Curation Should Be A Feature, Not A User Interface

Dave B
Dave B
Oct 26, 2019 · 5 min read

Recently there was a minor uproar among Apple TV owners due to a notable change that was made in the recently released tvOS 13 for the device. In addition to the new features like multiple profiles, Xbox/PS4 controller support, Control Center, and new screen savers, tvOS 13 also added autoplaying full-screen previews on the Home Screen, replacing the Up Next items that would display when highlighting an app in the top row.

The reason this was controversial is that unlike the Up Next items, which were useful in showing you what’s on deck, the new full screen previews served no functional purpose and were essentially advertisements for content to watch. Firstly, this is a problem because it frequently suggests content you don’t even have access to without paying extra. But even more importantly, this speaks to a much bigger issue that has spread across the tech world — curation is destroying the user interface.

This may be the single biggest design problem in the tech world today.

I mean that sincerely. There is this ubiquitous tendency where “recommendation” has become another word for “advertisement”. Entire UIs are designed around how curators (both human and algorithmic) can suggest content for you.

Allow me to be a little blunt here:

I’m sick and tired of “curation”. Whether we’re talking about Apple TV, Apple Music, Netflix, YouTube, or just about any other content distribution platform, what we’ve been seeing in recent years is that these services have all been designed entirely around recommendations. From Netflix’s shift from stars to thumbs up/down to YouTube’s autoplay and its focus on recommendations, to Apple eliminating (and then bringing back but hiding) star ratings in favor of ‘Loved’ hearts, entire user interfaces are being designed around recommending content to you.

I don’t want recommendations. I want content that I want. In other words, I want a content library. I want to be able to select the TV shows and movies and artists and albums and news articles and books and YouTube videos that I want. I don’t want some human curator or machine algorithm telling me what it thinks I may want. I want what I want.

To put it another way, I want to be able to create libraries of content and I want tools to be able to organize, sort through, and consume this content. I want Smart Playlists/filters for my music library. I want YouTube to serve videos I want. I want to add TV shows to a list so that I can always follow what’s on my list, what episodes I’ve watched so far, and what episodes I haven’t. I want libraries of movies and news and so on. Think of TV tracker apps like Television Time. That’s what I want for all my content and I want it built into the streaming services. I suspect that millions of others share the same view.

Recommendations are important. Curation should not go away. After all, it’s great to see suggestions for new music and movies and TV and books to check out. But recommendations should be a feature; they should not be the foundation upon which the entire UI is built.

We still want collections of our “stuff”. Just because we’re renting the stuff monthly doesn’t mean we don’t want to maintain collections of that rented stuff.

Even though we’re in a world of streaming services, human beings still have the innate desire to collect things. We still want collections of our “stuff”. Just because we’re renting the stuff monthly doesn’t mean we don’t want to maintain collections of that rented stuff. We want to build libraries of content, we want the ability to evaluate or rate this content, and we want the tools to organize this content so that we can refer back to it later. These tech companies need to dial back the curation by several notches and focus on user libraries. That’s what the tech world needs. This applies to Netflix. This applies to Google/YouTube. And yes, this applies to Apple.


Addendum

A few points I want to add to this:

  1. One way to improve the TV app would be to transform what the middle “Library” tab is. Instead of “Library” meaning “Purchases”, it should mean “Shows I’m watching”. In other words, I should be able to select all the shows I’m currently watching across all services and add them to that tab. So that tab may consist of 10 or 15 shows across all the content sources that the app supports, and I’ll be able to go into each of those shows, keep track of exactly what I’ve watched, rate it, and then click to watch the next episode. The idea is that this will be a central repository for everything I’m watching and have previously watched. And if I want recommendations for something new to add to this list, I can simply jump back to the “Watch Now” tab and grab the curated items there. This would combine content streaming with the aforementioned TV tracker type apps — all in one simple, attractive Apple interface.
  2. Regarding Apple Music, here’s a good way to fix it. One of the biggest points there is that instead of focusing so heavily on curated playlists, it should focus on your own user library and provide simple but powerful tools to sift through your library. So if I want to listen to “heavy metal I love from the late 80s” or “classic rock from the 60s that I recently added” or “my own favorite Led Zeppelin songs”, there should be a simplified Smart Playlist type system that allows you to select criteria (ie. genre, artist, year, star rating, recently added, etc…) in order to auto-generate a dynamic, on-the-fly playlist. It would function more like a filter rather than like a playlist that you normally have to create, manage, and delete in iTunes. You just select criteria and get the music you want. The idea is that you’re being given tools to organize your own music library, as opposed to living in a world of curation and recommendation.
  3. And of course, for all of this to function, there should be an increased focus on personal ratings. In Apple Music, the ‘Love’/’Suggest Less’ system is primarily catered towards suggestions and curation. What’s needed is a renewed focus on Star Ratings, where I can easily rate any song, album, or artist, and then I can use those personal ratings for the aforementioned sorting tools, so that I can organize and find what I’m in the mood for, and perhaps even share it with a friend. This system is perfect for music but would also be great for TV shows, movies, and any other form of media. Star Ratings were one of my favorite parts of iTunes. The fact that they’re deeply hidden in iOS, — to the point of being useless — and the fact that no Smart Playlist type system ever made its way to iOS — is one of the biggest shortcomings in iOS. I’d love to see that change.

Dave B

Written by

Dave B

Tech enthusiast, design aficionado, music lover, hockey and MMA fan, all-around geek.

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