Sunday, January 22, 2012

Netflix on Xbox 360 - Usability is for Chumps!

Howdy! The following chronicles my disdain for netflix's new user interface on the xbox 360. It's a good 10 minute rant.

Intro: If It Ain't Broke, Fix It!
Everything has netflix's now-a-days. Desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, xbox 360, ps3, wii, apple tv, dvd/blueray players, and tvs themselves have netflix built in. As you might expect, each device has its own user interface for netflix. Makes sense right? Different input devices calls for different UI. Naturally some are easier to use than others.

On any given day I have a half dozen devices available to watch netflix with. My friends and I like to argue which interfaces we like the most. After sampling most netflix UIs I choose my xbox to watch netflix. The xbox netflix is by far the easiest and quickest to use.

That is until they decided to change it.

About a month ago I wanted to watch netflix. There was an xbox live system update, ok whatever. This system update was a big one.
The "xbox dashboard" is no longer. It's now called xbox home (as I found out when the kinect no longer responded to my "xbox, dashboard" command....). I imagine that microsoft is going for a windows 7 phone 'tile layout' look. Don't even get me started on how fail this move was.

Whatever, 4 minutes later I find netflix is now an 'app' under the app tab. Fine, now I can watch my movie. Thank god there is a netflix interface that I know and love.

Uh oh. Looks like netflix decided to update as well... *deep breath*

Alright not so bad, the main movie poster browsing screen mostly looks the same. Control options are listed at the bottom, movies are arranged in rows just like they used to be. Thank god they didn't move to a stupid "tile" layout. Sections are still arranged by genre some of which have been customly created to fit my taste in movies (a super neat feature btw). Cool, off to a good start. The only change is that it looks a bit fancier, and in fact it is a bit more convenient now that the movie description is displayed for the highlighted movie.

As I'm browsing through movies, I notice one that I've already seen. A neat indy film called Ink. I loved that movie! I want to rate it 4 stars.

ACT I: How to rate a movie

Attempt 1
I see no obvious way to rate the movie so I navigate to the poster and push A. Screen goes dark. Loading bar appears.
Uh oh, why is the movie is now playing? No, no, no, no, no! I just want to rate it, I don't want to watch it. The loading bar hangs around 7%.

I want this to stop loading. Naturally I hit B, which moves me back to genre browsing. Derp.

Here's what I expected to happen: In the old interface you'd push A on a poster to view its details, rate the movie, or decide to watch it. Obviously no longer the case. I don't want to watch the movie, so I exhaustively navigate through the genre browsing screen looking for a means to rate the movie. There is none. I have try looking elsewhere.

Attempt 2
Let's try pushing A on the poster again. Screen goes dark, loading bar appears. Ok this time I see the rating option at the bottom. Alright, I can do this, but my first objective is to stop the movie from loading.

This is where it gets hairy. I'll try to explain the un-intuitiveness of the controls and screens as best as possible.

So I'm presented with a new unfamiliar interface but luckily the controls are listed at the bottom that shows me... NOPE! No longer are the controls listed at the bottom. Hm... Plan B: as with any interface lacking instructions there's the 'ol fleeting trial-and-error probing of the controls. Commence probing!
I push start. I accidentally opened the subtitles menu. Derp.
I push A. I accidentally opened the subtitles menu again. Derp.
I push X. No affect.
I push Y. No affect.
I try all the R and L buttons. No affect.
I try flinging the joysticks in all directions and find myself looking at a selection of 'more like this' movie posters. Interesting, I'll check out this feature later.
I even try the D-pad for christ sake! (when you find yourself hitting the D-pad you know something has seriously gone wrong).
I push the back button. *POOF* The interface disappears and the movie is full screened. Ok...

*blink* Where's the interface? I want it back! So naturally I push B. This moves me back to genre browsing. Wow. Back to square one.

Attempt 3
I push A on the poster again. Screen goes dark, loading bar appears.
I go through the same brute-force exercise, I must have missed something, right?.
I push A, X?, Y?, R?, L?, joysicks?, D-pad?. I even try clicking in the joysticks. This movie is still loading. Loading 70%.
*sigh* Well I've exhausted this interface again and confirmed that the solution is not here. Let's try full screening again, maybe I can pause the loading from there.

I push the back button like before and the movie is full screened.
I've already tried pushing B, let's not do that again.
I push A, X, Y, no affect. Loading 90%
I push R and L buttons. The movie's rating pops up at the bottom but it only displays it, you cannot rate it from here. Ok  interesting, a new interface to study, but wait, I hear noise. Oh great, the loading finished and the movie has automatically started playing.

New objective: stop the movie from playing! Luckily a new interface with 4 buttons popped up when the movie started, and one of them is a stop button. This should be easy. *POOF* The 4-buttons disappeared.
*blink* Where's the stop button? I want it back! So naturally I push B. This moves me back to genre browsing. *face palm*

Attempt 4
yadda yadda yadda...
Full screen, movie starts playing, 4-buttons popup for 1/2 second before disappearing.
Accidentally I figure out that by pushing down on the left control stick the 4 buttons re-appear. I can actually read the 4 buttons now.

Ok we've got a pause, skip-forward, stop, skip-backward. I highlight the stop button and push A, which moves me back to genre browsing. AHHHHHH!

Attempt 5
yadda yadda yadda...
I finally manage to pause the movie. Ok, now what? What was I doing again? Oh right!
objective: Rate the movie!
So the movie is paused, but right now the movie is full screened with the 4 buttons. I need to get back to the previous interface to perform a rating.
I hit the back button. The 4 buttons disappear, still full screened though. Ok..
I hit back again. Moves me back to genre browsing. ....dear lord.

Attempt ???
I finally manage to rate my movie. I am exhausted and frustrated. I'll watch a movie later.

