UX: The hidden weapon making all the difference in the streaming wars

By Naheemat Mustapha

March 10, 2023

5 mins read

UX: The hidden weapon making all the difference in the streaming wars

By Naheemat Mustapha

March 10, 2023

5 mins read

Ah, streaming. Surely the media industry buzzword of the past decade. Even before Covid 19 turned the global economy on its head. Customers were switching in droves from traditional linear television to digital streaming platforms. The pandemic threw fuel on the fire, with lockdowns and limited entertainment options combining to accelerate subscription numbers by 26% to 1.1 billion in 2020.


The allure of captive audiences have fuelled a streaming boom with over 200 streaming services operating the UK and the US alone. The market is hotly contested by a range of players from established brands with blockbuster budgets, like Amazon Prime, Hbo Max and Disney+. As well as niche platforms like Shudder, IndieFlix and RetroCrush.


The battle lines are shifting, however, with evidence emerging that the major streaming brands are reaching saturation; Netflix for example lost almost 1.2 million subscribers last year according to reports. Users are starting to feel subscription fatigue (46% of American users according to a recent Deloitte study) – compounded by the spiralling cost of living. So what now?


Content might be king – but UX is next in line to the throne


In the race to differentiate themselves, streaming platforms have spent heavily on content. However, this doesn’t come with a guarantee of success – in fact, for Netflix, average show ratings have steadily declined – even as licensing and production budgets have ballooned. 


Graphs showing Netflix spending on content and average the Netflix content ratings between 2016 and 2011


When we look at the most successful of the streaming platforms, something else becomes clear: the impact of good user experience (UX) design. 


It is the UX is crucial to any digital product. delivery mechanism and primary enabler of the proposition. It’s a massive driver for a customer’s overall satisfaction and loyalty. This is especially true for streaming platforms. The entire process of consuming the product happens on the platform. So it follows that the customer’s attitude towards the product is entirely anchored to how well designed and well functioning that platform is. 


But what does good UX actually look like?



: Good UX design does not require the user to think, it is intuitive and anticipates the user’s needs. 


: Good UX increases user retention and encourages users to engage with the platforms for longer, by making it easier and much more enjoyable to navigate and find relevant content. 


: Good UX has an immediate and direct impact on the business bottom line, as it increases customer lifetime value. 


To really understand the value good UX unlocks, we have to delve deeper than aesthetics. It is more than just having a pretty interface with lovely colours and nice font. It is about how the interface supports users’ ability to find and stream content. If a platform is frustrating to use, the end, fin, finito. 



Don’t believe us? 


Go ask HBO. Its streaming offering – HBO Max – boasts some of the most successful original IP out there, with Emmy award winning shows like Game of Thrones, Euphoria, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Abbott Elementary and Big Little Lies. Yet it holds the dubious title of being the worst-rated “major” streaming platform on both Apple’s App store and Google Play.


Apple app store and Google play store ratings for 4 of the major streaming platforms


The platform makes some elementary UX faux pas. Unlike Netflix, which preloads homescreen titles, so you can browse no matter how poor your internet connection is, HBO Max presents users with a blank box until the full cover image loads, accompanied by the show title – leading to frustrated users and missed opportunities for engagement.

Images showing the UX of Netflix and HBOmax homescreens while loading


Other issues include inconsistent button styles, unintuitive onboarding forms, lack of clarity with labelling and descriptions and absence of clear CTAs to name of few. While some of these pain points may not be immediately apparent, they certainly do reveal themselves with continuous use – and evidently add up to a slew of dissatisfied users.


So what do the top dogs get right?


The best streaming platforms have an incredible insight into human behaviour. They examine how users think, what they want and the nature of their needs – considered all the way down to which finger a user will likely use to navigate each section of the interface. Netflix continues to deploy every tool in the box to attract and retain eyeballs, from a dedicated TV remote button and in-app games, to portrait style short-form videos “Fast Laughs” (clearly triggered by the success of viral video apps like Tik Tok, instagram reels and youtube shorts). The company is agile in its approach to UX and is able to successfully innovate and test new features. 


Below are 3 of the primary lessons we can all learn from the brands that get it right.


Discovery first: The primary goal when designing the home screen for streaming platforms must be both findability and discoverability. It’s important to allow for a seamless journey for users looking for specific titles. However, it’s even more important, from a business perspective, to support serendipitous discovery, to encourage users to meander through the platform and explore the breadth of content on offer. 


Personalisation personalisation personalisation: The more the algorithms deployed can adequately capture and predict a user’s preferences, the more enjoyable the user’s engagement with the platform. Personalised recommendations and tailored interfaces for the win!


Convenience is paramount: This applies to every aspect of the interface and experience. From automatically skipping the intro when watching multiple episode of the same show, allowing filtering by categories and characters, to 10/15 seconds skip and rewind buttons (can you believe some streaming platforms still don’t have this…ITVX on web, I’m looking at you!) – the list goes on.



There is no doubt that killer content is a top priority for streaming platforms. No one is questioning the value of a viral hit like Squid Game or The Last of Us. Good UX, however, cuts deeper. Without it, streaming platforms just aren’t at the races – critically acclaimed content or not. Users simply will not stick around to muddle through the stormy waters of a poor experience.


For that reason, UX is the one thing to get right first – the strong foundations necessary for long-term success. The platforms that have over-indexed on securing IP or creating form-over-function digital products have found themselves lagging behind – and they need to act fast and fix the basics to avoid getting left in the dust. 

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