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Five Fundamental Design Tips for Apple TV Apps

Those who are comfortable designing iOS apps will feel right at home with Apple TV, but there are some essential design parameters to keep in mind before getting started with this platform. Creating a great Apple TV app not only challenges designers to draw in multiple users, it has to be immersive enough to engage the group from across the room.

Fortunately, our design team has gathered some pertinent advice while creating Apple TV apps over the last year. If you want to design an app that stands out from the crowd, start with these tips.

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1. Understand Basic Visual Differences

Assess your designs early and often on a range of different screens and be particularly aware of color and contrast variance. Most designers are used to working on color-calibrated, high-end screens, but consumers rarely take the time to calibrate their televisions. The average HDTV display is going to be too bright and saturated. One easy way to check your work is to save mockups to the Photos app on your Mac, which can then sync to your Apple TV via iCloud's built-in photo sync functionality.

2. Take a Step Back

When designing for a big-screen, living-room experience, it's all about the 10-foot rule. From type size to color contrast to proportions and other details, designers have to account for the impact of distance between the user and the interface. Designers are used to creating products for laptop screens placed 12 to 18 inches away from the user, and mobile devices held even closer, but the typical couch-to-television experience is a new challenge for many. Test designs early and often on TVs or even step back from your desktop display. Evaluating designs on your computer from a just few feet away can provide an important checkpoint during early design explorations.

3. Bring Something New to the Table

Here's a key question to ask yourself when designing for Apple TV: What can you bring to your app that takes advantage of this unique, shared experience? Whether you're demonstrating new products, helping people plan dream vacations, or entertaining a crowd, the opportunities available with Apple TV are virtually endless. Don't just reformat an existing iOS app. Rethink what that app could be on the canvas that a 55-inch screen provides. We shared some of our Apple TV app ideas for more inspiration.

4. Start With Apple, but Don't Stop There

Apple has done a tremendous job in providing thorough design guidelines for tvOS, thanks to its comprehensive Apple TV Human Interface Guidelines (HIG), released shortly after the platform was announced last September. Before diving into designs, take the time to read and digest the HIG. Then dig into the built-in apps on Apple TV. Research how Apple has implemented navigation, information presentation, and other details. There are tons of insights that you can glean from these initial steps, but don't stop there.

There's a lot of interesting UX work being done for third-party apps as well. Download and explore a wide variety of them. Look for common interaction patterns and take note of what stands out. And don't overlook other great resources for Apple TV design and development.

5. Tease Content

While the typical television is getting larger each year, current HDTV resolution is a standard 1920-by-1080 pixels and doesn't provide a ton of room for your content. Navigating any tvOS interface involves lots of scrolling and swiping. The best way to inform users about these directional navigation options is to tease content from the edges of the screen. Your primary element will be the central focus of the UI, but if the user can navigate left and right or up and down to access different content, suggest that to them. Something as simple as the edge of a piece of content peeking in from the left or right of the screen is all that it takes to let your user know, "Hey, there's more here. Swipe left or swipe right."

The range and depth available with Apple TV gives us a world of opportunities to reach more people in new ways. Master the basics and explore the possibilities. Where will your new Apple TV app take you?

Tom Carmony

Tom Carmony

Tom is Design Director at Black Pixel. He tweets at @tomcarmony.