How Hulu’s user experience will continue to evolve in 2018

The UI/UX is a crucial component for streaming services to master because it can affect what content and how much of it users watch. (Hulu)

2017 was likely the biggest year Hulu had in its 10-year history. The company launched a live TV product, licensed lots of content and passed 17 million subscribers. But the company’s UI/UX design was the biggest lightning rod of all.

Along with the live TV launch, Hulu introduced a dramatic overhaul to its platform. Hulu said the new UI has led to users watching more content and a wider variety of content, but some of the changes were met with a significant amount of negative feedback from users. Ben Smith, senior vice president and head of experience at Hulu, expected as much.

“We were very conscious we were making a big change. This wasn’t a little UI change and frankly it was the first major change we ever did,” said Smith, who sounded welcoming of the feedback even when it was less than cordial.

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“We always want to hear what our users have to say even if it is shockingly, unconstructively negative, because they’re our customers,” said Smith, adding that the data behind how people are using the service is the other important information stream that guides customer experience decisions at Hulu.

The UI/UX is a crucial component for streaming services to master because it can affect what content and how much of it users watch. Competitors like Netflix have experimented with changing up UI before. In 2015, Netflix redesigned its platform, adding a black background and making it easier to scroll through content. Netflix presents lots of content on its main page.

Hulu, on the other hand, tried for something more minimal with its new UI. John Couch, vice president of UX and design at Hulu, told Fast Company that the idea was to “simplify cognitive overload.”

“On one level you have to show you have a deep catalog, and on another level you have to show what’s relevant to the human being as they’re consuming and grokking all this information,” said Couch.

The result Hulu came up with earned it mixed reviews from users.

Smith said new features that went over really well included Hulu’s new practice of surfacing the newest episodes of series. He also said Hulu heard a lot about users’ struggles with the legibility of text on the platform, and that in response, Hulu became a little bit aggressive with the color palette.

“In dark rooms, the color changes as [users] went from item to item in the UI were just jarring and abrupt. They might look nice but they were too much. So we dialed that back,” he said.

Over the course of last year, Hulu rolled out updates that added episode badging, the ability to see more options when browsing and a channel guide for live TV. In the blog post, Smith said Hulu was tuned into customer feedback and admitted that there were a “number of enhancements that we can make to improve the viewing experience even more.”

Smith said that Hulu’s guiding principles as it approached building its new user experience were bringing live, recorded and on-demand content closer together; personalization and more control.

“We really felt we wanted to put the user in charge of time and place as much as possible,” said Smith.

Hulu sees three key phases of personalization on its platform. First is the on-boarding phase, when users select types of TV they’re interested in. The second phase is based on everyday activity and behavior of users, and using that information to tailor the experience.

The third phase is about getting the user more involved in the personalization process, something that Smith said Hulu is really focusing on in 2018.

“We want to give them more of a voice so they’re in control of the algorithm,” said Smith.

To that end, Smith showed off some features that Hulu is currently testing internally, like a new button on recommended content that allows users to more easily tell Hulu to stop suggesting that content. Another feature along those lines is something Smith calls “a bit of a reset button,” in case you don’t want certain titles showing up in your viewing history or in case the babysitter watches a bunch of shows you don’t like using your account.

In Smith’s example, he scrubbed his viewing history of a show that auto-played after a show he had watched in order to prevent Hulu from thinking that was the type of show he likes watching. By doing so, that title is no longer included in Hulu’s basis for individual recommendations.

“It’s a bit like the ‘Men in Black’ button. It’s now gone. I never watched it, Hulu,” said Smith. “That’s something I’m really excited about about, taking that next step in personalization and bringing the user back in so they feel like they’re in charge of it.”