Tiffany Little

#metabeers: a ‘how not to’ guide to video on demand

So last week’s #MetaBeers looked at Video on Demand services—or, for want of a better acronym—a very obviously disappointing experience.

I began my talk by outlining two key things a VoD provider should always remember:

  • Put user experience first
  • Quality over quantity

Despite these being two relatively simple statements, apparently they’re incredibly difficult to get right. At least that is what my experiences would lead me to believe. There are a multitude of reasons for the crushing disappointment I generally feel when dealing with VoD. To explain them, I divided them between providers (it’s really only fair).

the contenders


Youtube has reams of content but safe to say that quality varies from post to post. I use the app on both my phone and PS3 to watch rap battles and follow a couple of associated channels. My main annoyance is that there doesn’t appear to be shared history between my connected devices. And, while we all find ads irritating I also get pretty annoyed with calls-to-action like “click here for the next episode”, “click here to subscribe” etcetcetcetc… You’re here to cater to my demands, not your own.


I didn’t spend long discussing iPlayer because I don’t really view it as a VoD provider as much a catch-up service. I really like to binge watch TV, but with the restricted availability of 30 days, I can’t risk waiting for a series to end before I begin watching. It won’t be long before the early episodes disappear and they likely won’t be available online via a reputable service for some time if at all. I think the app offers a relatively clean experience, however using it on the PS3 (yes I’m cheap and won’t pay out for a PS4 until this console dies!) I have to click something like four—yes that’s FOUR—whole times before I can select my most recently viewed content. Then when I do get there, it doesn’t keep a record of where I got up to, but just shows me the most recently added item of content for that series. If you know what series I watched last, is it that big a leap to remember which episode I got up to?

the reigning champion


I somehow doubt it, because my favourite service—Netflix—manages to do it and across multiple shows. They even know (bar any buggy behaviour) where I left off in an episode, if I didn’t finish watching it. Nicely done Netflix, nicely done.

However, despite Netflix being my favourite VoD service, it’s also the one that pisses me off the most. I use it solely on the PS3 and upon opening the app, my grievances begin.

netflix homepage experience ps3

The first thing at the top of the page, more frequently than not, is the content that Netflix wants to promote. Not what I’m watching. Why?

You know I’m watching Buffy. You know I’m 5 seasons in. You know that the last time I logged in I watched Buffy. And the time before that. And before that. You recall when I last switched you off part way through an episode on the verge of collapse. Well, not the collapse itself but the last moment of footage I watched… So. If my previous behaviour is anything to go by, why not pull Buffy to the top and be like “hey, you were watching this right? As you were”…. This does happen on the odd occasion but it doesn’t seem to be the default setting.

But it’s ok right, because its the next thing on the—OH WAIT—no. No, it’s not the next set of content displayed. Up next is ‘My list’. Netflix, I’m going to tell you a secret. I like the list feature. I like to add to it all the films I like to think I’d like to watch at some point in the future. The thing is, I probably won’t watch them. If I don’t decide spontaneously to watch a thing, right there and then, then I’m probably not going to get around to it. So tuck this away somewhere. If I’m desperate for inspo then I can give it a look but don’t automatically expose it. It’s the difference between the collection of DVDs tucked up in a cupboard and the ones sitting by the side of the TV… I’m lazy.

Finally here is my recently watched or ‘continue watching’ list of content. Up first, the last thing I watched. Yay! Yet, what’s this? You’re still showing me the programme which I watched 5 minutes of (by accident) over a week ago? If I watched less than 25% of something over 7 days ago, I probably didn’t enjoy it and thus, don’t want to watch any more of it, so please filter. Also, please stop taunting me with ‘continue watching’ content that I have already viewed—in its entirety—on your platform. If it’s a series and there are no new episodes available, take it out until you get a new season. If it’s a film and it’s been stopped short ~5 before the end, those five minutes you’re eager to get me to sit down for are probably just the credits. Next!