What have we learned:

  1. 15 minutes will go by before you learn how to rate a movie.
  2. You can only rate a movie by watching the movie.
  3. So when I start watching a movie (with the sole purpose of rating the movie) how do I stop it from loading? Answer: YOU CAN'T!! Seriously, you can't. When you rate a movie, it will likely finish loading and automatically start playing. FAIL.
  4. If I pause the movie in full screen, how do I access the rating feature? Answer: push down on the left control stick twice. This took me a LOOOONG time to accidentally figure out.
  5. On screen instructions have been removed. This forces each user to go through the exact same trial-and-error bullshit that I just went through.

With the new interface I can no longer quickly rate movies. In the old interface I could rate a movie with 2 button pushes in 2 seconds. In the new interface it takes 7 button pushes and 15 seconds.

So you might be saying, "bah! put a sock in it. Rating movies isn't that important." Of course it's important, remember how netflix customly creates genre categories created to fit my tastes? My ratings affect that. I carefully rate my movies.

Later I decide to watch a movie

ACT II - How to watch a movie.
This seems simple enough how could this possibly go wrong? I've already starting watching a movie dozens of times.
I find the movie I want and I push A. Screen goes dark, loading bar. It loads fairly quickly but then hangs at 99%.
I wait 2 minutes, it's still at 99%.
I try hitting buttons on the control. Nothing.
I try reloading the movie, same issue.
Is it a bad internet connection? Nope.
So just this movie is messed up? Nope, happens to all movies.

I reboot my xbox, same issue. Always stops loading at 99%.
I thought my netflix account was messed up. Nope. I can loading movies from my laptop without issue.
I thought my xbox live account was messed up. Nope.

After 40 minutes of troubleshooting I'm staring angrily at 99% loading bar. Well WTF?!?!?! Like a child I throw my controller at my couch, and to my astonishment the movie starts playing.
Huh. That must have been a coincidence. NOPE!!! When the controller hit the couch the left analog stick clicked up, starting the movie. OHHH! THAT'S JUST DANDY!!!

What have we learned:

  1. Sometimes movies will automatically start playing. Sometimes they won't. I don't know why.
  2. There's no indication that the movie has finished loading and is ready for play. It will stay at 99% forever.
  3. Once again, no on screen instruction
  4. The first step in troubleshooting your xbox is to THROW IT AROUND UNTIL IT WORKS.

ACT III - Finish watching a movie
As I'm watching the movie I occasionally pause it or rewind it. Each time I perform this operation there's a 50% chance I accidentally return to the genre browsing screen, and everytime I need to stare at my controller for like 4 seconds to remember how the UI works. I'm one step short of writting a cheat sheet and taping it to the bottom of my TV.

I'm watching a really dark intense movie, the movie climaxes, there's a phenominal ending and credits start to roll. Just as I'm starting to ponder the intricacies of the twist ending, BAM!! The movie auto-exits full screen to show the brightly colored 'more movies like' interface. HEY!!!! Earth to XBOX the movie ain't over yet! I was watching those credits!!

At risk of sounding like a movie snob, the ending credits is a very important part of film. Directors and producers don't just slap in a text crawl and call it a day, they purposefully craft the ending mood of the film with the ending credit music and visuals. It gives time for the audience to think and reflect about what they just saw. BUT NOOOO, with the xbox netflix you're immediately removed from the movie's immersion. It's almost as annoying as a pop-up ad durrng the movie. I may be alone on this one.

Imagine you're watching the movie Inception. You see the camera slowly zoom in on a spinning top. The top lightly wobbles and your whole perception of the movie thus far is being called into question. You watch in anticipation as the scene cuts to black. Then before christopher nolan's name shows up, you're face is meet with 3 colorful movie posters for vaguely related movies. The profoundness of the moment is shattered. Screw you XBOX, the whole movie was geared for the final moment. Now I am bitter. It's like watching a movie on TV that squashes the credits to inform you that american idol is on next. Way to kill the moment.

It's easy to complain about user interface especially if there has been an update to an existing UI. Most user's complaints about UI can be meet with 'oh well, you're just not used to it yet, just give it a month and you'll love it' arguement. This however is beyond that. We have an interface which increased the number of steps required to perform actions. We have an interface which is comprised of several different pop-up/full screen modes whose transitions are sometimes automatic or require controls that are not displayed on-screen. The controls vary greatly depending on several diffent subtleties which can only be flushed out in trial and error (for example: pushing the analog stick has a totally different behavior in the full screen mode depending on whether or not the movie has finished loading).

One thing that was brilliant about the old xbox netflix interface is that it closely resembled the xbox dashboard. There was a list of categories to the left and the left joystick scrolls between them. If you knew how to use the xbox dashboard, you immediately understood how to navigate the netflix app. In addition it followed standard UI conventions (the back button should not be used to enter full screen. WTF!)

As I am writing this I realize that they were probably going for a more kinect-friendly interface. This new interface was an experiment to create an interface that supports multiple input devices. Results from the experiment: FAILED. You know what would be great? A way to toggle between interfaces.

This new interface wasted over an hour of my time, and this is coming from a tech-savvy gamer. The next time I watch netflix I'll use the wii or something more user friendly (and something that doesn't cut off my end credits). BLAH!!


  1. I've been having the loading bar hanging problem for ages with using Netflix through the Wii. It stops and reloads every thirty seconds sometimes. I hate it so much. Yet, Netflix on my iPod works just fine :/

  2. yeah I hate the "metro" theme xbox now uses. evrything is harder to find/get to, netflix' app is almost completely useless (works fine on my net tv B/R and ps3 so wtf)seems MS will never learn how to give their customers an intuitive experience that just works even when they had one before the "kinect update" so sad!