afraid to hit the menu button because doing it feels like making a bet. This is especially true for live-streaming apps, which often take a punitive attitude towards pre-roll ads, making you not just wait but actually miss a portion of the content. For on-demand video, the spectre of losing play position and having to work your way back looms, even though Siri and scrubber thumbnails make that simpler.

All I can ever be certain of is that hitting MENU will take me somewhere else. Maybe it will end my stream, or perhaps it will open up a whole screen full of features not accessible anywhere else, as in the MLB At Bat app. Even if each individual behavior is well thought out, I still have to be mentally tracking modes all the time: if I'm in this app, with it in this state, then the mystery meat button will take me over there.

There's one way to fix this in software: institute basic wayfinding at the system level. Understandably, the tvOS interface has to be nil when displaying video, so there are gestures to bring up information and options. Swipe down for audio and video preferences, and swipe up for, well, "other" — although in many apps this gesture goes unused. I'd like to see that bottom third overlay (which developers can take full control over, it seems) to also give me an indication of what MENU will do. This would be akin to labeling leftward navigation buttons in iOS, which also correspond to swipe gestures. Two ways to accomplish an action are always more effective than one, and are decidedly Apple-like. (Think of how keyboard shortcuts are displayed in menus on the Mac. They serve as teaching aids to the novice and uncertain, and it's no fuss to a veteran power user that ⌘C appears next to Copy.)

There's no fixing the Siri remote without another generational update to Apple TV hardware. But as we've already seen with its touchpad behavior being modified in tvOS 9.2, changes to software can improve its utility. Taking the mystery out of the menu button in tvOS 10 would be a step in a known direction: forward.