May 29, 2024

Creativity vs UX: why it's so hard to choose a movie on Netflix or HBO

Elisa Walker
Sales Manager
Roger van der Spek
Want to learn more about the what you can do with neuromarketing research? Book a meeting and we'll get you inspired!
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Almost all video streaming platforms followed Netflix in their design: HBO Max, Disney+, and others mimicked their way to present content. Interestingly, by adopting these design- and UX principles, a range of usability issues are incorporated. In an independent neuromarketing study, we assess the customer journey of HBO Max, one of Netflix’ challengers, and analyse if they should have chosen a different UX strategy instead.

Netflix has revolutionized the way we watch TV, and as result, their design- and platform’s user experience and user interaction (UX/UI) became a benchmark for the video streaming industry. HBO Max, Disney+ and many others followed their lead on how we interact with these products. Perhaps they all looked at Pablo Picasso’s quote (or Steve Jobs, who stole it):
“Good artists copy, great artists steal”. 

Was it smart to steal the UX-design ideas from Netflix or should they have looked at best-practices from outside the industry, like ecommerce?

Let’s find out. 

Neuro-usability study

Participants interacted with HBO Max (app) in our neuromarketing research lab in Amsterdam, where their emotions and subconscious behaviour was tracked and recorded with (neuro) technology. After their journey a cognitive psychologist interviewed them, which lead to interesting insights.

HBO unravelled with neuromarketing

Each year, we conduct various qualitative neuromarketing projects for knowledge sharing. Each year we pick a topic that interests or amazes us and this time we arrived at Video Streaming. The idea started after arguing that Jakob's law is the main reason for having to deal with the current UX on VSPs, including the issue that it sometimes takes forever to find the right movie or TV-Series. In a nutshell, Jakob’s Law (by Nielsen), states that users are conditioned by their collective experience, having expectations on what something should look like based on that experience. A hamburger menu, a filter, where to find a search bar: it’s all conditioned by what we are used to. For Video Streaming we believe that Netflix created a norm because they were the first to confront the public with their designs. 

By analyzing the customer journey of HBO Max, we want to find out if it’s smart to go by Jakob’s Law, or rather break away from it and start a new customer experience. In our neuroscience lab we tracked subconscious behaviour of HBO Max users, specifically looking at their expectations, emotional triggers and cognitive ease to interact with the platform. All insights that came out of the study can be found in Brainpeek, our Emotion Analytics Platform (check out the demo-environment here). In this blogpost we cover three key insights and try and answer the question whether HBO Max should have followed their own (UX) strategy or that they did the right thing to follow Netflix. 

Insight 1. Creativity over functionality

HBO follows a visual (search) strategy, clearly inspired by Netflix, just like the other streaming platforms, like Disney+. The way their content is presented looks great. It’s somewhat comparable to being in- or in front of a movie theatre, with colourful movie-posters on display.

Initially our neuro-data showed that it triggered positive experiences, evoking joy peaks with participants. People had a feeling of preparing themselves for movie-time and enjoyed the colourful posters (thumbnails). Whenever people know exactly what to look for, this works well. New releases are often shown on top of the page and specific titles can be found via search.

That positive engagement quickly fades when users do not know yet what to choose, or when they look for inspirational content. Where Movie theaters show a dozen movie posters, the average streaming platform has thousands of titles and unfortunately a big chunk of that is on display, without a clear structure. In our research we see that HBO is not aiding users in their decision making.

Content, especially on the home page, seems to prefer visual attractiveness over functionality. HBO (as Netflix does) offers a lengthy list of thumbnails, categorized by themes, without a clear logic to the user. There is a lack of visual hierarchy and direction to find what they are looking for. In a way, it resembles online shopping platforms with endless product-landing-pages (PLP’s) by infinity scrolling and lacking good filters. The result: overwhelmed users.

It seems that HBO -just like Netflix and all others- prefer visual attractiveness and creativity. Without a clear structure and functional design-elements, users miss logic and direction. It reminds us of online retailers that offer too many products with no filters and infinity scrolling. Users are overwhelmed, their eye-gaze is drawn to too many visual stimuli and processing information demands too much cognitive load. This is clearly visible in the eye-tracking heatmaps and Brainsight screenshot below (for mobile heatmaps, also see here).

Gaze Plot: what instantly attracts attention and in what sequence

For optimization, we would recommend to create a better search strategy and visual aids to help navigate the platform, but we’ll get back to that. 

Insight 2. Cognitive challenge

Users are overwhelmed by the content, but what we see in our study is that when their search continues, their decision making process is becoming more and more difficult, triggering various psychological effects. 

