Everyone loves video streaming services. At the same time, everyone hates video streaming services. It doesn’t matter if it’s Netflix, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, HBO Max – for every great series or movie we watch on the platforms, there are half a dozen things we actually hate experience doing it.
“They’re all so awful. I don’t want to talk because I work for all of them. But they’re all bad,” said Stephen Schiff Diversity during the recent hate fest for streaming services. It looks like Schiff, FX’s executive producer and writer Americans, he is not alone in his feelings.
Streaming platforms have become an essential part of many people’s lives – 87% of all American households subscribe to at least one service. On average, a person in the US subscribes to 2.8 streaming services, and 10% pay for more than 5 streaming services at any given time. It’s easy to see why. They all offer a virtually unlimited number of series and movies on demand, which is a great convenience compared to the traditional model of network television. But all of them suffer from a terrible user experience that can make finding and watching streaming content sometimes as enjoyable as eating thumbtacks and cheese tacos—through your nose.
Each platform has its own flavor of evil. For example, on Apple TV+, the “continue watching” menu is hidden under a tab. Good luck watching the end credits on Netflix – they are automatically skipped to show the new episode. Hulu makes viewers hunt for the show they just watched. And Amazon Prime has turned its streaming service into a buffet of all-you-can-eat video content that requires viewers to surf the interface as if they were looking for the best deal on toilet paper.
Streamers in general have terrible landing pages and subparking algorithms. The play buttons often don’t work properly, and using the time slider to move to the right point in the video still feels as much fun and precise as playing Tetris toes.
In the silo, these UX sins are an annoying but ultimately unmissable trade-off for easily accessible content. But it’s 2023, and there really is no excuse for the entire digital tools genre to so blatantly ignore the fundamentals of good design. I had to wonder: why do platforms that are supposed to give us pleasure seem passionately invested in putting anti-UX mines on their interfaces? I asked several experts in the field for their opinion.
The most glaring problem with the streaming interface is how hard it is to watch the show. For AppleTV+ and Disney+ in particular, finding the “continue watching” feature takes a long time to scroll. “As UX designers and users of these services, we find this incredibly irritating,” Carsten Wierwille tells me in an email interview.
Wierwille, CEO of digital design studio Ustwo, blames the entertainment industry for fear of the new. Instead of reinventing TV as streaming promised, platforms have copied some of the worst features of cable TV in order to attract viewers and maintain subscriptions. Wierwille dares to do so the buried “continue watching” menu is probably a victim of marketing purposes. Streamers reserve the best screen space to promote new or popular content, which he says fits in with traditional TV design patterns of prioritizing content based on who pays the most for “preferred placement” rather than prioritizing needs users.
“You could say it’s an old grocery store trick of putting frequently purchased items, such as milk, in the back of the store to create more temptation,” she says. In the case of streaming, the service decides what to promote based on its own internal goals for each show and metrics – a secret formula that seemingly no one has access to, not even show producers.
Zac Snider, project manager at Ustwo, agrees that there is a clear priority to promoting new shows over returning to content you already watch. “Streaming services care about hours of content watched and subscriber growth, not whether people have finished the series,” he says. “Which is more important: that we finished all of Glow (after about 22.5 hours of content) or that I watched 8 shows halfway through (after about 80 hours of content)?” This is why the emphasis on “discovery” is so important. For the same reason, these services cut credits to move to the next episode within seconds. They need you to run this wheel of hamster content for as long and as fast as possible.
Good UX often conflicts with the business needs of the platform. What users to want and what businesses need they routinely quarrel. “We usually see UX take the brunt when [business] problems arise,” says Fura Johannesdottir, global creative director at Huge. “And while these streaming services carry out months and sometimes years of testing, decisions are made that may not be based on user experience, but rather focus on adapting to the current business model.”
Johannesdottir says it goes without saying that the “keep watching” section should come first. However, he also believes it could be enhanced with features that would make it even more useful, such as adding a “remove from queue” option that allows users to remove specific shows and movies that no longer interest them. This may seem against the streamers business directive of attracting more people to watch, but such a simple feature can also more accurately train the algorithm based on what viewers really like and would like to watch more of.
According to Gabriel Marquez, managing director of Ustwo, these are UX issues may be growing pains. “Every few months, platforms would emerge and tens of billions were spent on content to populate them. It’s starting to fall into place now,” he says. “We’ve gone from radical atomization (a service for seemingly every channel!) to rapid sourcing and centralization across multiple platforms. So UX was hard to keep up with as companies had to absorb and be absorbed and had different strategies.”
The primary mission of these streaming platforms should be to support users’ journeys and needs, but they fall far behind other popular consumer apps: “We envision a service that works more like Google Maps, which is extremely good at anticipating user needs and searching based on personal location and history,” says Wierwille.
Johannesdottir believes it’s important for streaming services to put the power in the hands of users, allowing them to choose their own experience. But there is more. “I actually think it’s more of a problem than a UX problem, I think it’s a value proposition problem and a brand purpose problem,” he says.
Right now, they’re all doing the same thing: they’re producing a lot of stuff and trying to smash it against our retinas, but perhaps there should be an alternative. “It’s not healthy,” continues Johannesdottir. “I’d love to see some streaming services take a stance and instead of asking you to ‘keep watching’ they would ask you to take a break and ‘go on’ doing something else.”
Chris Marotta, head of design at Ustwo, believes that none of the services take into account the emotional state of the user. “After an emotionally exhausting episode The last of usWhy would I watch something about serial killers right away? These streaming services have the ability to predict my mood and adjust accordingly,” he says. Instead, they try to force feed you more content like what you just watched, apparently to turn your brain into foie gras.
Perhaps the Apple TV can actually achieve this goal, Johannesdottir wonders, as it controls a giant walled garden that combines fitness, music, and activities all around you. “There’s something interesting about being a responsible content provider, which I think can be an interesting value proposition in itself,” he says.
At the moment, streaming platforms are almost indistinguishable in terms of UX. They are all overloaded with content and cramped with terrible features. They create an ocean of mediocrity, full of bad decisions made by Hollywood cashiers and executives. But that means there’s a huge opportunity to rethink the experience from scratch.
Perhaps the streaming wars will not be won by the platform with the most or the best content, but the one that will provide us with an experience that we will be able to enjoy from the moment we click on the application.