Thoughts on Disney+

We ended up subscribing to Disney+ when it launched in the UK. The launch coincided with both the start of lockdown and my birthday, and the promise of being able to immerse ourselves in nostalgia-fueled fantasy for a few weeks made for a good excuse. Or at least, it likely would have done had my parents not decided to buy it for me as a present anyway 😉

Just shy of two months later, I can safely say it was a worthwhile purchase. Initially, we made our way through a number of previously unseen animated classics whilst also finally finishing off season five of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and have since begun retreading the pathways of the MCU in between starting a new adventure with Clone Wars (a solid "alright" so far). In terms of content, then, I'd say it's more than been worthwhile, and we haven't even touched some aspects like Pixar or Star Wars.

But in terms of a user experience, I've found myself largely baffled. Not only is this a product created by one of the largest organisations on the planet[1], but it had a six-month headstart in the US before releasing over here and well over a year in development. It's also hardly breaking new ground. The Netflix app is far from a bastion of positive user design but it is hugely popular and massively influential, setting the bar for a minimum level of functionality. It's not even particularly tricky functionality, as can be attested by the almost laughable number of "build a Netflix clonetutorials out there[2].

And yet, despite all of that, the service is lacking features I'd consider almost MVP-worthy. I'd certainly expect them to be present by now. I've never understood why streaming services make your viewing history so hard to uncover, when they clearly track it to quite a high level of detail in order to power recommendation algorithms and other features, but at least it normally exists. Disney+ has no method of finding out what you've watched. That's annoying for people like me who just enjoy the data, but it also means that parents have no way of determining actual use, which is something I'd expect a family-friendly company like Disney to provide at launch.

Although, unlike Netflix, Amazon, and co. I'm not actually sure that Disney is tracking what I'm watching to begin with. Their suggested video algorithm is laughably poor, frequently pulling out content we've already watched and seemingly only influenced by the last 2-3 items viewed. On top of which, the service routinely forgets what we're using it for, with series disappearing from the "Continue Watching" list even if viewed within the last 24 hours. It's almost like that information is being stored on the client rather than the actual account. Even when it does remember, chances are that it'll start playing from the last few seconds of the previous episode, rather than the next one. Admittedly, I have a similar irk with Amazon Prime, but it feels more prevalent on Disney+.

Oh and if you want to actually find something? Don't rely on their search algorithm. It doesn't cope well with abstractions (you won't get any results for "Marvel animated" or "MCU") and limits results with no way to "see more", so you're often left with a fairly arbitrary mix of content. I've even searched for a film in the past by name, had no results, and later found it via a recommended panel... and don't even try to search for extras.

Don't get me wrong, the inclusion of content normally restricted to physical media is one of the service's greatest redeeming qualities. I love being able to watch Pixar shorts or behind-the-scenes clips from films and browsing them via an app interface is far superior to clunky DVD menus, but it would be great to be able to seek these out specifically. Some extra content is clearly indexed, as it can often be seen at the bottom of search results, but if you try finding clips like gag reels directly you never get anything back, which is a real shame. Similarly, some of the extra content is incorrectly indexed, as can be seen with the inclusion of behind-the-scenes clips from both Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 showing up in the "extras" panel for Civil War.

Finally, there's the error messaging 🤦‍♂️ Disney+ is just one of those apps which never admits fault. We were midway through watching something last night when it errored us to a page which stated that our internet connection had been lost. Except WiFi was still fine and other apps on the PS4 could connect without issue. The error message was wrong; the app had crashed and restarting it fixed the issue (though obviously it had no memory of what we'd just been watching). I've previously seen similar errors blamed on user input (which was not at fault) and search errors saying that there were no results when, again, the app had actually just crashed. Most irritating of all is that none of these error screens allowed us to navigate away from them or even refresh, but instead forced us to reboot. There's no reason for that, as the app is installed on the PS4's hard drive so should be able to deal with core functionality even if the internet connection was genuinely down.

Overall I'm still glad that we have the service and it is, currently, our go-to form of entertainment. It just leaves me scratching my head how a UI from a gigantic company can be simultaneously this broken and feel this dated so soon after launch.

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