Streaming App Sentiments

My unsolicited streaming app spec has garnered a lot of feedback. I’m sure streaming app developers already gather feedback from their users, and I’m also sure that the tone of my post has skewed the nature of the feedback I received. Nevertheless, for posterity, here’s how people are feeling about the streaming video apps they use.

The number one complaint, by far, was that streaming apps make it too difficult to resume watching whatever you were already watching. As I noted earlier, conflicting incentives easily explain this, but people still hate it. A reader who wished to remain anonymous sent this story of how customer satisfaction gets sacrificed on the altar of “engagement.”

There was an experiment at Hulu last year to move “Continue Watching” below the fold (down 2 rows from where it was). This was done with a very small group of users. It was so successful that the increased engagement was projected to generate more than $20 million a year. The experiment was immediately ended and the new position was deployed to all users.

While I understand (and largely agree with) your frustration that your “in progress” show isn’t the top feature, you can argue that [making new content more prominent] provides the user more value as they discover content they wouldn’t have otherwise (hence the increased engagement).

This is definitely a case of “be careful what you measure.” I don’t doubt that whatever metric is being used to gauge “engagement” is indeed boosted by burying the “Continue Watching” section, but I must emphasize again, according to the feedback I received, people hate this practice with a fiery passion. It makes them dislike the app, and sometimes also the streaming service itself.

I don’t think any engagement-related metric is worth angering users in this way—even if it really does help users discover new content or stay subscribed longer. I’m reminded of the old saying, “People won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.” It applies to apps as well as people.

(Furthermore, given the fact that seemingly every popular streaming app does this to some degree, there’s an opportunity to seize a competitive advantage by becoming the first app to stop this user-hostile practice.)

The second biggest category of feedback was about detecting, preserving, and altering state. Apps that do a poor job of deciding when something has been “watched” drew much ire. (Hint: most people don’t sit through all the ending credits.) Compounding this is the inability to manually mark something as watched or unwatched. Failure to reliably sync state across devices is the cherry on top.

People don’t feel like they are in control of their “data,” such as it is. The apps make bad guesses or forget things they should remember, and the user has no way to correct them. Some people told me they have simply given up. They now treat their streaming app as a glorified search box, hunting anew each time for the content they want to watch, and keeping track of what they’ve already watched using other means, sometimes even using other apps. (I imagine this flailing on each app launch may read as “increased engagement.”)

Finally, there was a long tail of basic usability complaints: text that’s too small; text that’s truncated, with no way to see more; non-obvious navigation; inscrutable icons and controls; and a general lack of preferences or settings, leaving everyone at the mercy of the defaults. Oh yeah, and don’t forget bugs, of course. Multiple people cited my personal most-hated bug: pausing and then resuming playback only to have it start playing from a position several minutes in the past. Have fun trying to fast-forward to where you actually left off without accidentally spoiling anything for yourself by over-shooting!

While again acknowledging how the nature of my original post (and my audience in general) surely affects the feedback I receive, I think it’s worth noting that no one—not a single person—wrote to tell me how much they loved using their streaming app. I didn’t expect to get much pushback on a post criticizing something so widely maligned, but I did expect to get some. I’m sure many people do enjoy their streaming app of choice, especially if it’s one of the more obscure, tech-oriented ones like Plex or Channels, but the overall sentiment is clear. Do streaming services care? I think they should.