3 Ways To Keep Second Screens Secondary

Harvis creator Andrew DeVigal on designing an app that lets people interact with what they watch without losing focus.


The verdict is in: people love to poke at their phones and tablets while watching TV. Which might be fine for that DVR-friendly medium. But what about movies in the theater, or live TV that doesn’t accommodate your tendency to pause or divide your attention? Many have tried and failed to create a “second screen” user experience that meaningfully integrates with the main event without getting in the way.


But it is possible, says Andrew DeVigal, an ex-New York Times multimedia editor who recently launched Harvis, a mobile web app whose “heads up” UX lets audiences engage with a movie, presentation, or event in lightweight but powerful ways. Here are three things that he and his team (which includes co-founder Laura Lo Forti and developer Ivar Vong) learned while designing it.

1. Create a core “no-look” gesture.

Harvis is an audience-participation app that lets viewers register opinions on what they’re watching, and then aggregates those opinions into meaningful data visualizations that can drive discussions or analysis later. But if a viewer has to take her eyes off the main screen, even for a second, she may miss something important. DeVigal considered displaying simple buttons on the smartphone screen, but nixed the idea because he didn’t want to force users to “check down on their screen to confirm that they are hitting the right targets on their device.”

Instead, he designed an ingenious full-screen swiping gesture. Swiping your thumb from anywhere on the screen registers as an interaction, so there’s no need to glance down since there’s no way to “miss” it. “The design of the swipes was critical,” DeVigal tells Co.Design. “We wanted it to be purposeful and intentional and not record gestures that were mistakes by the user. It’s not the same as swiping through your email, for example. You actually have to swipe a certain distant for it to be successfully registered.” Finding that subtle sweet spot of interaction–coarse enough to perform blind, but directed enough to be meaningful–is the first key to protecting a “heads up” experience.

2. Limit your gesture to two inputs.


In Harvis, swiping upwards registers a “positive” response by default, and downwards a “negative” one. “Two well-defined and well-explained gestures seems to be the proper threshold,” DeVigal says. “We learned this lesson the hard way during a test screening.” One swipe was idiot-proof, but limited the richness of the data that Harvis could sample. Meanwhile, multiple gestures–like up, down, left and right–made it hard for viewers to remember what was what.

Harvis lets a user customize the meaning of its up and down interactions (“in the case of an activist documentary, up could mean ‘motivated to act’ and down could mean ‘feeling helpless’,” DeVigal explains), but that binary choice keeps things simple. And visual cues help, too: Swiping up drags a subtle green gradient over the screen, and swiping down makes red appear. The color displays are bold but simple; you don’t need to actually look at them, but your peripheral vision can still sense the feedback.

3. Respect your audience’s eyeballs.

There’s a reason that movie theaters forbid texting silently during movies: Seeing a bunch of quivering, glowing rectangles out of the corner of your eye is incredibly distracting. “We kept the mobile screen dark on purpose to keep the ambient glare of devices down,” DeVigal says. And if your smartphone has an AMOLED screen, going dark will even conserve battery life (slightly).

It might not seem like flicking up and down on your phone while watching a documentary would generate much meaningful interaction. But DeVigal’s company, A Fourth Act, recently used Harvis to capture and generate significant audience participation during a screening of an advocacy documentary called American Promise. This kind of successful heads-up experience could be applied to everything from test screenings and focus groups to classroom educational films and political debates. Maybe the “second screen” can do more than deliver advertising after all.

[Read more about Harvis here].

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets