Media & Entertainment UX/UI

Building cross-platform OTT apps: best practices in design & development

cross platform OTT apps best practices in design and development

We live in a connected world. Users switch between three devices on average to view content. They prefer to watch content anywhere, anytime, without any interruption. For example, they could start watching a movie on their mobile phone while traveling home and then continue watching it on a bigger TV screen in their living room.

OTT brands that understand the value of the connected experience will agree that building cross-platform apps are essential. Brands that recognize the potential of cross-platform OTT apps early on will likely benefit in the long run.

There are two aspects to creating a cross-platform OTT platform – developing and designing: the former involves building a uniform, consistent, homogenous UI that promises optimum user experience to your viewers irrespective of the platform used to access it. Development, however, is not that straightforward and could involve more than one ‘best’ approach – depending on the time, scale, and budget of building your application.

Native implementation for platforms is the most optimal approach. However, with the advent of technologies such as Flutter and React-Native, cross-platform could be as effective. It is a more cost-effective approach as it uses a shared codebase and a hybrid framework that works well on all devices like Android, iOS, TV, Web, and set-top box (STB). It eliminates the need to maintain separate code bases built in a native approach. You can choose the native route (relatively more expensive) or choose a carefully designed development strategy that leverages the tools that enable you to build a native or almost-native app with just a single code base for most platforms.

In this article, we will focus on cross-platform design and development, why they are essential for an OTT app’s success, and what should be the key focus areas while building such an experience.

Advantages of building cross-platform OTT Apps

The following could be the key benefits of building cross-platform experiences:

Broader user reach: Cross-platform development allows one to build apps for different devices and operating systems. OTT brands can reach out to more users and give them access to view content on whichever device they prefer.

Inter-usability: Cross-platform app lets brands build apps with uniform UX and UI. So, even if the user switches the device with a different screen size or operating system, the interface and the experience will remain the same – the user would hardly be able to tell the difference.

Cost-effective: OTT players can save significant costs on hiring different teams for developing and maintaining apps. A single team can take care of everything in case of a hybrid approach.

Faster development: Cross-platform apps built on a hybrid approach are developed on the principle of ‘code once and deploy everywhere’. Enterprises can save time on developing, maintaining, and upgrading different apps. The updates are synced automatically for all platforms and devices.

Focus areas while building an OTT app irrespective of the development approach

#1 Playback experience

The playback experience is a critical factor in an OTT app. It may seem like an obvious thing, but unfortunately, it is ignored by many.

  • The focus should be on achieving good quality (resolution) of the video with minimal video size to cater even to mediocre network speed. Latest video encoding software & codecs (like AV1) can be used to achieve this. As users have devices that support 4K, HDR10, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos, the team must ensure that the content supports these options and delivers a fantastic content-watching experience.
  • Users hate buffering while watching their favorite content. Choose a good capacity CDN/Server for better speed to prevent delays.
  • Use services like Video Analytics to monitor the errors and fix them as soon as possible
  • Don’t focus all your efforts on UI. A fancy UI will be useless if the video-watching experience is poor. For example, Amazon Prime offers a great video-watching experience, but some may find the UI ‘basic’ – just enough to browse the content. Yet it is one of the most popular OTT apps the world over.
  • Netflix, Prime, and Discovery are all great believers in the practice of great playback experience.

#2 Content discovery

A great content library is of no use if users cannot find relevant content easily without any friction. Enable users to find their favorite content with minimal effort. Build robust recommendation engines based on a viewer’s previous watch history using technologies such as AI/ML. Netflix, Prime, and Discovery do this well across devices and platforms.

#3 Framework

It’s always wise to choose a native development approach for OTT apps. Native apps have better performance with memory & CPU optimizations, which is essential for OTT apps. Even though the initial cost of native app development is high, it will be worth it in the end.

Recommended frameworks:

  • Android Mobile & TV: A native common app could be built for both TV & mobile. It can have the same business logic but a different UI layer to adapt to the TV experience with minimal effort—for example, Kotlin with MVVM architecture and ExoPlayer for playback.
  • iOS & Apple TV: Same as in Android, same business logic layer with different UI layer for TV. For example, Swift programming language with AVPlayer for playback.
  • Web, LG TV, Samsung TV, and other web OS-based TV & STBs: A web application for all these devices.

