Smart TVs have come a long way since their modest beginnings. Today’s TV sets are bigger, better, faster and… smarter. Over the past few years, we have witnessed the introduction and evolution of various TV features that had never occurred to us in the pre-smart era. TVs come with built-in web browsers, photo viewers, and are capable of streaming video on demand. At the same time, even mid-range TVs come with high resolution, vibrant screens, that support high refresh rates and low input lag.

But the biggest change is happening under the hood, invisible to the naked eye: TVs have in fact become fully-fledged computers allowing the user to install and run apps much like on mobile phones.

In this post, we review the key things to consider when developing a TV app.

1. Hire the right talent and make important technology choices

TV app development has become a thriving branch of the industry. And because how a TV app feels can essentially make or break a user’s experience, increasingly more attention is paid to the quality and usability of apps and trying to adapt to the ever-changing habits of viewers.

When on the lookout for a developer team for your smart TV app, it’s worth considering a contractor who has developed similar projects in the past and is willing to show a portfolio of previous work in the smart TV area. A specialized, well-established smart TV developer will help to ensure the quality of services and long term support for the application (i.e. updates, fixes and improvements).

Knowledge of specific platform SDK and understanding of software architecture certainly helps, especially when combined with practical experience in HTML, CSS, and Java.

Of course, before you start developing an app for Smart TV you should research your main target platforms. The variety of platforms doesn’t make it easy but may be important from the business point of view. Development of the app for several smart TV platforms will make it more difficult to support in the future.

2. Screen matters

Interface legibility is a key factor in the design of TV apps. As the technology is getting cheaper and cheaper, almost every TV screen you can buy today is more than 40 inches in diameter and capable of displaying 4K video. When designing an app that utilizes such real estate, it’s very important to factor in the distance people usually watch the content from.

The exact numbers may vary but typically oscillate around three meters. If the app involves displaying text, make all the content and elements are big enough to be read from a distance. Perhaps a good idea is to use large paper cutouts as mockups and test the viewing distance yourself. Move your seat back and forth to find the sweet spot and scale your interface elements accordingly.

Likewise, to improve the legibility of the interface it’s important to take care of the contrast. This typically boils down to light exposure during the day (i.e. in sunlight) and lots of contrast during the night.

3. The problem with input on smart TVs

While most modern TVs offer the user a range of input options: voice commands, touchpad, and mobile phone, it’s still good practice to make sure the good ol’ remote control is properly taken care of. This involves designing the app with the D-pad in mind.

Keep clicks to a minimum and try to simplify the flow of the app. Navigation should never discriminate against users who want to stick with the remote. At the same time entering data like passwords and credit card details on the TV can be a chore, and severe punishment for typos compounds the problem.

Although Google has come up with some very useful APIs like Smart Lock and Autofill to ease the TV users’ input pains, certain more complex cases of on-screen input still badly call for the keyboard. This is where Nearby Connections API comes in handy and enables developers to use another Android device, e.g. a mobile phone, to let users enter text on the smart TV more easily.

4. Voice control

Navigation plays a central role in a smart TV app. User-friendly, smooth navigation is vital for maintaining the interest of viewers, helping them quickly find the content they want. A convenient search function is crucial for each smart TV application and can make or break the app.

Many smart TV producers, on top of the staple D-pad user input integrate some kind of voice control. Samsung’s intelligent voice assistant Bixby is slowly replacing Samsung Voice Control in the new smart TV models. Many Android-based TVs from brands like LG, Philips, Sharp and Sony vastly take advantage of the user’s mobile phone and Google Assistant. Alternatively, LG uses ThinQ, a proprietary voice control technology for some models in its smart TV line up. Amazon, on the other hand, is realising its own business agenda through promoting the Alexa voice assistant in the new Hisense, LG, Sony, and Toshiba smart TV models.

5. Content recommendations

If you are developing an app offering video streaming (TV shows, movies etc.), you can consider supporting video previews and integrating the app with the Watch Next channel on Android TV’s home screen.

In this way, your app can feed recommendations to the channel (e.g. programs the user has marked as interesting, started watching but did not finish, or content recommendations, e.g. the next episode of a series).

Watch Next channel is maintained by the Android TV System and appears on the TV home screen, right after the apps row. Your app can add content. For more information, see Add programs to the Watch Next channel.

The wrap-up

Developing apps for smart TVs is certainly not easy and involves many important design decisions, from platform selection, through user input, to the size of the interface and its contrast.

What adds to the difficulty is that there are not many well established, tried and tested practices to gain inspiration from. Because smart TV app development is still mostly uncharted waters, the importance of partnering with the right development company is even higher. But at the same first-mover’s advantages for businesses are plenty, and TV production companies and brands must seize this opportunity to get ahead of the game.