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How to Create an Apple TV App Users Will Love

Tony Scherba
April 5, 2016

Apple TV is rapidly becoming a fixture in America’s living rooms. The technology giant’s video platform became its fastest growing hardware way back in 2013, and consumers’ thirst for the product has yet to be slaked.

Although Apple didn’t release specific sales figures, CEO Tim Cook called the first quarter of 2016 the “best quarter by far for Apple TV sales.” 

It’s a boom that hasn’t gone unnoticed by software developers. Just one year after opening Apple TV to developers, Apple boasted that as many as 5,000 apps have made their way to the TV screen, and roughly 5,000 more are slated to debut this year.

Building for the Big Screen

The app craze has made it to televisions, and for brands, Apple TV presents a new frontier of app possibilities — from home command centers to board games to office helpers. 
While there’s no single right way for brands to build an app for Apple TV, there is a wrong way: Repackaging a preexisting mobile app. Consumers don’t want a rehash of software better suited to their phone screens, and those watching Apple TV are likely kicking back in their easy chairs, not twiddling their thumbs waiting for the bus. 

With Apple TV, the challenge for developers won’t be the back-end work — Apple TV’s tvOS 9.2 shares many similarities with Apple’s iOS mobile operating system — it will be the front-end interfaces. To create apps that are intuitive and user-friendly on the big screen, developers should stick to these principles when building an Apple TV app:

An array of Apple TV apps: Sonic CD, Hammer Bomb TV, Atomic Hangman, Netflix, HBO Now, and Hulu

1. Think big. Apple TV presents a comparatively giant viewing area to its mobile cousin. Developers should take advantage of its size by considering what sort of content works best on larger screen sizes. Apps that involve calendars, turn-based gaming, or group brainstorming are obvious possibilities, not to mention video streaming. Carrot Weather is proof that even weather apps can comfortably fill the screen.

2. Limit menus. Apple TV is designed for video first and foremost, and who wants to slog through eight menus to reach the video they want to play? Brands building apps for Apple TV must work to fell the hurdles standing between content and the end user. YouTube’s Vevo Apple TV app makes things simple, requiring just one swipe to pull up the user’s favorite artists. 

3. Pick and choose. Airbnb’s Apple TV app is proof that more isn’t always better. It offers an interactive way to highlight rentals and display photos, but it doesn’t display reviews or booking tools. Viewers can save rentals they’re interested in for later booking via the website or mobile app. Airbnb’s app developers understand people use their televisions for casual viewing, not in-depth research.

4. Minimize text entry. With its tvOS 9.2 release, Apple recently solved a major product defect: a lack of keyboard support. But even with Siri dictation in text fields and improved keyboard functionality, it’s cumbersome for users to do more than search for film titles on the platform. Plex, a video streaming and organization app, handles most of the text entry for its users: It scrapes metadata from uploaded video files and automatically attaches information it finds online to those files, including poster art, plot synopses, cast information, and more.

Closeup of Jon Emminizer's hand showing off the Apple TV

With the advent of Apple TV, apps are no longer just for mobile. They’re making television more interactive and engaging, but they’re also adapting for users who are likely relaxing in their living rooms rather than on the go. 

For this reason, the hallmark of a successful Apple TV app is simplicity: Apps should be lightly interactive, feature high doses of passive media, and rely minimally on menu interfaces. 

Apple has built the platform, and — like many things Apple builds — it’s becoming a new consumer favorite. All that’s left is for developers to dream, develop, and design the content to make it great.

Tony Scherba is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.

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