Why Does DirecTV Now Suck?

Hello, my name is Michael, and I’m a cordcutter. Years of cable rate increases, additional hardware requirements, and garbage network selection recently drove me to canceling my cable subscription. I already have a home theater PC and Chromecast hooked up in my living room, so the addition of a streaming service was pretty straightforward. My HTPC has a tuner card installed, which lets me use an antenna for broadcast stations (FOOTBALL), and I use Kodi along with a NAS for media. I know that might sound like a lot of complexity to some folks, but it’s not bad if you’re willing to just put a few hours into it, and the flexibility is fantastic. When I first moved to streaming TV, I used Sling. Sling was far from bad. What got me to jump was the initial DirecTV offer of their penultimate streaming package for $35/month. I’ve been using it a while now, and given that time, I feel obligated to bitch about some stuff. Like I do.

Hey DirecTV, I thought we'd fixed this problem?

Hey DirecTV, I thought we’d fixed this problem?

First, the good. Channel selection is pretty great. Even if you missed the special deal and jump in on the lower tier, the value for the channels is still really good (in my opinion, given what I watch), though you still end up with a lot you probably won’t watch due to how their contracts bundle stations together. If you’re thinking about signing up, be sure to Google for a deal to get a free Amazon Fire Stick, too. They also appear to have mostly fixed the streaming problems that plagued the platform early on (and it definitely was a problem). Streaming errors, while annoying, can be swallowed as “growing pains” for at least a little while longer. All in all, I haven’t felt the need to go back to Sling or look into YouTube or other streaming TV services. Despite the article that follows, I do like the service and plan to keep it.

THAT SAID…

I am begging DirecTV, hire a user experience design expert pronto. If you have one, get more. Guys, I’m about to get ruthless here, so I’m sorry if there are any hurt feelings at the DirecTV Now offices. But having used it since just about the beginning and seeing little change in certain problem areas, I’m going to take the opportunity to teach some folks about some things. I just see so much opportunity for it to be better.

The “Watchlist”

You tell me on this one. When you look at a show’s page in DirecTV Now, there’s a checkbox to add the show to your watchlist.

Adding a show to the wishlist

Adding a show to the wishlist

Sounds great in theory. The problem is, if it does anything, I have no idea how to take advantage of it in a useful way. Example: if a show’s on your watchlist, and new episodes are coming up or are posted on VOD, I feel like I should be alerted to that somewhere. Similarly, now that 72 hour rewind is available (well… sort of), you’d think watchlist shows would alert you so you can catch up if you haven’t watched it. But no. I want a “New On Your Watchlist” feed somewhere that’s easy to get off and play shows from. After some a lot of digging, I did find this:

I found it!

I found it!

But here’s the thing about it – it’s on the player page, about four rows deep down the page, buried where you’ll almost certainly never see it. Show me the analytics on page scroll depth, and I’ll show you a few hundred thousand users that have no idea it’s there. What’s more, it’s just a list with no rhyme or reason apparently. So the Watchlist is really just a list of the shows you say you want to watch, which I guess does technically fit the definition of “watchlist,” but let’s face it, it’s not really meeting the spirit of what I expect such a feature to look like. Finally, as an aside, if this feature isn’t developed in conjunction and with consideration towards the rapidly approaching (in theory) DVR functionality, I’ll consider it an enormous waste.

The Guide

This part sort of fascinates me, and isn’t entirely unique to DirecTV. These companies apparently assume that everyone using their service is doing so from a PC or mobile device. Basically something that’s only a foot or so away from their face. This leaves a huge gap for folks like me using Chrome on an HTPC. The gap is because the presentation has no allowance for how it looks from across a room on a TV.

What the guide looks like in the browser

What the guide looks like in the browser

I had this same problem with Sling as well. You couldn’t even start to read it from your chair. Even with Windows scaled up, it’s just too small. They see 1920×1080 resolution and act like it’s a computer monitor, which is fine if you’re sitting at a computer. I have a 52″ TV though and a guide of that size from several feet away is unusable. I know they can’t tell if it’s being viewed on a TV, but they could add tools that would allow you to scale the interface and remember those settings. In other words, this is a solvable problem.

Trying to read guides on a TV (don't judge the mess)

My wife trying to read the Sling guide on a TV (don’t judge the mess)

From there, the browser version of the guide has another insane handicap that’s missing in the mobile experience. You can’t look at the guide in Chrome without completely exiting the video you’re watching. This means if a show is ending, and you want to see what’s on next, you have no choice but to simply miss what you’re watching and wait for it to reconnect when you’re done (aside: a nice additional feature here would be to queue up your next channel so it autoswitches at the end of what you’re watching). The mobile app just overlays the guide on the video nicely, so you aren’t interrupted. Sling also did this as well. Stop making me interrupt my viewing experience.