I’ve also got a bone to pick with “Popular on Netflix” and “Trending now” which are presumably two granularities of the same thing, most popular over all time vs an arbitrary period within that. If you’ll recall I’m not a big fan of these kinds of recommendations….


What I would quite like is something more along the lines of…


I’m quite happy to give access to my facebook network provided you abide by the following:

  • Don’t post on my behalf
  • Don’t associate specific users with content

No-one wants their feed taken over by automatic posts and no-one wants their guilty viewing pleasures aired to the world, but I personally would be ok with Netflix watching and listening to bring me this non-specific but slightly less impersonal than ‘Popular on Netflix” list.

let’s talk about genres, shall we?

Netflix used the following to categorise content for me:

  • Irreverent comedies with a strong female lead
  • Raunchy stand-up comedy
  • Rant stand-up comedy

Content falling into these somewhat dubious and incredibly niche groups were at the top of the promo list for someone who’s most recently watched content includes: (a lot of) Buffy, Person of Interest, Adventure Time, Wakfu and Insidious 2… Yeah. Ok. This is probably something to do with stuff I’ve rated or… I dunno. Your reasoning is not clear to me. Also not always clear to me, is just what some of these films/series have done to deserve such bizarre genres. If it’s not immediately obvious why something is included in a list, then that list probably is overkill. They’re too fine grained to be useful, I cannot see the wood for the trees. I get that that might be deliberate, to make the available content library seem bigger and of better quality but you’re just making things weird. I’m pretty there is a fairly standard list of genres you could adhere to, horror, sci-fi and comedy etc. Most people will know the difference between a rom com and slapstick. Also, you’re mixing up thematic with format based genres. Whyyyyy T^T If it’s stand-up, it’s also comedy as the term ‘stand-up’ isn’t used to refer to any other kind of performance. Filtering the format based genre thematically is a waste of space imo.

MOVING ON. On the rare occasions where the 40mins flicking through these incredible exercises in obscurity (critically acclaimed film about a dog, anyone?) doesn’t turn up anything to watch, I might decide to search for something in particular.

netflix search experience ps3

The search experience on the PS3 is especially gruelling. I have to use the controller to select my search term a letter at a time while, in the bottom left corner Netflix play hangman trying to predict what I’m looking for. Then when I can’t find what I’m after for, I’m offered a bunch of alternative content. This does very little to please me. I just spent an extended period of time browsing this content and didn’t see anything I fancied. Then I looked for a specific thing, if you don’t have it then you don’t have it… I wouldn’t scour a super market for AAA batteries, and be consoled by the lack of them by being offered a sea bass. It doesn’t matter how good that bass looks, I wanted batteries… It might seem that offering alternative content is sugarcoating the news you don’t have what I’m after, instead you’re pouring salt in the wound.

what can be done?

Collating my experiences across the various platform, I think there are a few things that can be done to improve things—based on the fact they exist on one or more already. Key for me is:

Make picking up where you left off easy

Netflix has this down to pat. It keeps track of what I’m watching and that’s unified across devices. Youtube should take note and make histories shared across connected devices and not just when I’m using them in conjunction with each other. That’s cheating. If I go away and watch a dozen rap battles on my phone, I would like when I connect to my TV for the history to reflect that. Left to catch up on all fronts is iPlayer.

Make binge-watching easy

Again Netflix wins out on this with their automated countdown between episodes. Youtube is almost there with the playlist feature, but someone has to create that playlist to begin with. Awesome when the creator does it but not something I’d like to mess about with as someone who solely consumes content. I get annoyed just adding things to my TV play queue. Once again, iPlayer trails behind, to watch something you have to explicitly select it.

Make searching easy

If the device you’re using doesn’t have a keypad attached to it then searching can be a pain. Youtube’s pairing devices makes life a lot more pleasant and if Netflix did this I’d be so deliriously happy, ah hah. I think the same would be handy for iPlayer as well.

So there we have my whin—ahem, thoughts on why VoD is a Very Obviously Disappointing experience. Is there anything glaringly obvious that I’ve missed?

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