• Amazon has updated its Prime Video app to look more like Netflix.
  • Streaming apps prioritize engagement and discovering new shows, over ease of use. 
  • You know how hard it is to watch the next episode of a show? That’s deliberate.

hand holding a Fire TV stick remote with a blurred TV in the background

Streaming apps are almost all hard to use and shove new TV shows in your face instead of letting you continue the ones you're already watching.

Amazon is in the middle of rolling out a big update to its Prime Video app, and it looks a lot like Netflix. The problem is, Netflix’s user interface has its own problems. In fact, there may be no streaming apps for video or music, that give the user what they want. If you’ve ever wondered why streaming apps were so hard to use, it’s because they’re meant to be. 

“Streaming apps tend to be designed to get users to watch as quickly as possible,” Stephen Lovely, editor in chief at CordCutting.com, told Lifewire via email. “There are a lot of reasons for this: they want to pad their ‘hours streamed’ stats; they want to avoid frustrated users giving up on finding the perfect movie; they want to get a user hooked on a new show; they want to obscure the limits of their own catalog, etc.

"Services like Amazon have a lot of incentives to get users watching something as quickly as possible, so I don’t think this kind of ‘pushy’ approach to content discovery is going anywhere anytime soon."

Streaming Apps Aren’t Made For What You Think

When you launch a video app on your TV, tablet, or phone, what do you almost always want to do? You want to keep watching that series you’ve started. You might want to just press play on a thumbnail of that series and have the next episode play. 

But what actually happens? Most likely, you’ll see a list of shows that Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+, etc., wants you to watch. Depending on the app, you may be able to find your recent shows on the main page, or you may have to go digging to find them.

This is because streaming services have a very different agenda than you do. If you sign up for Apple TV+ to watch Ted Lasso or Severance, for example, you’ll watch them, then unsubscribe until the next seasons appear. These apps are designed to get you hooked on new shows; they know you’ll find the latest Lasso episode eventually, but they’re not going to make it easy. 

“An often overlooked component that determines the success of any streaming platform is the quality of their recommendations. From Netflix to YouTube to Spotify, the fate of all streaming platforms (music and video) is largely determined by their recommendations algorithm,” design consultant and UX designer Vip Sitaraman told Lifewire via email. 

It’s the virtual equivalent of racking up candy next to the supermarket checkout. And the kicker is the recommendations are often terrible. 

And then there are the “paper cut” problems with these apps. For example, how often have you chosen to continue with a series, and been taken back to the end credits of the episode you watched yesterday? Surely the app should realize that if you stop watching during the end credits, then that episode should be marked as watched. 

“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,” writes software designer and usability critic John Siracusa on his Hypercritical blog. 

Engagement

Streaming companies love engagement. They love it so much that they’re willing to wreck the entire user experience to get it. And yet, does this have to exist at the expense of a great user experience? I avoid all streaming apps and use a third-party video-streaming app called Infuse instead. You pay for this app, and it lets you watch your own downloaded shows, or connect to many online services. 

New Amazon Prime Video interface

And it’s excellent. It’s designed to give the best video-watching experience possible. You swipe up and down on the iPad screen to adjust volume and brightness. It syncs your play position between your iPhone, Mac, iPad, or Apple TV, and guess what’s right there, up top, when you launch the app? A row showing your recent shows, with play buttons right on the thumbnails. 

The sad news is, streaming apps probably won’t get any better because it’s in these companies’ interests to make them worse.

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