By offering too many options without any tools or other support to help someone choose, cognitive load increased significantly and frustration-levels went up, caused by choice-overload. The search and selection process is too time-consuming, and whenever users invest more time and effort as their search continues, their choice-stress grows. Instead of taking a decision, they’ll feel the need to gather more information to make the right choice triggering FOMI (fear of missing information) and a feeling of loss aversion increases. Conclusion: having too many options gives people stress, either consciously or unconsciously.

When you have trouble choosing a movie on your streaming platform, this is the reason why

Commons tools to help users choose are filters and search. We’ll cover this in the next insight. As you already subscribed and paid for your streaming service, you’ll stick to your movie-selection much longer compared to an online shopping experience. But think about it: would you have dropped off if it would take that much effort to order a pair of shoes online? You’ll probably would have gone elsewhere. 

Below is a screenshot of Brainpeek, where you can see Frustration peak in the neuro-data and the respondent explaining that decision making was hard:

Brainpeek: Emotion Analytics Platform

To overcome these issues, HBO should more actively guide users in their search and decision making process. Instead of more creatively, more functionality is required: a functional layout, more logic and relevance to categories/grouping, add cues, and put more effort into excellent filter- and search options (also see Insight 3). 

Insight 3. Support tools

Having difficulty finding the right content on a homepage or PLP increases the need for filters to narrow down a search. Also, an easy to find and well-working search-bar for direct searches. HBO offers both.

Like Netflix, HBO’s filters are restricted to categories (genres). Where Netflix potentially offers too many, HBO has too few. Popular genres like ‘Thriller’, ‘Romance’, ‘Adventure’ or‘ War’, to name a few, are not present. 

When filtering by genre, something interesting happens: users land on a theme-page, having the same visual hierarchy and thumbnail presentation as the homepage, again with creatively named categories. With no option to narrow down a search, users are running into a similar experience as earlier described.

When looking at online customer journeys and best-practices in ecommerce, good filter options help narrow down a search when there are too many products to choose from. Apart from relevant filter-elements, social proof (ratings and reviews) is part of this support-structure.

HBO Max (and Netflix) do have the option to rate a movie, but don’t use them in their filters. Also, they are home-grown and not independent. Amazon Prime is the only platform offering independent filters (IMDB, the largest and most reliable movie-rating platform), but also does not offer any filter-options in relation to this. 

One wonders how less top-of-mind content is known to the public when such titles are not shown, without having the tools to find them. There were various stories in the media by creatives and producers about fighting for attention on streaming platforms. Interestingly, better UX might be part of that solution. 


Users expected to find the Search-option in the hamburger menu or on top of the page and did not immediately spotit in the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. When scrolling down, the search bar disappears and does not show when pausing, but only when users goback up again (which you’ll have to do manually).

Finally, the search function needs improvement. Partial names do not give any suggestions or results (Matt Dam…on)and users are punished with zero results by typos. 

All of these issues can easily be solved. Make use of multiple entry-points for search, use sticky navigation with clear buttons and a scroll-back up function, and use auto-suggest or at least a less strict search-function. 

Guided Buying

A concept of guided buying in online shopping is to provide suggestions like ‘other buyers also bought…’ or ‘if you like this product, you might like this too…’. 

HBO, and most other video streaming platforms, offer this too. HBO Max has a “More like this” option on a PDP, showing other titles that you’ll probably like based on that PDP. In our study, suggestions often did not meet users’ expectations, mainly due to a mismatch of genre. It is unclear what the underlying issues are, but perhaps it’s due to weak or incorrect data-labeling.

Is Netflix leading by example?

Visually: yes. UX-wise: maybe less so. Overall, it looks great, but it does not help users to reach their goals intuitively and effortlessly. The main reason is that customer-centric design is not a strategic priority. The key strategy they currently focus on is to win the battle for the customer with exclusive content.

Content dominates the video streaming market and platforms invest heavily in buying or creating this to win over the hearts of customers. Three years ago, the Disney+ Benelux’ CEO said in an interview that

“ immersive innovations in user experience are expected...the battle of video streaming is won by content”.

And, specifically in relation to user experience: “The interface, technical quality and search functionality should be good, but you won't make a difference.” This was well put: three years down the line, the UX of video streaming platforms has barely changed (and they all still look like Netflix).

Interestingly, earlier this year, Disney stated in a Bloomberg report (link), that it is exploring to sell more of its titles to competitors, in order to curb their losses in its streaming business. Perhaps this is a first sign of a different -or blended- strategy in the Video Streaming industry.

A growing problem is streaming-hopping, where households have one or a few streaming subscriptions and switch on others, depending on their (temporary) needs. Ironically, when all parties go for a content-strategy, it triggers less customer-loyalty, especially when not keeping up with adding new blockbusters or hyped TV-shows. 

