SUX: A Look at HBO NOW’s Trivial UX Flaws

In case you have been using HBO NOW recently and hated its user interface, you are not alone. It has some very basic flaws which make one wonder if anybody has spent anytime testing it.

When Apple and HBO announced that HBO NOW would be available on Apple TV and iOS devices I was very excited. I subscribed to it last week and have been using it more than Netflix now. It has a lot of TV programs that are not available on Netflix or Hulu. However, HBO NOW’s user interface is just terrible or what I like to call SUX: Sucky User Experience.

I have been a Netflix user since they started their streaming service and I have persuaded many people –including my parents– to subscribe to Netflix. I also watch NHL on my Apple TV and had a Hulu subscription too. The addition of HBO NOW to the mix has made me very happy.

Netflix probably has the largest collection of movies and TV series and a recommendation system based on the number of stars a user gives to each title. On top of that the user can rate movie and TV genres and sub-genres and their list of sub-genres is quite long and thoughtful. The problem with Netflix is the lack of the most recent movies and TV shows. HBO NOW, on the other hand gets updated with new episodes of HBO shows and recent HBO movies. In fact, the first episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones was out on Sunday and I watched it on my Apple TV.

HBO NOW has an aesthetically pleasing look. At the top of each page is the navigation bar: [HBO NOW], [Watchlist], [Series], [Movies], [More], [Search], [Settings], and the rest of the page is cover images of movies and/or TV shows on a black background. [HBO NOW] is the home button. On the home page you see the more famous programs in horizontal lists such as series, movies, etc. which do not cover all the titles. The [Series] and [Movies] pages and the pages under [More] contain contents specific to their titles, naturally. There is little one can do to improve each of these pages so I move on to the more pressing issues.

Issue Number 1: there is no way of knowing which episodes you have already watched.

In Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) terms we call this visibility of system status, one of the usability heuristics developed by Jakob Nielsen. Because HBO NOW’s interface fails to address this, a user has to first remember which season he has been watching recently and the last episode he has seen. The user has to look at the list of episodes in that season, read the brief overview of a few episodes and try to remember if he has watched them before or not, or worse, watch the first few minutes of some. This also shows the importance of recognition rather than recall, another usability heuristic, that HBO NOW’s interface does not achieve either.

In contrast, Netflix does a pretty good job: it shows a check mark beside the episodes it believes the user has watched entirely (it is sometimes not trivial for the system because users’ often stop the episode before the ending titles), and puts a progress bar near the ones that are watched half-way, which also indicates how much is left.

Issue Number 2: after watching one episode it is not easy to watch the next one.

If the user has just watched an episode by browsing from top (the show) to bottom (then the season, and lastly the episode), the best way would be to navigate one level up (to the list of episodes in the season) and click on the next episode. If, however, the last watched episode is reached through the “watchlist” the user is out of luck. He should find the next episode by browsing and finding the show in the “series” page.

It makes me sad to see HBO NOW fail at this because the fix for this one is so straightforward that makes one think that either the designer has not ever watched TV series with a streaming service, or worse, someone has intentionally broken the system.

There is a very easy fix to this problem: each episode’s page has a section called related contents, which is –mostly– wasted on teasers; this section is the perfect place to put a thumbnail with a link to the next episode with a clear indicator (e.g., “next episode”) that it is not just a random episode, but the very next. Alternatively, there can be a [Next Episode] button on the episode’s page. The best approach would be to have both options. The [Next Episode] button would be faster to press, and the thumbnail is more visible and encouraging. This is called flexibility and efficiency of use. Computer scientist, and algorithm folks in particular, call this data structure a linked list; each node (episode) has a link to the next one except the last node which does not point anywhere.

Netflix does not solve this problem in the same way I suggested here, but it is not as vital to Netflix’s interface; in Netflix, the user can press the play button on the title of the show and it automatically plays the first unwatched episode, or the last episode the user stopped watching in the middle of. In addition, Netflix’s “my list” (the equivalent of HBO NOW’s watchlist) consists of entire series, not single episodes. Therefore, very often, a user does not navigate all the way down to a single episode’s page. More importantly, because episodes are never singled out and are always presented inside their particular season, navigating one level up from the episode takes the user to the list of episodes, and the next episode is right below the last watched episode.

Issue Number 3: the watchlist is a mess.

I understand that some people may just want to add a single episode (e.g., the second episode of the first season of Real Time with Bill Maher) to their watchlist and do not care about the rest of the episodes; but, most folks, are not done with a series after they just watch a single episode. In HBO NOW, the user can add a single episode to his watchlist. If he wants to add the entire series to his watchlist, he should add every single episode one by one, which is ridiculous. As a result, after being getting used to the HBO NOW’s interface, the user only adds movies to the watchlist and an episode of a show he has discovered and does not want to forget about. This means that, the watchlist is only slightly more advanced than a notebook where one writes the names of movies and TV shows to watch.

HBO NOW’s watchlist consists of two lists: one is for “continuing watching” and the other is the items added manually to the watchlist. It is not very clear, how the former is populated because as the user watches the episodes of a series they do not disappear from this “continue watching” list to be replaced by next episodes. This is another failure at visibility of system status. The latter list, as discussed before, singles out each episode, and does not work very well for TV series.

It is a good idea to separate the “continue watching” section from the manually selected “to watch” episodes and movies. However, by representing TV shows as single items and doing what Netflix does: automatically playing the next unwatched episode and allowing the user to navigate down through the list of seasons and episodes, the watchlist would be much more usable.

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