From ‘Glitchy’ HBO Max to ‘Overwhelming’ Amazon Prime Video, Hollywood Insiders Spill on Their (Least) Favorite Streaming Interfaces

Streaming Services Ranked HBO Max Prime Video Netflix
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Television viewing has never offered consumers more agency.

Though the streaming revolution has provided viewers with a dizzying array of TV and movie choices, it has also led to a free-for-all in how that content is accessed across various devices. Every streaming service has added custom touches to the overall user interface — the tabs, the rewind and fast-forward buttons and myriad other functions that viewers need in order to cue up their shows.

From the ability to speak into the Apple TV remote’s microphone instead of using a search bar to the fateful day when Netflix allowed users to shut off the bombardment of homepage autoplay, the interactions that fans have with streaming services have come a long way.

But according to Hollywood insiders — who may have an even more critical eye than the average consumer about the screen time experience — more progress in the areas of user interface and user experience is needed as streaming takes root as TV’s dominant delivery platform.

The next wave of this conversation will likely begin on April 12, as Warner Bros. Discovery raises the curtain on plans for its combined HBO Max and Discovery+ streaming service.

Boasting a huge library of TV and movies, HBO Max is one of the most used services on the market. But it has also sparked a lot of debate about its user experience. A query for “HBO Max app” in the Twitter search bar pulls up numerous expletive-riddled rants about glitchy streams and faulty rewind buttons.

Warner Bros. Discovery chief financial officer Gunnar Wiedenfels admitted at a conference in January that the current service is “subpar.” “We’re going to come out with a great product from a consumer-experience perspective, and that’s frankly the biggest holdback for HBO Max right now,” he said. “The experience is not where it needs to be.”

So where does that experience need to be? Variety spoke with 40 industry insiders about what they like, don’t like and downright hate about using the major streaming platforms.

For Peter Gould, co-creator and executive producer of “Better Call Saul,” the key is having an easy way to get to all the industry-pertinent information he seeks. “I love it when you have quick access to trailers. I love it when you can watch the end credits and see who was in it and freeze-frame it without having it jump right to the next episode. Sometimes there’s not a way to do that and that’s a pain,” he says, adding, “I wish they would standardize a quick way to turn subtitles on and off. Every once in a while you want to go back and decode a line of dialogue.”

“What We Do in the Shadows” writer and producer Paul Simms is unhappy with autoplay features. “I like ones that don’t make me mute my TV,” he says. “Any streaming service that doesn’t have pre-rolled ads yelling at me, I’m fine with.”

While Gould, Simms and other members of Hollywood are happy to discuss features they like and dislike in the abstract, it’s harder to get straight answers about which streamers they favor and which they hate — or at least, which they find to be the lesser of the many evils.

“They’re all bad. They’re all so terrible,” says Stephen Schiff, a writer and executive producer on such series as FX’s “The Americans” and Disney+’s “Andor.” “I don’t want to say because I work for all of them. But they’re all bad.”

Amber Ruffin, the multi-hyphenate behind Peacock’s “The Amber Ruffin Show,” is one of the few to vociferously endorse the digital architecture of her home team. “I know this sounds like I’m a daddy’s boy, but it’s Peacock,” she says when asked for her favorite platform. “Here’s why: It tells you exactly where you left off on all of your favorite shows, but when you are scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, and you don’t know what to watch, Peacock has this alternative: It has a bunch of channels, and you can just watch as if you’re scrolling through television. You have less of a choice, and it narrows it down. I love that.”

Variety surveyed sources from across all parts of the industry about the highs and lows of using Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Disney+, Paramount+, Amazon Prime Video, Discovery+, Apple TV+ and Peacock, strictly based on each of the platforms’ UI.

Remember: This isn’t a conversation about content itself. It’s about the way consumers interact with an app or website before, during and after they watch that content. Much of the following data is collected from insiders with current or previous work experience at the companies in question.

Users are baffled by the clunky experience provided by a major tech entity like Amazon through their platform Prime Video. In fact, the biggest consensus in the survey was that Amazon had the worst UX of all. “For the company that innovated one-click shopping, the interface still feels surprisingly TJ Maxx,” said one source. “There’s a little bit of everything, but it’s too hard to find the good stuff.” 

“You know what really pisses me off?” another source notes about both HBO Max and Peacock. (The latter of which received the most mixed reviews of the survey, voted as the both the second-easiest to use platform and second-hardest to use.) “When you click on a title from the home screen and it immediately starts playing where you left off.” While the feature seems an attempt to get consumers to their content as quickly as possible, users don’t like having that decision made for them. “Sometimes I fall asleep watching TV,” the source says. “So I want to see the episode menu first! They make it so annoying to find.”

Netflix was most widely regarded as having the best UI, with several comments about how intuitive and aesthetically pleasing the platform is. But the most common complaint about the company that started the streaming revolution is that it can throw too much at you.

“I think it’s badly curated,” says a viewer. “Right now, in their 2022 Emmy nominees category, they have ‘Selling Sunset’ next to ‘Maid.’ I get it — ‘Selling Sunset’ is a Netflix original that I’m sure they want to show off. But if I’m looking for Emmy-nominated content, I’m probably looking for something more prestigious.”

For a brutally honest sampling of the industry’s takes on the apps that steal our weekends, read on.