Big screens, big data and big backlogs

A talk about how All 4 are tackling some of their biggest product challenges.

When 4oD launched 11 years ago, it was a tiny product. It now has 16 million registered users over 20 different platforms, with 2 million views a day and represents 10% of Channel 4 revenues. But despite successes there are still 3 big challenges; Head of Product Sarah Milton took us through what they’re currently up against, and what they’ve learned from a decade of innovation.

Sarah’s talk kicked off with this quote from the film Moneyball, as a succinct way of summing up one of the biggest challenge of product management

Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins.

Although ostensibly Moneyball’s about baseball, it’s really all about statistics, analytics and how these help you win. It’s a line that couldn’t be more apt as a description of life as a product person, and Sarah uses this as a helpful reminder that creating great products is all about delivering outcomes, not features.

Innovation has always been squarely at the heart of Channel 4’s remit and raison d’etre, with its video on demand offering being a huge part of that. The All 4 product was a world-first at launch, and has since grown massively – lots to be proud of, but Sarah shared that there’s still plenty of work to do (and probably many shared problems with the audience).

So, Sarah’s talk focused on the three biggest challenges they’re facing right now; big data, big backlogs and big screens.

Big data

We all hear a lot about it, talk about it and collect it – but is that enough? (Of course, the answer is no). You need a plan for how that data will add value to the business, as well as the consumer. Data, plus a plan, and the infrastructure/capabilities to be able to use it – that’s the real goal.

All 4 users have to be signed in to access the content, so naturally there’s a lot of data collected – so they invested in an in-house team of data scientists to get to grips with these big numbers. At first, the focus was largely on commercial benefits (i.e personalised advertising and valuable targeting), and Sarah admitted that for a long time data was collected without necessarily giving people a lot in return (apart from access to their huge catalogue of television, of course).

Now the focus is squarely on using that data to make it quicker and easier for users to find, watch and resume content – essentially better personalisation (although Sarah explained that that term can be too often be treated as an end in itself, rather than the means to the real end – a better experience).

An example of an All 4 taste segment - Alt Brit

A key challenge for All 4 is how to use that data to personalise each user’s experience, while at the same time remaining ‘editorial’; curating shows and surfacing new content is a core part of Channel 4’s mission. The answer has been to use topic modelling to segment users into taste profiles, and show them curated collections based on other similar users’ viewing patterns – so while you’ll see content you will definitely like, you’ll also be guided to new stuff, too. There are currently 9 taste segments, with some of the most popular being ‘Voyeurs’ and ‘Inquisitive minds’ as well as show specific segments for ‘Hollyoaks’.

Big backlogs

Sarah teased the audience by saying she was about to reveal the secret to clearing your backlog…but of course, there is no quick fix for this, and we should all embrace the fact that backlogs are going to be big, and there’s never enough budget or time to achieve everything you want to. That said, the last thing anyone wants is for the backlog to become a sort of shared Christmas wish-list.

All 4 are trying to tackle this and prioritise in a number of ways. It’s helpful to be always very clear on your company’s overall values and objectives, and constantly tie these back to your to-do lists, flushing out the things that don’t really align. They try and be as evidence-driven as possible when scoring/estimating the value of a backlog item (which helps to avoid the hippo problem – having to listen to the highest paid person’s opinion).

Sarah went on to say that you can never have all the insight you need, but they draw on a mosaic of sources such as customer data, market and competitor research, user testing, multi-variant testing, and so on. Their focus is always on product themes (such as ‘Connect’, ‘Watch’, ‘Continue’), rather than individual features. The roadmap has recently fallen a little out of favour with product people – but Sarah thinks it has a time and place, as long as you’re willing to adapt it.

Big screens and big teams

People engage with the All 4 products through a number of different platforms, including things like games consoles, which Sarah referred to as ‘big screens’. There are number of product challenges associated with these compared to the standard website/mobile app – different visual considerations, the remote, and so on. Internally the challenge is that this has led to the creation of a number of different platform teams at different stages of maturity and therefore quite silo’d working with lots of individual roadmaps.

This had 2 big negative impacts; users weren’t getting a consistent experience, and the central services (API) team were having to revisit and rebuild features as new platform requirements came to light. Cue huge amounts of frustration.

All4 decided to break this cycle and focus on 2/3 big common goals to implement across the entire All4 estate, at the same time; everyone working on solving the same problems. This required a mental shift from people looking after their own platform to prioritising the product as a whole.

We had to institutionalise the idea of collaboration.

They invented a collaboration process which draws on a number of different methodologies (like Agile) to help a core team of people (drawn from all disciplines and platform teams) to develop and agree on a quarterly set of common product goals that can be shipped. It has been transformational not just for the users, but for the happiness of the internal teams, with a greater amount of cohesion and trust.

But – there’s still a long way to go. Especially when budgets tighten and they have to decide what not to do, it’s hard to maintain an approach that requires a level of parity across all platforms, regardless of size. In gaining coherence and eliminating duplication, they’ve lost the ability to test an idea by developing only for a single platform initially. So when something doesn’t work out as hoped and expected, it’s an expensive failure. All the more reason to do the homework upfront…

You can watch Sarah's talk in full below.

Watch Sarah's talk in full.