The Disney+ interface feels empty but elegant compared to Netflix

Photo: Walt Disney Company

Browsing through a demo of Disney’s upcoming streaming service, Disney+, the most striking thing about it is the stark contrast with its biggest competitor: Netflix. Where Netflix is overflowing with content trying to catch subscribers’ attention, Disney+ feels comparatively barren. Like Apple TV’s library of apps, Disney’s service is almost surgically clean in its design precision. But the specific ways its content is compartmentalized might be divisive.

The density difference makes sense: in 2018, Netflix had approximately 1,570 TV shows and 4,000 movies available for streaming. At launch, Disney+ will have approximately 500 movies and 7,000 individual TV episodes. But whereas Netflix can feel like disorganized chaos, every section of Disney+ is broken down into its own pocket, like Apple TV. Sitting down for a hands-on Disney+ preview at D23, Disney’s biennial convention in Anaheim, California — just across the street from Disneyland — the difference between Netflix and Disney+ couldn’t have been clearer.

In part, that’s because Disney’s upcoming service has different goals. “From a technical level or UI level, I haven’t really compared it to Netflix,” Michael Paull, Disney’s streaming services president, told The Verge.

“As a principle, we wanted a simple, elegant experience,” Paull said. “We want to make this easy. We don’t want the product to get in the way of the content.”

“Simple” may be the best word to describe Disney+. Its interface divides content into rows that people can scroll through based on personalized recommendations, new releases, and curated selections. The top row of the app has a carousel with a few priority titles to scroll through, including new theatrical releases Disney wants to highlight (Captain Marvel showed up on my demo) and Disney+ originals. There’s also a row for featured shows and movies that will be curated in-house, according to Paull. Right now, it’s mostly comprised of big theatrical releases and Disney classics, but that could change, Paull said. In the same way Netflix has started to use its featured section to primarily highlight its original content, there’s a good chance that Disney+ originals will take up a majority of that row.

The most obvious and interesting part of the Disney+ homepage is a selection of Disney subsections: Star Wars, Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and National Geographic. It’s clear this is how the company wants people to use the app, to home in on their favorite brands or franchises.

People “generally know what they’re interested in” when they open the app, Michael Cerda, vice president of product on Disney+, told The Verge. If you’re looking for Star Wars content like the new Mandalorian spinoff series, or the few Marvel movies Disney+ will launch with, people want them in the same space, he continued. Think of these subdivisions as almost entirely separate apps. They host collections of titles from every franchise and brand that Disney wants to highlight. The Simpsons, for example, has a huge section. People can go into that area, then scroll through each individual season to find an episode to watch. It’s similar to how shows on Hulu operate.

It’s within these collection-specific areas that Disney+’s designers really earn their due. Every movie or TV show has a beautiful back page to greet viewers. Take Captain Marvel: clicking on the movie will open a separate page with a couple of options, including the ability to read details about the movie (casting and so forth) or scroll through other recommended titles. Users can also click on an icon at the top of the page to add a title to their queue. Users on mobile devices will also be able to download movies for offline viewing directly from the page.

But what if people aren’t interested in just exploring what Marvel, Star Wars, or even National Geographic offer? Disney+ also features a sidebar that people can use to navigate between TV series, movies, and the Disney+ Originals category, which will host movies like Disney’s exclusively streaming live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp, or series like Marvel’s upcoming spinoff series Loki.

The name has already led to some confusion online, though. Take Lady and the Tramp, which Disney refers to as an “Original Film” on its official poster. People on Twitter wondered whether that designation meant the original animated movie, or the new live-action adaptation. The terminology question has come up with the Disney+ team, too, Paull says, but he couldn't comment on it further.

Fortunately, that’s the only openly confusing part of Disney+. Scrolling through separate compartments by collection might seem tedious, but it isn’t. Having different sections means it’s easier to browse without finding the content as overwhelming as the collections on Netflix and Hulu — though again, that’s partly because there’s less of it.

Disney is also investing in personalized recommendations, which get their own row on the homepage. Recommendations are necessary for streaming platforms, especially as they continue to grow. Netflix runs approximately 400 A/B tests on its service every year just dedicated to its recommendation algorithm. It’s also led to frustration among subscribers and creators alike, who have accused Netflix’s recommendation algorithm of not surfacing specific shows or movies. That’s not an issue for Paull and his team right now, but it’s something they’re thinking about.

“We actually have been fortunate in that we have a pretty strong team focused on personalization and recommendations,” he said. “Our job is hard, but it’s not as hard, because our content strategy is about quality, not quantity. Our content’s about curation.”

