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Why I demand more from my Video On Demand

Photograph of Amelia Groen

Amelia Groen

Developer

Hand holding a remote control with a blurred video on demand user interface in the background

Over the past decade and a bit, the internet has jumped from our desktop computers onto tons of other devices in our homes and offices. It has come to our phones (they’re smart now), our TV’s (also smart), our speakers (Alexa, anyone) and even our doorbells. In the evening when I get ready for bed, I tell Google goodnight, and they turn off the lights in the living room, turn on the bedside table light and set an alarm. If it’s too loud outside (I live on a busy road), I tell it to ‘start night time protocol’, and the Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here starts playing at 40% volume, lulling me gently into sleep.

These are examples of how the Internet of Things has made my life a little bit easier. That’s not really what this article is about, however. This article is about how utterly frustrating it can be when the internet of the thing I’m using doesn’t work or make sense. I mean to make clear how important good UX design is, and how important it is to consider all the ways (and all the places) your digital product might be used.

In this article, I shall focus on one thing in particular: My television. Specifically the way all those video on demand (VOD) apps have been frustrating me.

This article is about how utterly frustrating it can be when the internet of the thing I’m using doesn’t work or make sense.

Won’t someone please think of the where and how

Like a good chunk of the UK for several weeks in the summer, I am glued every evening to the screen to watch a group of 20-somethings graft for love (or win 50k, some extra instagram followers and hopefully a collab with a fast fashion clothing brand) on an island in Mallorca.

This is something that should be easy, but I quickly found out that watching live programming using the ITV Hub app that’s available to download to my TV is simply not possible. Despite the fact that my TV is an LG — the second most popular smart TV brand in the UK, they do not seem to have bothered to make live TV functionality available to it.

I understand that it’s hard to develop an app for every single TV that’s out there, where does it end? On the other hand, the BBC iPlayer and All 4 apps have managed to do it. Possibly it’s because as publicly owned companies they have a higher standard for accessibility.

I ended up being able to solve my problem only because we happened to own a Firestick, so I could download a different ITV Hub app onto it, which would, in fact, allow me to watch 20-somethings snog loudly on national television.

I was also able to see this:

Screenshot of Love Island on with the onscreen message "Click to see the islanders’ skincare routine!

Love Island on ITV Hub via Amazon Firestick “Click to see the islanders’ skincare routine!“

That’s right, a banner, telling me to ‘Click here’, shows up several times during every episode. But how, praytell, am I supposed to ‘click’ anywhere when using my TV?

I must admit I haven’t gone very far into my interaction with this banner. One time I decided to push the ‘confirm’ button on my remote, and I was brought away from my show, onto a big page of terms and conditions, so it was swiftly followed by a manic pressing of the ‘back’ button instead because I wanted to watch my show.

Screenshot showing user agreements needed to advance to additional content

A big page of ITV terms and conditions. Hard pass, no thank you

I don’t think that many people want to go through several pages of terms and conditions plus likely some screens for filling out credit card and address details, having to use the directional keys of their remote control to interact with that awful pop-up keyboard you get on most TV’s. All this while missing some prime Love Island drama, just to buy a can of spray-on sunscreen.

This example underlines how important it is in UX design to think of where the user is going to be when interacting with their product. If they’re using the app while sitting on the sofa, they’re not likely to ‘click’ anywhere.

It’s also important to think about how users are going to interact with your product. I can imagine that if you’re using a Chromecast to cast a programme to your TV from your laptop, tablet or phone, you also don’t want to see any ‘click here to shop’ banners appear on there. Wording matters! The right word (maybe something like ‘press’, or ‘confirm’) might have made this banner seem like a feature instead of a bug.

‘Device’ or ‘screen’ can mean so many things in the age of the Internet of Things, including ‘Firestick plugged into smart TV’ and it’s important not to forget about this when doing your product and UX design and, crucially, QA testing. Maybe this particular issue could have been solved by adding a QR code to the banner (and testing whether it would be possible to scan the code with your phone without having to get up from the sofa, of course).

Won’t someone please think of the why and what?

This brings us to some more questions we can ask ourselves when designing digital products. What are the reasons people use them? For Video On Demand (VOD) apps the answer seems simple: to watch video, on demand. That said, there are a lot of options when it comes to VOD apps. So the question that really needs to be answered here is ‘why do people choose one over the other?’

