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Everyone is copying Netflix's UI. But Hulu might be the next big innovator

Plus, what web designers can learn from the streaming wars.

Images courtesy Netflix and Hulu. Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

Profile picture of Margaret Andersen


5 min read

I was recently watching Succession and hit rewind to rewatch some particularly venomous corporate banter. Instead, the interface refreshed. Which led me to come up with some salty comments of my own.

I’m not the only one. People have been complaining about streaming interface design for years. Take HBO Max; despite its catalog of prestige dramas, it’s gained quite a reputation for its terrible UI. (And its now been rebranded as Max.) Streaming platforms can’t get by on content alone. Now, with tightening competition and a constricted economic climate, UI is gaining long-overdue attention from platforms vying for consumers who have more choice and less money to burn.

An illustration of two black desktops facing away from each other over a black background. One shows the Hulu logo, the other shows the HBO Max interface.
Images courtesy Warner Bros. Discovery and Hulu.

The “streaming wars,” as we know them, have been ongoing since industry leaders like Netflix and Amazon started facing increased competition from legacy entertainment companies that launched their own platforms, like Peacock, Paramount+, and Disney Plus’ Hulu/ESPN+ bundle—not to mention Apple TV Plus, Discovery+, and CNN+ (RIP).

But that’s just the base-level landscape. In 2022, the industry is getting all sorts of shake-ups. Warner Bros. Discovery announced plans to merge HBO Max and Discovery+ into a single service by 2023. Netflix just reported major subscriber losses in Q2 amid the thorny competition and economy we just mentioned (its stock grew though). And Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max are joining Hulu in offering ad-supported tiers; a UX that will offer a cheaper point of entry for potential subscribers—and be eerily similar to cable.

Through it all, users come to particular streaming services with a clear intent: to consume content (and watch their goddamn show). That means discoverability is a critical design element in the UI of streaming platforms, just like in web design. What’s the point of having premium TV shows or a catalog of bingeable classics if users can’t find what they want? “Streaming is a leisure activity; the user is looking to relax or be entertained,” explains UX researcher Mia Eltiste, who posts "UX Roasts" of streaming services on TikTok. “You don't want the process of finding or choosing what to watch to be difficult. If you continually have a negative experience on a particular streaming service, that'll impact how likely you are to return.” (For Netflix, its current content mix is where it’s lacking.)

Current iteration of the HBO Max UI. Images courtesy Warner Bros. Discovery.

Which brings us to HBO Max, currently fourth in terms of worldwide subscribers among major streaming platforms. It really has the opposite problem to Netflix right now: Great content, bad—even roastable—functionality. “HBO Max has great content, but their UX is so clunky, I hate using it,” says Eltiste. “The app freezes for me all the time, so even though they might provide content that subscribers value, many have opted for a different service because at least they know the app performance will be more reliable. know it will at least work.” WBD seems to be listening to user feedback. They just recently rolled out a more stable "tech stack" that would address many of the issues reported around functionality and user expectation. Additionally, when the HBO Max/Discovery+ merger completes, the new interface will adopt the streaming infrastructure of Discovery+.

Now, to Amazon, which until recently was an example of design rules not to follow. This past June, Amazon completely redesigned the platform to look more cinematic, “after nine long years of watching its users give up and switch over to Hulu,” as Morning Brew put it. Interestingly, the new Prime Video looks a lot like Netflix—the only network it trails behind in terms of subscribers. “When you hover over the poster art and it transitions to a trailer—that is a 1:1 copy of Netflix,” says design director Pascal Potvin, who has worked with networks like Nickelodeon, Disney, and Turner Classic Movies. “Even the dark gradient is a copy.”

Prime Video redux has a simplified interface and user journey, as well as left-sided navigation—all of which are smart design moves, according to Eltiste. They also take cues from Netflix. “That's one of those design decisions that comes from understanding your user in the context they'll be using your service, rather than just designing from a UI perspective,” says Eltiste. Placing the menu at the top forces the user to scroll down, and if they want to narrow their search by genre or directly search for their go-to favorites, they don't want to have to scroll all the way back up to the top just to do so.

The streaming wars' cast of characters.

One thing is clear: despite Netflix’s subscriber slump, the platform continues to set the standard for streaming industry design due to its intuitive design, easily navigable layout, and opportunities to discover new content (consider modules like its Top Ten section, which Prime Video also adopted). Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.

As for the future of UX/UI in streaming, there’s a lot of room for continued innovation. We all basically know what to expect when we open an app: a big banner showing the latest releases at the top and then horizontal carousels with titles separated vertically by genres. That’s table stakes loss prevention. “It's been this way for a long time and every player is repeating patterns that already work,” says Thiago Matsunaga, associate digital design director at TBWA\Chiat\Day LA. “When everyone is making the same thing, the one who's going to innovate and bring the next big thing in terms of the product will triumph.”

One platform pushing new design strategies in this space is Hulu, according to Plotvin. Hulu, which is owned by Disney, is one of his favorites because it leans into web design trends and utilizes depth and bold typography, and plays with immersive layouts— unlike other platforms.

“In order to be competitive in the field, you need both great UX/UI and great content. How many times have you been on an app and 45 minutes later you’re still trying to figure out what to watch?”

He’s also yet to see a platform focus on the companion device, in which users will have the option to, say, select clothing worn in a movie or a TV show and then purchase it through their mobile device, or use their phones or tablets to dig deeper into the backscenes of the movie while you continue to watch. “In order to be competitive in the field, you need both great UX/UI and great content,” Potvin says. “How many times have you been on an app and 45 minutes later you’re still trying to figure out what to watch?”

As companies continue to jockey for the top spot among subscribers, there’s something to be said for the platforms who are prioritizing well-designed UI as part of their business strategies. Eltiste predicts that UI will continue to maintain a starring role in the streaming wars alongside other ways of promoting their content, whether that's with a trailer before an episode you're watching or highlighting new releases. “We'll also likely see more platforms adopt recommendation algorithms like Netflix's to better tailor to the user's experience,” she says. “That'll be important because in a world full of endless content, users will gravitate to places that curate content for them—as long as they do it well.”


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