Four Fun Design Flourishes In Apple TV’s New “tvOS”

Same same, but different.


The new Apple TV is the next place to create iOS apps. Apple has released details of developing for “tvOS.” Like watchOS, tvOS isn’t so much a new operating system as it is an extension of iOS; like watchOS, though, it includes a whole new suite of widgets and interface objects that allow creators to tailor their app’s experience to a 1080-pixel-wide display that sits 10 feet from its user. Instead of direct touch, like on an iPad, the new Apple TV is controlled by a “Siri Remote,” which responds both to voice and a simple touchpad interface.


We’ve thumbed through the tvOS’s Human Interface Guidelines and discovered a few new flourishes that set tvOS apart from its sister interfaces.

A Focus Interface Updated For Touch

tvOS uses a “focus interface,” which means there’s no cursor like you’d find on a Mac. But there’s not a 1-to-1, screen-to-finger interface like there is on an iPhone or iPad, either, which means the on-screen interface must indicate exactly what you’re selecting using only the content elements themselves. The previous Apple TV did this by showing a glowing outline over a selected icon or by slightly enlarging a piece of content (typically the cover of movie, album, or TV show). A click on the old remote moved you in one of the four cardinal directions.

Because the touchpad on the Siri Remote should allow swifter flicks and more gradual precision in focus, the new Apple TV highlights selected content with a nifty rotation effect. You can even move your thumb around ever-so-slightly to control the rotation, which is certain to become a favorite way to indicate to the other people on the couch that you’re ready to just pick something to watch.

On Apple TV, an icon, image, button, or other interface element is considered to be in focus when it’s the current element during navigation. As an element comes into focus, it’s gently elevated to the foreground and sways in response to a light, circular gesture on the touch surface of the remote. As this occurs, an illuminated sheen is applied to the item, making its surface appear to shine. If the user leaves the room, any out of focus content dims while the focused element grows even larger. These effects work together to maintain a connection with people sitting on the couch—10 feet from the screen—and provide a sense of clarity and context, reinforcing what’s in focus.

Icons Are Now Parallax, As Well


That same effect for the focus interface applies even more so to icons, which Apple is advising be created with “between two and five layers to create a sense of depth and vitality as your icon comes into focus.” More work for designers ahead, especially those who aren’t already using vector-based images for their icons; it wouldn’t be surprised to see many developers punt on this one, since some icons simply aren’t designed to work when perceived with a parallax effect.

A New On-Screen Keyboard

While Apple prudently still suggests keeping text-based input to a minimum in apps, there’s a new full-width, single-line keyboard interface that is clearly designed to be laterally swiped across quickly. How quick this will be in practice waits to be seen.

“Force Touch Lite”

While the Siri Remote doesn’t have the Force Touch/3D Touch interface of other Apple devices, there are actually still two different ways (or “strengths,” if you’d rather) to select content for interaction. A “tap” serves as a basic selection, while a “click” is designed to—somewhat confusingly—sometimes do the same thing as a tap, but at other times serve as a context menu trigger. It’s a bit murky without having a Siri Remote in our hands to understand how distinct the difference will be; it’s not clear if the click is physical, like a MacBook Air’s touchpad, or simply a longer press of the surface. Either way, we hope consistency across apps will develop soon.


Bonus: A Dedicated “Skip Intro” Button.

It’s just a suggestion from Apple, but a nice one: in games with an introductory video, Apple suggest the dedicated play/pause button be used a way to skip right to the menu or gameplay. Most games offer this by default these days, but it’s a nice, human way to put a button that might be otherwise unused to use.

Always enable the Play/Pause button on the Siri Remote. Unused buttons feel broken, so always implement reasonable behavior for the Play/Pause button. For example, let users press Play/Pause to immediately start a game, skip a page with tutorial instructions, or jump immediately into media playback. During gameplay, if you don’t have a secondary action, Play/Pause should perform the primary action. In an app, if there’s no obvious item to play, use Play/Pause to trigger the same behavior as a click to activate a focused item.

About the author

Joel Johnson used to be a writer.