The focus on curation is a big reason why the company decided to launch a separate kids’ app section inside its platform. Deciding to build a kids section on an app where nothing will be rated higher than PG-13 might seem unnecessary, but Paull said there are a couple of reasons the team thought it was important. Unlike Disney+’s main homepage, which is largely driven by text on top of images, the kids’ version is driven primarily by photos of characters from movies and TV shows. This is because kids, especially those under age seven, don’t really read. They associate with characters, Paull said. So the design is extremely different: the section is brighter and bubblier than the homepage, and it’s full of Disney characters.

The other reason is something people might not think about when it comes to Disney content: even within the PG-13 rating, Disney has some violent films that kids might not be ready for. Avengers: Endgame, for example, has a scene where Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) uses a katana to slice a man’s throat before killing him.

That’s where individual profiles come in. Disney+ has a profile-creation process where users navigate a selection of avatars from its movies and TV shows: heroes from Marvel movies, Star Wars characters, and Pixar favorites. Accounts can have up to seven profiles, either designated for kids or as standard accounts.

The biggest takeaway from going hands-on with Disney+ is that it feels familiar. Between Netflix and Hulu (not to mention the myriad niche services), streaming users have grown accustomed to a fairly standardized interface and set of features on streaming platforms. As the streaming wars heat up — as WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, NBCUniversal, and even Apple prepare to launch their own streaming services — it feels like apart from price and content, the user experience will be one of the biggest factors in determining who comes out on top. Paull doesn’t disagree — entirely. The “user interface is very important,” according to Paull, who says “being able to create a design that fits the brand, and that allows people to find the programming they want that doesn’t get in the way is incredibly important.” The only thing he disagrees on? The “streaming wars” label for the coming conflict between online content services.

“I don’t see this as a war,” Paull said, laughing. “I see this as nothing but a big win for the consumer.”

Comments

Have they confirmed if the episodes of the Disney+ series will be released weekly or all at once?

It’s been confirmed to be weekly, which is the way I greatly prefer it. Too much content at once, and we already have plenty to binge on. Much more fun to watercooler at work over an ongoing series.

https://www.looper.com/163653/disney-will-release-episodes-weekly-not-all-at-once/

Yeah but now some will have to try to avoid spoilers while they wait for the last episode to release if they want to only sub for one month and binge The Mandalorian then unsubscribe. Wasn’t too hard with Discovery, but I bet it’ll be near impossible for that show. I don’t mind spoilers, but I guess it’s just the cost of trying to game the system.

I find it easy to avoid spoilers. I just don’t visit IGN.

Also means that the shows will be in the public’s eye for much longer. Dropping an entire season all at once these days means that a show will be popular for a week (or a month at best) before everyone moves on to the next big thing.

Agreed, haven’t heard much buzz on Stranger Things S3 for a long time.

That’s what I figured. Hulu does the weekly release too. I think they actually don’t have enough content and that’s probably why they don’t release everything all at once. They’ll have my sub for at least 3 months now just for the Mandalorian.

Eh. Agree to disagree. I’ve personally always struggled to maintain interest in things I can’t watch at my preferred pace (more than once a week). Just don’t have the energy for a weekly hype train, with constant disappointment at where the current episode ends. I’m not sure I’ve ever successfully stuck with a full season weekly (start to finish, I’ve joined partway through before), kinda ends up killing my buzz at some point. I guess episodic cliffhangers and mid-season breaks just hurt my soul. Maybe that’s why books are my jam, they have similar pacing to binging long-form television.

A big plus for me with Netflix model was allowing me to enjoy the show my way and be in on the real-time discussion. Though I do understand the format isn’t as conducive for constant discussion as weekly chunks.

Nothing wrong with liking the weekly model. But I just feel there’s legitimate benefits to being able to watch a season as a complete unit as far as enjoying the content.

I agree! After being spoiled by Netflix, I can’t seem to focus on any shows that release 1 EP per week. I’d much prefer finishing the entire season in a few days.

No reason they couldn’t do chapters at a time.

That’s why I think they gonna keeping ripping us. Disney network can release more than one show or film per week (52 per year). They could do it even without Fox. At launch you’ll have one movie and 8 episodes to watch, exactly what you would expect from a big company like Disney.

I respectfully disagree. Consuming at series at your comfortable pace is much better being forced to one; some actually like to binge & will wait and have to deal with an unnecessary amount of time avoiding spoilers & consuming the content.

Weekly releases are usually nothing more than a means of preventing mass cancellations after major series are released.

That’s particularly important here since Disney+ has so little content

"We already have plenty to binge on": The service isn’t even freaking released yet.

