Disney’s new subscription-based streaming service Disney+ has given everyone plenty to talk about, from its fantastic original programming, to its war on binge-watching, to the surprise revelation that almost all of the Star Wars films are available for the first time in 4K with Dolby Atmos (and they look way, way better than the Blu-ray releases). But one of the service’s most compelling features—its user interface—isn’t getting much discussion at all.
I can only assume that some form of Stockholm Syndrome is at play here: We’ve grown so accustomed to fumbling around with the terrible onscreen menus for Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu, and other such services that when someone comes along and does it right, we’re almost blind to it.
I’m hoping, though, that the designers for these other services are taking notice.
What Other Subscription Streaming Services Could Learn from Disney+
One of the most obvious ways Disney+ sets itself apart is by having distinct domains —mini user interfaces nested within the main UI—for different types of content. There are separate screens for Disney-branded content, Pixar content, Marvel shows and movies, Star Wars shows and movies, and a wealth of documentaries and TV shows from National Geographic.
Within these domains, you’ll find expected sub-categories, like Movies, Series, and Specials, as well as a nifty section called “Through the Decades” that lets you navigate a body of work (like Star Wars or Pixar movies) chronologically.
Back out to the main menu, and there are even more ways of finding content to watch, including the usual search terms, as well as curated collections. Perhaps my favorite feature, though, is that Disney+ allows you to navigate a complete list of all available movies, A-Z.
Keeping in line with the praise I heaped on the Kaleidescape UI in Pt. 1, one thing I really dig about the Disney+ UI is its varied aesthetic. The Star Wars portal doesn’t look like the Pixar portal. And an overall search of all Disney+ content looks quite different from navigating a list of, say, all the Toy Story movies. These different visual modes encourage different modes of thinking, and complement the different ways you might arrive at figuring out what you want to watch for the evening.
Disney+ also doesn’t seem to rely too heavily on algorithms for feeding you new content. It makes its entire library pretty easy to search, and while there are the obligatory “Trending” and “Recommended for You” lists, these make up such a small part
of the overall experience that you could be forgiven for overlooking them completely.
Contrast this with Netflix, inarguably the biggest direct competitor to Disney+, which relies so heavily on its flawed recommendation algorithms that finding a movie or TV show any other way can be a hair-pulling, fit-pitching
The Disney+ National Geographic portal
exercise in masochism. I covered this to a degree in my previous post about Disney+, where I suggested you try to find a comprehensive listing of all the Netflix-original Marvel TV series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Defenders) without stumbling over all manner of unrelated garbage. It’s nearly impossible on Netflix, whereas Disney+ treats this level of ultra-specific sub-categorization as a given.
To be fair, Netflix has a wealth of amazing content that’s right up my alley and that Disney+ would never offer in a million years. Just this past weekend, I stumbled across a high-definition presentation of one of my favorite 1970s Hong Kong
action flicks, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in its proper aspect ratio, complete with the original Mandarin soundtrack and subtitles. (Amazon, by contrast, only presents the film with an awful English dub.)
Here’s the thing, though: I never would have found this hidden treasure by searching Netflix alone, and the service never
spoon-fed it to me even though I’m right in the movie’s target demographic. I happened upon it entirely by accident because I was using Roku’s ecellent universal search function to try to find the film for sale anywhere in the digital domain. Disney+ paves so many varied roads to its vault of films and TV shows that I can’t imagine something similar happening on the newer service.
One other, seemingly minor thing about Disney+ that I absolutely adore and don’t want to leave unsaid is that the app doesn’t hold you hostage the way practically all other streaming apps do. Exiting Netflix, for example, requires you to navigate to the left, scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen, and select the tiny Exit button.
Netflix isn’t alone, though. Practically all of these services hit you with a massive guilt trip when you attempt to leave. “Are you absolutely sure? Are you really going? I’m just going to go ahead and select ‘No’ for you since I can’t imagine you have anything better to do.”
By contrast, the only thing required to exit Disney+ is a single press of the back button on your remote, which evokes an air of confidence. Disney+ knows it can’t be your only source of streaming content, doesn’t take offense when you leave, and seems pretty sure you’ll be back sooner than later.
Of course, that’s not to say
The Disney+ “Disney Through the Decades” section
there aren’t areas where Disney+ could improve. I would like to see another level of sub-interfaces beneath the existing ones, so you could, for example, click on the horizontal Movies listing under the Pixar UI and be taken to a tiled list of titles instead of having to scroll right forever. But in the three weeks Disney+ has been available, we’ve already seen some substantial improvements, like the addition of a “Continue Watching” category, so you don’t have to keep a mental tally of which series you’re consuming and how many episodes you’ve seen to date.
It stands to reason that the service will continue to improve in numerous ways. The important thing is that it’s starting off with a well-planned and intuitive foundation, whereas all the other subscription-based streaming services need to start their renovations with a complete demolition.
The Best of Both Worlds
When you get right down to it, the two UIs I’ve held up as paragons of their disparate domains don’t have a whole heck of a lot in common. Disney+ and Kaleidescape serve very different purposes and work for very different content distribution and consumption models.
But both seem to be built on the same fundamental premise: That movie-watching isn’t simply something that happens between the opening and closing credits. It’s an experience that starts from the time someone says, “Hey, wanna watch a movie?” and someone else answers, “Sure, whatcha in the mood for?” It’s about browsing a library—one you own or one you subscribe to—and figuring out what strikes your fancy with getting lost in the weeds. It’s as much about getting to the movie as it is watching it. And the entire industry could learn a lot from how Kaleidescape and Disney+ help you navigate that entire process.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.