Opposed to focusing on products (content), user-, customer- and brand experience may start to play a bigger role in attracting and retaining customers in the near future, especially now that competition and streaming-hopping is on the rise. With more options to choose from and more titles to watch in a lifetime, could it be that consumers might value their core-subscription(s) for being a likable, customer friendly platform where they can easily find what they need? For the first mover(s) to strategically add customer-centric design and flawless UX to their goals: in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Key Takeaways

Visually, most streaming platforms look amazing, but when it comes to user experience, they have work to do. Focusing on (exclusive) content remains the key driver for video streaming platforms to retain and grow market share, but growing competition, households sticking to far less subscriptions than the number of video streaming suppliers, ‘streaming hopping’, and sub-licensed titles cross-platform might speed up the evolution of customer-centric design.

Learning from the online retail evolution, streaming platforms can get a ton of ideas to optimize their customer journeys.

Hopefully, the first things they will embrace are: 

  1. Experience your product through the eyes of the customer (and do remember: “you are not your user”) 
  2. Don’t be too creative if it doesn’t support usability.
  3. Don’t drown users in content, instead help them in their decision-making

Which platform will be the new corner stone for Jakob’s Law in video streaming? 

May 29, 2024

Waarom het zo lang duurt om een film uit te zoeken op Netflix of HBO Max.

Elisa Walker
Sales Manager
Roger van der Spek
Wil je meer leren over hoe jouw bedrijf neuromarketing research kan inzetten? Boek een meeting met ons en we zullen je inspireren!
boEk meeting

Ieder jaar voert Braingineers een aantal neuromarketing onderzoeken uit om een digitale customer journey te ontrafelen en de insights te delen met de UX- en E-commerce Community. Vanuit ons enthousiasme voor streaming diensten, zoals die van HBO Max, Disney+ en Netflix, besloten we om de (dramatische) usability van deze streaming platforms onder de loep te nemen. Uiteraard op basis van de onbewuste klantervaring.

Een korte samenvatting vind je hieronder, of [lees hier het volledige artikel op Marketing Facts]

Creativiteit boven UX

Het selecteren van een film of serie op videostreamingplatforms zoals Netflix, HBO Max en Disney+ kan een tijdrovende en frustrerende ervaring zijn, ondanks de (enorme) visuele aantrekkelijkheid van deze platforms. Steevast volgen de platforms de ontwerpbenadering van Netflix, maar de vraag is of dit gebaseerd is op gebruikerstesten of simpelweg op het kopiëren van een bekende norm. De huidige strategie van videostreamingplatforms draait voornamelijk om exclusieve content, maar de vraag is hoe lang dit voldoende zal zijn gezien de groeiende concurrentie en het fenomeen van "streaming hoppen". Maar wanneer komt er een verschuiving naar de klantervaring en customer-centric design als middel om klanten aan te trekken en te behouden.

In ons neuromarketing onderzoek analyseren we de klantreis van HBO Max vanuit het oogpunt van usability. Had HBO Max beter een eigen UX/UI kunnen kiezen?

Het onderzoek legt verschillende knelpunten bloot in de klantreis. Zo gaf het inzicht in de (dis)balans tussen visuele aantrekkelijkheid en functionaliteit. De homepage toonde een overvloed aan content zonder duidelijke structuur, waardoor gebruikers moeite hadden om te vinden wat ze zochten. Creatieve categorieën voegden verwarring toe in plaats van te helpen.

Daarnaast bespreekt ons Marketing Facts artikel hoe de design-keuzes en opzet van het platform keuzestress in de hand werkt. Gebruikers hadden moeite met het maken van een keuze en naarmate hun zoektocht voortduurde, meer informatie zochten om de perfecte optie te vinden. De EEG-data liet goed zien hoe dat tot frustratie leidde.

Andere onderwerpen die aan bod komen zijn filters, direct search (bar) en navigatie, waarbij het onderzoek liet zien dat het voor gebruikers moeilijk is om bij de zoekopdrachten op een gemakkelijke manier relevante content te vinden.

Terwijl content nog steeds de belangrijkste strategie is in de videostreamingmarkt, lijkt een verschuiving naar customer-centric design aan de horizon te verschijnen. Platforms moeten leren om door de ogen van de klant te kijken en te leren van de online/ecommerce industrie, waar functionaliteit regelmatig prioriter krijgt boven visuele aantrekkelijkheid en gebruikers actiever worden geholpen bij het nemen van beslissingen (guided buying).

Het is de vraag welk platform de nieuwe standaard zal zetten voor UX in videostreaming en de principes van Jakob's Law zal omarmen om een betere gebruikerservaring te bieden.

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