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.”