What should we watch tonight? UX best practices for catching attention on streaming platforms 

Editor’s note: Mike Bartels is the senior director of enterprise research at Tobii in North America. 

The question, “What should we watch tonight?” was easy to answer when I was a kid. There were only five channels to choose from! But in the past few decades, the way we consume content has been transformed, first by cable television and, more recently, by streaming services. In the battle of Netflix vs. Blockbuster, the winner is clear, and dozens of others have entered the market in the aftermath. Today there are over 50 streaming services in North America alone, with projected revenues of over 30 billion dollars in 2022. It’s hard to think of another industry that has seen such incredible growth, both in terms of the number of subscribers and the preponderance of available services.

And yet, a constraining factor has squeezed the streaming market in recent years: Attention. There are only so many eyeballs in the world and so many hours in the day to watch television. This highly impacts streaming services. Quibi and CNN+ are dead, Netflix is losing subscribers, Disney+ is operating at a loss. Fiscal factors and the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions also add pressure, but the major reason this market has become so competitive is the simple economics of human attention. 

So how does a new streaming service convince a consumer to sign up? And once they have signed up, how does that service convince them to stay forever? There are many different strategies for success in gaining new subscribers and retaining existing ones, but they all boil down to convincing the audience of a few key things:

  • Your service has appealing content.
  • Your service has a large amount of content.
  • Your service makes it relatively easy to find something to watch. 

Nailing all three is the primary challenge of any streaming service in today’s crowded market. The platform needs continual optimization for visibility, engagement and ease of use. Difficult, but not impossible. Based on user experience (UX) research using eye-tracking research over the past decade, here are five keys to winning the battle for human attention:

  • Imagery matters. Users may visually consider as many as 40 options in the first minute after logging in. Attention to any given show or movie is extremely brief, and so the pictures become the selling point in terms of which one to watch. If the box art or other associated imagery doesn’t catch our eye and hold attention, we’ve moved on to the next one in a blink. Presenting many compelling content images that are intriguing even at a quick glance is critically important to convincing someone that “yes, this service has a lot of stuff I think I’d like to watch.”
  • Go easy on the text blocks. If you wanted to read, you’d probably open a book instead of a streaming platform, right? Our attention to text descriptions of movies, shows and individual episodes is extremely tactical. Longer paragraphs tend to be either lightly skimmed or skipped entirely because the user is looking for a key hook in a few words, not a spoiler-laden press release. When it comes to authoring promotional copy, it’s a less-is-more situation. You must convince them it’s watchable, but you must do it quickly.  
  • Rethink the infamous auto-play trailers. You open your favorite streaming service at 2 a.m. with a sleeping baby on your lap, and suddenly Tom Cruise is being chased by noisy aliens. Most users we surveyed tell us they dislike the auto-play feature for trailers (a default setting for many streaming platforms). Not only does it create a negative user experience, but it also encourages users to scroll away and move their mouse to hit the mute button. In other words, an auto-playing trailer moves the engagement needle in exactly the wrong direction. While there is evidence that it occasionally convinces users to watch a show they wouldn’t normally watch, is it worth the bad feelings it creates? Is it worth waking up my kid that one time? Probably not. 
  • Consider easily digestible quality signifiers. OK, I just made up that term, but I think you get the idea. Hearts, tomatoes, thumbs-ups, Top 10s, Oscar icons, percent match – these are all quick ways of conveying quality – or at least watchability – to the audience. Consumers pay attention to these signifiers when they are available on a platform and are frustrated when they can’t find this information. Pro tip: overlying onto the box art for users to see as they scroll through the catalog is an easily digestible quality signifier’s effective way of delivering this crucial “quality” message right at the point of decision. 
  • A sign-up page that does A, B and C. How do you get someone to smash that “Sign-up now” button? Once again, it shows you have (A) appealing content, (B) in large quantity and (C) on a simple-to-navigate platform. That’s not easy to get across on a single webpage, but that’s how it is. The sites performing best present their marquee titles in highly visible locations (above the fold, in the foreground) and include as many as possible (to create the perception of endless, quality options). More than anything else, the signup decision is about the content – not technical features, not ways to watch, not even price – so it’s important that this page prioritizes what truly matters: the shows and movies available! 

At the end of the day, every streaming service wants to attract new customers and retain existing customers. A big part of meeting those goals is winning the battle for attention, a battle that is much easier to fight when you have the right data, specifically eye-tracking data.