The way we consume video online has evolved so fast, it’s made my head spin.

In a little over 15 years, we’ve gone from patiently waiting hours while downloading gargantuan 50mb video files, to instantly playing crystal-clear, hi-res video on any screen in my house. Streaming video is so popular, in fact, that “binge-watching” even got added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in February!

Not only has streaming video over the internet become like oxygen for the mainstream consumer, they’re also able to choose from among billions of video clips to suit every appetite. And, as it turns out, we have quite an appetite for it:

“Video is expected to grow 14x within five years and account for 70% of mobile network traffic.” ~ Reuters Research, “Media, Journalism & Technology Predictions, 2016”

For a short time, YouTube was the only serious video streaming game in town – today a growing number of streaming video providers have become household names, with each new competitor to the market exerting an upward evolutionary pressure on the user experience of delivering video content.

Nowadays, streaming video providers must give their users a good viewing experience in addition to carrying the content they desire. We can see this effect at work in the rapid decline of the cable companies’ set-top boxes, as well as their clunky user interfaces. Ugh, they won’t be missed – sure, they have all the newest movies and hit shows, but who wants to wrestle with such bad usability to get to the good stuff? Apparently, the answer is, fewer and fewer people each year.

Source: Digital TV Research

Thus, in a world where video content has been almost fully liberated from the clunky boxes, the only shell that contains them now is the user experience of the streaming video apps themselves – and in such a competitive market, retention is key to the growth of these companies.

Speaking of retention, we’re completely addicted to UserOnboard’s super-useful teardowns of our favorite web apps’ onboarding flows, so we thought it’d be a gas to do one of our own, using some of the most popular streaming video apps as our first victi- I mean, participants. Come with us and learn how the best and brightest are leveraging UX design to keep your wandering eyes glued, and your thumbs furiously scrolling for that next addition to your video library.

Got a favorite horse in this race? Click below to jump straight to that section (and follow us on Slideshare, while you’re at it):



Amazon Prime Instant Video

In summary: How do streaming video apps keep users engaged?

There are several design best practices currently used by the big 3 streaming video apps:

Personalization is important – to a point – All the apps incorporate personalization to a degree – but the deeper you go, the less prevalent it is.

The content is sacred. Don’t “sell past the close” – Once the user has chosen their show, the UI recedes back as much as possible. Don’t get in the way, or distract from the actual content, or you risk losing your viewers’ attention.

Thumbnails matter – Content thumbnails are literally the only info users have with which to make a viewing/buying decision, so give them as much breathing room as possible on the small screen.

Always encourage “One more…” – swipe, episode, minute, etc. – Design for smooth segues between content – the “peekaboo” or masonry style presentation of visual tiles keeps users constantly scrolling to see the next movie or show in their curated lists.

Streaming video apps all look similar – This is a big one. There’s currently lots of room for innovation in the design of streaming video apps, and it’s potentially hugely impactful – remember how Tivo temporarily disrupted other cable providers mainly by providing a (at the time) superior user interface compared to the cable companies?

There’s so much video content available, and the paradox of choice is always overwhelming – so there’s a huge opportunity to innovate around how that ocean of content can be distilled down into just the stuff I want to watch.

Embrace the Default Effect – People tend to accept the default options you set for them, because changing options incurs cognitive load – this is a psychological phenomenon called the Default Effect. Desirable browsing behavior needs to be primed by suggesting content to browse upfront. You can’t expect users to stay engaged when they have to do the legwork of finding content to browse – that’s why they came to you in the first place!

Technology advances breed more ways to use the content – Faster bandwidth speeds and cheaper internet connections = more accommodation for trailers, highlights, clips, etc.

So where’s it all headed next with streaming video? Well, that’s a meaty topic for another post, but I’ll leave you with two words that make my mind run wild:

Virtual. Reality.

Jonesing for more video? You should check out how we helped streaming media company Fullscreen boost retention of its audience of 600 million subscribers.