A lot of the content provided is what people have already seen.

I meant on other streaming services as well, not just on Disney+. I think the overall content glut is well acknowledged. Not to mention movies, like a huge backlog on MA/Vudu, including things I’d love to have time to rewatch.

Why not call the Lady and the Tramp film "Disney+ Exclusive" or "Only on Disney+"? #ftfy #justGiveMeFreeDisneyPlusForMyIdea

Because it probably won’t be exclusive forever, either because it will later be released on home video/a la carte streaming services or licensed to individual television stations or a cable channel or whatever.

Agreed—carriage fees for the Disney Channel, Disney XD, and Freeform bring in way too much money for them to keep content off them forever.

Disney is leagues better than any company at monetizing their IP across various platforms. No other studio is able to monetize a movie on Blu-ray, Blu-ray 4K, digital download, a cable network, and now streaming the way they do. This will continue for the foreseeable future until cable dies. But I suspect they will continue to sell downloads so you can "own" Disney+ series in perpetuity.

Navigation interface means nothing to me until I hear their playback quality is flawless. There are still too many streaming services with subpar video interfaces. Netflix’s biggest strength has always been near flawless media playback on all major devices, with up to HDR resolution. Curious to see how well Disney’s UHD content stands up.

Agreed. I do like that they include 4K at the base price rather than charging extra for it like Netflix. Come to think of it I think Netflix is the only streaming service that charges extra for 4K.

I don’t recall paying extra for 4K for Hulu or Amazon and although I don’t have any plans of subscribing to Apple’s TV+ I suspect their $9.99 a month rate includes 4K streams. Speaking of which, I doubt Apple will have any server issues on their day one launch. If more than 1,000 people sign up in the first week I’ll be shocked. Meanwhile Disney+ will probably get 1,000 subscribers every 5 minutes on launch day.

Apple TV 4K already streams in 4K. That’s why it’s called 4K.

The TV app also supports 4K, it’s the content providers that ultimately control whether the content is provided in 4K.

TV+ has nothing to do with 4K or streaming quality. It’s related to bundled subscriptions and Apple’s original content.

And you’re right, they probably won’t have issues on day one but it won’t be due to low subscribers … since those subscribers will still stream content from the content providers.

Maybe try reading any article on the Apple TV?

I’m pretty sure JohnnyMnemonic is referring to the subscription streaming service Apple is launching (called Apple TV+) when they talk about the cost for 4K access. Yes you can have a TV that supports 4K content, and yes you can have an Apple TV 4K that supports 4K content, but none of that means anything if your subscription only entitles you to content delivered in 1080p as it does with Netflix’s Basic and Standard plans.

The point is that Disney+, Hulu, and Amazon (and likely Apple TV+) are all streaming services which include 4K streams in their base pricing models, while Netflix is the only one which charges a premium for it.

I understand exactly what he’s talking about and what I said was missed by all of you: you can already stream content provided by iTunes (the TV Shows and Movies apps) in 4K as well as from the TV app (since stuff you buy in iTunes as well as your subscriptions are just managed there). TV+ will effectively be an extension of iTunes content.

The rest of the subscription content is available in 4K based on the provider.

iTunes content (and thus Apple-controlled content) is available in 4K if such a digital version exists, and it doesn’t cost more.

There’s literally nothing to suggest that Apple would charge more for a 4K subscription, since the emphasis by them is that the original content is in 4K.

I’m not sure why Netflix being the only service of all the subscription providers already on the TV app seems to indicate to you that Apple would charge in the same manner. (since I can stream 4K from HBO in the TV app already). It seems to me it would suggest they are less likely to do so.

As far as the smart-ass comment about their servers, again, we are talking about Apple as the content provider so iTunes servers will likely be the source and they seem to do just fine.

Again, with regard to the iTunes Store content, you only get 4K streams if that’s what you pay for. You can buy any movie in SD for cheaper than the 4K prices listed (John Wick 3 is $14.99 CAD in SD and $19.99 CAD in 4K), so the point still remains that there most certainly is a pricing disparity even within Apple’s existing (and frankly unsuitable for comparison) video offerings.

Why people are comparing Apple TV+’s offering to Netflix’s is probably because Netflix is the de facto worldwide standard for most people due to its market dominance. Hulu doesn’t operate anywhere but the US, UK, and Japan, and Amazon Prime only has ~75M subscribers worldwide (compared to Netflix’s 151M). It’s not necessarily a judgement on what people expect; it’s just the most adequate point of comparison at this scale.

You should probably understand what he’s talking about before you insult him.

Maybe try reading the comment you’re replying to with a bit more attention?

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