HBO GO is really, really poorly designed.

HBO made a platform to watch their entire catalogue of shows. So why does it suck?

In the past few weeks, I’ve finally gotten around to watching The Sopranos, David Chase’s early 20th century masterpiece. It’s a vicious, engrossing pastiche of mafia tropes and symbolism well-suited for a Faulknerian novel. HBO has produced some great shows over the years, and The Sopranos was arguably the first and most influential. It’s tailor made for binge-watching too, with its intricate storylines and wide ensemble cast. Hell, I’m watching an episode as I write this.

Unfortunately HBO GO, the only legal way to watch The Sopranos over the Internet, kind of sucks. While it is a very well-intentioned platform, HBO GO, sports some serious design flaws. Broadly, these issues fall into one of two categories: confusing interface features, or outright missing functionality. Now that HBO’s announced that you can get a streaming only suggestion, here are a couple of things the post-cable company might want to work on.

Confusing Interface

A still from HBO GO’s web interface.

Take a look at the screenshot above. Some of the options presented by the interface make sense. There is a play button — we’ve seen that before. There is an information radial button, which we can assume gives you information about the episode you’re watching (it does). There are buttons that activate subtitles, change the volume, and inform you on the quality of your connection.

But then there are the arrows. What, on first glance, would you assume the arrows do? I took it as an easy way to flip through episodes of a series — finish one episode and hit the arrow to quickly move on to the next. Try clicking on them, and you’ll be surprised when you are instead brought to a seemingly arbitrary title from HBO’s catalogue: the next item in your watchlist.

What is the watchlist you ask? Well, it’s a video playlist that you can populate by hitting the little plus-sign radial button underneath the play button. This list isn’t automatically updated — you have to manually select each episode you want to add. There is no easy way to move from one episode to the next, and the obvious choice provided by the interface (the two large arrows that always buttress the video) does not fulfill the task the user expects it to.

And, as a side note — there is absolutely no reason the fullscreen button should placed above the playhead. I’ve accidentally skipped to the end of a video too many times. Why can’t it be next to, or below the end of the playhead, like any other video player in existence? Placing it above the playhead makes the user more prone to error — move too high and you pause the video, move too low and you skip to the end. With the fullscreen button placed on the side or below the playhead, this error is eliminated; the user can always aim low, since there is nothing below the video player that effects the playback of the video.

Missing Functionality

A closeup of the HBO GO playhead

Take a look at the playhead for the HBO GO video player. Why is there no way to get from the playhead to another episode within the series? The episode is already breadcrumbed out into a Show — Season — Episode format. Reasonably, one would think they could click on “Episode 9", and reach a list of episodes within “Season 6A”. But that doesn’t work.

There is no way to get from one episode of a TV show in HBO GO to another episode within that series.

If you decide to click out of the episode you were watching, you don’t get placed right back in that season. You’re redirected to the series page (and not close to the show your watching) and forced to find your show again, choose the correct season, and then finally choose your episode.

Let that sink in. In the current culture, television is consumed like a can of Pringles — an entire series at a time. This absence of common functionality is a clear refusal to acknowledge this trend. Quite simply, the HBO GO webapp makes it way too laborious to do anything related to consuming content.

Online services made for consumption should aid in the process of that consumption, not actively hinder it. If HBO wants to succeed in going subscription only with HBO GO, they need to seriously rethink their design decisions on the web. Eschewing trends isn’t the best idea if you want to attract and hold on to a lot of users. HBO would do well to make their service similar to more popular streaming sites (Netflix), and offer a fully featured interface that serves as an effortless go-between in the consumer-content relationship. As it stands now, the HBO Go web player is clunky, inefficient, and downright confusing to use. Let’s hope we see a change in the future.

Note: There is a lot more to be said about this, and I’ll update this piece when I have the time. Wanted to get this out while the HBO news was still fresh in the public’s mind.

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