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.
- 14 sources say Netflix is their favorite interface for “ease of use,” with five labeling it a “gold standard” or something similar.
- Four sources enjoy the Netflix Top 10 homepage display, though one finds it overwhelming.
- Two sources note higher-quality dubs and subtitles than other streamers’.
- Opinions on curation are mixed. Four people say their recommendations are well personalized to their tastes, but another four feel that content is being “dumped” on them indiscriminately.
In summary: “I don’t know if their UI is inherently intuitive or just the one I’m most familiar with, but I find it very easy to use,” one source says. “The shows I’m already watching are easy to find, finding the new show everyone is talking about is simple via the Top 10 lists, and the search yields the expected results. They’re also the ones who usually innovate with new features that I find useful, and the other streamers then copy.”
In Search Of
- 10 sources say that Hulu is generally well organized and easy to use.
- Seven find the interface frustrating: three have difficulty navigating to their most watched titles; one dislikes the organization of the homepage; one says the transition into a show’s next episode sometimes happens too quickly.
- Three say Hulu’s recommendations don’t feel personalized, and browsing is rarely fruitful, with one saying they feel they “have to search for the content; the content doesn’t come to you.”
In summary: “I have never visited Hulu with hopes of finding something to watch,” one source says. “I only visit to watch something specific and when I’m done, I leave.”
Content Is King; Interface, Not So Much
- Eleven people enjoy the user interface, with most comments focusing on the search function and organization of the homepage.
- Nine dislike the platform, with four noting they love the content but feel they must endure the interface to watch what they like.
- Many complaints surround basic features like rewind buttons and virtual keyboard design, plus frequent bugs and stalling.
- Two are frustrated that selecting a title from the “Continue Watching” section takes the user directly into a stream, making it difficult to locate landing pages and episode menus.
- Six praise the curation and say they regularly discover new favorites — including two who ranked the platform poorly overall — though two people find recommendations and categories to be impersonal or confusing.
In summary: “I consistently find the UX/UI of HBO Max angering,” one source says. “Little design items ruin my experience.”
Amazon Prime Video
An Empty Cart
- 15 sources describe Prime Video as the worst streaming UI — the strongest consensus in the survey — with two people saying they avoid Amazon content because of the interface.
- Of the 20 people who mention Amazon, only two have positive comments, both praising the X-Ray feature that highlights casting and production info, trivia and special features.
- 10 people find the homepage and navigation experience uncurated and confusing, with little emphasis on trending or personalized recommendations.
- Two sources complain about difficulty clearing the “Continue Watching” section.
- Six people note frustration distinguishing between free titles and those that must be rented or bought.
- Two find the interface aesthetically displeasing.
In summary: “They are the true example of the firehose approach to content — the homepage is overwhelming and it seems like they just applied the Amazon shopping experience to the platform,” one source says.
Not Ready for Prime Time
- 13 people say Peacock is one of their least used services, with two only using it for live sports and “Yellowstone.”
- Three praise the ease of access to branded hubs (Bravo, Hallmark, Telemundo, etc.).
- One enjoys the special features in the Bravo hub, like live commentary tracks and interactive choose-your-reality cuts.
- Five people say the interface is buggy and stalls, and three say the search function is ineffective.
- Four people say their go-to shows rarely appear in the “Continue Watching” section.
- Another four complain that selecting a title from the “Continue Watching” section takes the user directly into a stream, making it difficult to locate landing pages and episode menus.
In summary: “I’ve exited the app just because I was frustrated it wasn’t user friendly,” one source says.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
- Five sources say Apple TV+ is well designed and aesthetically appealing.
- Two enjoy its compatibility with the Apple TV device, though one finds the transition from the device interface to the streaming interface confusing.
- Two sources find the Apple ID login process convoluted.
- Two sources note frustration when sorting between titles included with a subscription and titles that must be rented or bought.
- Five people point out a lack of curation.
In summary: “I have never browsed Apple TV+ before. I visit the service to watch exactly what I am looking for and move on right after,” one source says. “Apple TV+ is less of a streaming service and more of a destination to watch highly anticipated, one-off original series or movies.”
Mouse Got Game
- Five sources find the UI clean, straightforward and aesthetically appealing.
- Five praise the organization of the content into branded hubs (Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, Nat Geo, etc.).
- The two sources who have complaints about the app cite difficulty clearing the “Continue Watching” section and bypassing the PIN for adult accounts.
In summary: “From an organizational standpoint, Disney benefits from having such creatively distinct, immediately recognizable brands — you know immediately where to go to find what you are looking for,” one source says. And if it doesn’t fall into one of those buckets, the main landing page is broken down into sections that are easy to navigate,” one source says. “At 100 years old, they still are the kings of knowing how to best serve their fans.”
An Uphill Climb
- Of the 25 sources who mention Paramount+, only one has a positive comment, noting that the platform doesn’t force users to rewatch ads if they rewind.
- Five people have complaints, including difficult navigation, confusing branding and frequently being logged out.
- The other 19 sources say it is among their least used streamers.
In summary: “Like the content, the user experience and user interface are mediocre,” one source says. “This is one I don’t even subscribe to, to be honest — no reason to. Last time I checked, it didn’t even have a watch list. That was a big turn off for me and I haven’t felt incentivized to ever go back.”
Editor’s note: Paramount+ added a watch list feature, “My List,” in June 2021, following the platform’s launch as a rebranded CBS All Access in March 2021.
- Two sources say a lack of curation keeps them away from the service, with one noting the content is “like wallpaper — always there — so there’s no urgency to view. And I despair for the future when I see Chip and Joanna Gaines next to Succession on HBO Max.”
- Two people complain about the lack of smartphone authentication for login and an inaccurate “Continue Watching” section.
- 13 people count Discovery+ among their least used apps.
In summary: “This is the one streaming service that can get away with a mediocre UI because the service and its content are so niche,” one source says.