Key features to give viewers a delightful experience

Live streaming: Live streaming gives users the joy of watching major events in real-time. It can hold user’s attention 10x-20x longer than pre-recorded videos. Live streaming accounted for 24% of global OTT viewing in the first quarter of 2021. Crafting a live-streaming experience calls for a unique approach with several recommended best practices. The live streaming of the famous cricket event, Indian Premier League (IPL), helped Disney + Hotstar add 7 million subscribers to their subscription base. Consider adding a feature to broadcast live content on your OTT app. It will boost engagement on your app and get more subscribers.

Build a library of localized content: Multi-lingual subtitles and audio descriptions have made it easy for users to consume more localized content. 95% of the users who watched Squid Games on Netflix were from outside Korea. Users love to watch good content irrespective of the language. So, consider including more localized content on the platform. Experiment with different genres, themes, and creative styles. Add subtitles and audio descriptions in multiple languages to eliminate the language barriers and facilitate a joyful viewing experience.

Build for connected TV: With 44% of households expected to disconnect the traditional cable network by 2023 and 82% adopting connected TV, it’s time to consider building apps compatible with connected TV. Consider creating 4K videos that can be streamed on Roku devices and pay attention to the screen size and other functionalities while building the app. You must consider the leading devices like Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, Android TV, and some web-based smart TV platforms such as Samsung’s Tizen and WebOS.

Cross-platform OTT apps

Read more about how we developed a seamless multi-platform experience for Magnolia Network, USA.

Provide multi-device access: Continuity is crucial in developing OTT apps. The content should automatically be synchronized across different platforms and devices to prevent friction in the viewing experience. Allow multi-channel access on different devices. This enables the user to switch devices and access content with a single sign-in.

Experiment with subscription models: OTT brands use different revenue models like Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD), Advertising Video On Demand (AVOD), and Transactional Video On Demand or pay-per-view (TVOD).

  • SVOD gives users access to the entire content library for a subscription fee.
  • AVOD allows users to access free content in exchange for viewing ads.
  • TVOD works well for live streaming of special events such as sports or worldwide premier of popular movies.
  • Experiment with different revenue strategies to find out what works. For example, use a combination of AVOD and SVOD to serve free content and upgrade the user to premium, gated content. You can also include exclusive live stream content and charge on a per-view-basis. The flexibility in revenue models will give users the choice to view the content as they desire.

Features like Chromecast (casting content from mobile to TV), offline download for mobile apps, mini-player, Picture in Picture (PIP), DRM, playback features like audio track selection, quality selection, playback speed control, and subtitle customization can also be a differentiator for your brand.

Retention is the new growth mantra

Typically, OTT players like Netflix lose less than 1% monthly subscribers. While this might be a minuscule number, the reality is that the streaming giant lost over 200,000 subscribers within the first quarter of 2022. Customer retention is as essential as acquisition. Losing subscribers could be detrimental to the app’s growth. It’s hard to get back the users again once you lose them.

Apart from the best practices discussed above, apply data-driven design thinking principles to retain users. This could include:

  • Adding features that offer convenience and ease of use to users
  • Creating a seamless experience across all devices and platforms
  • Instilling a sense of pride within users in using the platform
  • Testing new and innovative designs to meet the changing needs of the users
  • Providing a positive reinforcement or reward to the user for using the app
  • Building a friction-free onboarding process
  • Personalizing recommendations based on users’ behavior patterns and preferences
  • Listening to the user to make them feel valued

Remember to keep the user at the center of your app development and engagement strategies and focus on reducing the churn. That’s the only way to retain users and earn from recurring subscriptions.

Syed Mehdi Abbas
As Senior Director- Strategic Accounts at Robosoft, Abbas loves obsessing over an idea to conceptualize & shape it into a product. He has extensive experience in digital strategy, design and implementation, business process re-engineering, and application portfolio management.

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