Off the top of my head I can think of several:

  • Because I want to watch a particular programme or film that I can’t watch anywhere else
  • Because I want to watch anything at all, but am not sure what yet
  • Because I want to (continue to) watch my favourite show
  • Because want to watch a live programme
  • Because this app is easy to use/my go-to app for watching shows

Netflix is the most popular subscription based VOD publisher out there. In my humble opinion their app is also the easiest and most intuitive to use. They do a decent job of showing what is available to watch in their catalogue. Their ‘continue watching’ is always accurate, even if I’m switching between devices. They are also the only provider I know of that has a ‘Watch again’ category which I love because I often choose to rewatch something I’ve already seen (over taking the risk of watching something all new) and there are plenty of articles confirming that I am not the only one who does this.

Netflix have seemingly also taken note that it can take users a while to figure out what to watch, and they offer several categories showing what other people are watching. They try to make this process easier by showing categories like ‘Popular on Netflix, ‘Trending Now’ and ‘Top 10 in the UK Today’ and ‘Recently Added.’ They also have a bunch of categories that are algorithmically tailored to users depending on their past viewing habits, and some that show shows and films they might want to highlight because they’re exclusive and/or new.

With these categories, they give good reasons as to why their app should be picked over the others.

I like to contrast this with Amazon Prime Video, which has a vast catalogue that I always feel I am barely scratching the surface of. Their algorithms tend to present shows that I have already seen or am currently watching (outside of their ‘continue watching category). Aside from that I often find shows and films in several categories.

Case in point:

Screenshot of the Amazon Prime Video homepage showing Grand Tour content three times, about a quarter of the shows on display..

You can try, Amazon Prime Video, but you can’t make me watch any of your Old Men Driving Cars™ shows.

Amazon Prime Video, however, is still a decent app with a good video player and continuity if you’re using it across several devices. Shows don’t randomly drop out of the ‘continue watching’ queue (looking at you, NOW), and it indicates reasonably clearly whether something is included with my subscription, or whether I have to pay extra to watch (looking at you, Apple TV). Let’s also not forget that a subscription to Amazon Prime isn’t just for their video catalogue, but also a subscription to get anything you need delivered to your doorstep quickly, sometimes even on the same day you order it.

I will end this article by going over what I consider to be the worst VOD app: NOW. It has high-quality prime time dramas that I love, so I pay my subscription fee. What I don’t love so much is how hard it is to pick up where I left off.

<p>My landing page on NOW</p>

My landing page on NOW

What you’re looking at is my landing page, which has one single show —Lovecraft Country— in the ‘Continue watching’ queue. Note the white bar at the bottom. I have fully watched this episode already, and I know from experience that when I select it, this episode will start playing right where I left off: the credits. Other VOD app publishers have caught on to the fact that users don’t tend to watch the credits, and will consider this show watched in full, and show you the one that’s next up. Not NOW, though.

The second part is the ‘Watchlist’ directly underneath. This is a list I had to personally and manually curate, because that is the only way I have found to reliably get NOW to show me shows that I am currently watching. I am also currently watching Twin Peaks and The Wire, but as you can see they are not in my ‘Continue Watching’ queue. It seems the app has decided all on it’s own that I shouldn’t continue to watch those shows. Adding a show to the watchlist is tedious, but not so tedious as the other options, which are either to browse the Entertainment category, or to search for it directly every single time.

There’s nothing else especially useful on the main landing page. The other categories on the landing page offers are mostly tasters of what would be available to me if I shelled out for another pass, making it clear that NOW values upselling me slightly more than providing me with a pleasant user experience.

I’ll pay my monthly subscription as long as they have the shows that I want to watch. That said, once I’ve finished with those shows I will be ending my NOW subscription (until there’s something new on there I simply must see), whereas my Netflix subscription has been continuous since I signed up seven years ago.

That’s the moral of the story, really. I might not have been so quick to try Amazon Prime Video had it not been included with Prime membership, and I’ll have a subscription to NOW intermittently. Netflix has earned some real loyalty by having the best features and user experience. For a long time it was the only VOD app I had, and if I’m planning to cut down on subscription fees, I can tell you right now that they’ll be the last one standing as well.

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