Opinion: Why do streaming apps have terrible interfaces across the board?


We talk a lot about what to watch on streaming, but far less about the experience of streaming itself. It’s consistently not great, no matter what app you’re using.

Do enough casual digging and you’ll find that every streaming platform is getting dinged. At the moment, HBO Max is generating the bulk of complaints: It’s designed with a terrible user interface and yet it has one of the deepest and most intriguing libraries, from Warner Bros. movies and the TCM film collection, to old TV favourites like The Nanny and new original series like Hacks. It’s a fine app – unless you want it to function.

Hit pause and you run the risk of your show or movie starting over from the beginning. Want to rewind to catch that line of dialogue again? Hahahaha, sucker. Maybe you’re not doing anything at all, other than just watching the thing you selected, and suddenly there’s a problem. As someone on Twitter noted dryly: “My favourite part of watching The Sopranos is the app crashing and putting up something telling me to restart while they’re still playing the episode behind the message.”

People are pretty funny about their complaints, all things considered: “I’m thinking of leaving academia so that I can join the brave men and women who devote every moment of every day to making the HBO Max interface worse and less functional,” another person commented.

The experience is contingent on how you’re accessing a streaming platform: Via smart TV or Roku or iPad, or whatever. I get HBO Max through my cable setup, and while it’s annoyingly clunky, it has yet to crash mid-viewing. My editor has a different setup: She gets HBO Max via YouTube TV through an Xbox console: “If I’m watching a show, about a minute or so before the episode ends, it crashes. It’s the only app that does this. Or I log in, and it tells me my access has expired. So I log out and log in and it works fine.” A few hours later she informed me her entire account had been hacked.

VCRs functioned better than this. Good old YouTube functions better than this. Why does it feel like we’re moving backward? I have no answers. Nobody does.

Xavier D’Leau is a blogger, social commentator and digital content creator who reviews television on his Spotify podcast “Jade + X.D.”, and this was his exhausted sentiment that scrolled down my timeline the other day: “Listen. I love HBO Max. But this app. My God. It sucks on the phone, Samsung TV, Apple TV… I’m just trying to watch New Adventures Of Old Christine.”

I reached out to D’Leau to hear more. “It seems like every two or three episodes there’s an error message, and it’s not just one show, that happens for a lot of shows,” he said. “If you rewind by 10 seconds, it has a total meltdown. Sometimes that’s when it’ll crash. Or it’ll jump all the way back to the beginning. Or if I want to turn off closed captions, I have to turn them on in order to turn them off. It’s a new issue every week and it’s like, c’mon. I used to think it was a problem with my Internet, but when I use Netflix it’s fine.” Has he ever called customer service to unravel the mystery behind these issues? “You know, it’s funny: The day I tweeted about this, HBO Max tweeted back and said, ‘DM us and tell us the problem’, and I told them everything and nothing ever came of it.”

Exasperation with bad UI isn’t limited to HBO Max: Hulu, Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime (which at least tells you the name of the actors in any given scene; that’s a nice feature!) and even Netflix are a kaleidoscope of bizarre and terrible functionality. This seems counterintuitive if you believe companies are forever trying to prevent churn.

D’Leau told me about his experience using Paramount+: “There are times it wouldn’t advance to the next episode. I’ve been trying to rewatch Survivor, and it was super glitchy. There’s 600 episodes of that show, and some days it won’t separate them by season; it’ll just show you all the episodes, so you get lost from the point where you last stopped watching.” The ability to easily watch a show in order is a basic expectation. None of this is unreasonable. “I have not watched anything on Paramount+ in a few weeks, and I know that I’ll have to use it again because Drag Race All Stars is coming up and I review these things for work. And honestly, I’m not looking forward to using the app.”

For example, the average person in Illinois spends around US$80 a month on various apps, according to the product review site Versus Reviews. That’s a lot of money for an irritating experience. The competition among streaming platforms is intense, and you’d think whoever solves this riddle first – why is it even a riddle? – would have an obvious advantage.

So what do we want, beyond basic ease of use? Jonathan Reed, contributing editor to the digital outlet screentimes.net, pointed out that discoverability – or finding new content – is a big one. And we want to know which selections are free (part of the subscription) or only available to rent or buy (Amazon keeps this info murky until you click through to a show or film’s landing page).

Of all the apps, “Netflix is probably the best,” said Reed. “It knows what it is (a place for lots of content) and its platforms are always solid and generally easy to use. While the quality of the content is sometimes hit or miss, there’s always another show to try. It’s also done a good job of pushing high-quality 4K content and accessibility features, like subtitles, as a default.”

But Netflix and its competitors also “have an incessant need to kick you into the next episode straight after you’ve finished the last one. While that is fine and lots of people do that, it means that those who want to stop or, God forbid, absorb the big cliffhanger they’ve just witnessed, need to frantically scramble for the remote or tap pause on screen.”

Why is subpar UI the standard? Reed is just as confused as the rest of us.

“It’s bizarre that someone would build something great, but not think about how people would access and use it,” he said. “It’s like building a top of the range car, but putting the door handle on the floor and then the steering wheel off center and the radio dial in the glove compartment.

“It’s also not like they don’t have the money. Amazon is one of the richest companies in the world, yet they can’t pay some developers to build a decent app? The thing is, I think a lot of these services think it doesn’t matter. They think having the big show or movie only matters. But it does matter. Once people have watched that big show, they need a reason to stay. Not every show is a huge hit, so if they can’t find their next show – and they hate using the app – they’re going to leave.

“Take HBO Max: They used to be able to get people’s subscriptions based solely on being the home of Game Of Thrones. Once that show finished, they still had lots of great shows like Barry and recently Mare Of Easttown, but they weren’t as buzzworthy. When their problem with their Apple TV app occurred recently, I saw lots and lots of people say they were cancelling because of this issue. While that’s maybe a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, it showed that people really valued their experience on the service and that without a show like Game Of Thrones – and with more and more services competing for your time and money – they would happily move on to another one.”

I was curious if D’Leau sees himself reaching a point where he unsubscribes – from HBO Max or any other service. He let out a sigh. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not going to say never. But if it really becomes a problem, you know what? Forget it.”

And he’s also sympathetic: “I know that 2020 was hard for everybody, including companies, so I know everybody’s probably messed up along the way. Things happen. And these apps will eventually get it together because they’ll have to, slowly but surely, and we’ll eventually find something else to complain about, because that’s just who we are as people.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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