I wonder what's on next. I'll just check the gui-wait, what?

I wonder what’s on next. I’ll just check the gui-wait, what?

Related to this, even if you could see it overlayed, you can’t do it from fullscreen mode, because there’s no button for the guide in the video player’s interface. You have to go back to the player page itself – again requiring the video to restart since you’re changing pages. A restart followed by a restart if you go view the guide and come back. It’s no wonder they sometimes think you’re streaming on too many devices. I can’t think of any practical reason to add this much friction into the guide experience. It’s clearly not a technical problem, since they do it in the mobile app. Sling has it figured out. It works in Kodi if you use a PVR plugin with an EPG. Everyone else has figured out that viewing the TV guide shouldn’t interrupt viewing.

By the way, if you use a little remote for your system like me, you can forget about having any kind of keyboard control over the guide too. Nothing works. Arrows, page up/down, tabbing, nada. So I hope you don’t mind trying to point a mouse all over the place to click and scroll. Again, this is a problem I don’t have in Kodi, with Netflix, or anyplace else. In fact, keyboard controls in Kodi are really top notch.

Finally, the guide features two channel lists: All and Favorites. Given the lack of other features, this is generous, I guess. Why can’t I make my own lists though? News channels? Sports? Movies? Channels I Watch When I’m Alone and Drunk Trying to Cry Myself to Sleep? Or even better, channel lists for different people in your household (similar to Netflix’s user profiles). You get the idea. It feels like a tease of what could be with a little effort.

The Search

Are you looking for a program or a show?

Are you looking for a program or a show?

Like so many services, the search in DirecTV Now is just… well, it exists, I can at least say that. The real weakness in their search is in how it breaks down content, and what it assumes. I’d really love to see their search analytics on this stuff to see if it tells the story I think it does. For instance, say you’re looking for a show (my example here is Good Bones). It shows up twice, once under Programs (where it’s beaten out by Good Eats, even though it’s an exact string match), and once under Shows. If you want to watch it right now, which one do you go for? If you’re like me and looking for VOD, it’s not the first thing that shows up in Programs. It turns out, “Programs” are the individual episodes, even though there’s no indication of that in the text there. If you click through to “Show All,” then you’re presented with season and episode numbering for the (bad) results. This includes future episodes, which you can’t watch (obviously), and you also can’t schedule, add to some kind of reminder list, or anything else. It’s existence is there solely to get in your way.

And even though DirecTV Now is first and foremost a TV service, it insists on injecting a movies section in between the two TV sections. If anything, they have my viewing habits data, so they know I never watch movies. Use that to predictively sort my results in a way that makes sense to each user. Then people that watch movies will see that panel earlier, and those that don’t, won’t. The result now is that in all of that panel, two of the results are “relevant,” one of those isn’t actually anything you can do anything with, and you’re given no indication which one is really the one you want until you’ve clicked enough results to understand the difference.

Wait, did I want 60 Days In, or 60 Days In?

Wait, did I want 60 Days In, or 60 Days In?

But it gets better. Not only are the results bad, but the content is bad, too. It’s not unusual, for instance, to get two results for a given search. One of these will be the one you want, one less so. I have no doubt that this is the result of some GIGO type of data situation, but I’ve ran into it multiple times on different shows now, and over the weeks and months, I’ve never seen any of them fixed. It makes the system just feel sloppy and uncared for.

The Listings

Okay. Stop, take a breath, and buckle up. We’re about to go on a wild ride. DirecTV Now has several different types of listing pages, all using the same design pattern featuring these rectangular boxes that have one or two links in them (usually Play and Information).

And let's not even mention how hard it is to see.

And let’s not even mention how hard it is to see.

When you hover these boxes, you have to hit the [i] icon exactly. The hover state enables on the entire box, but only the [i] is clickable, leaving the rest of the real estate taken up by the box dead. This requirement adds a component of precision to what should be a brutally simple interaction. Have I mentioned I’m using a TV across the room? What is the point in minimizing the hitbox like that, particularly when your hover state fires on the entire thing? It’s bizarre and frustrating and utterly unnecessary. Always, ALWAYS maximize your hit boxes for the user.

You get 100 channels, but here's the first 40 because meh.

You get 100 channels, but here’s the first 40 because meh.

The frustrations with their listings don’t stop there though. For starters, they only show some of the channels to start with on the full network listing page, and then they use an AJAX request to load more once you scroll to the bottom of the page. Why? Why are they doing this? Is it really a taxing request to render out all the channel logos on the page? There is literally no other graphical demand imposed by the page at this point. I mean, look at it, It’s a big black page with some logos on it. So why the need to be stingy on the listing? Most people probably never have to deal with this problem, though. I do, because if I have it pulled up on my 2K monitor maximized, I don’t get a scroll bar, which means I have to resize the window so that I can trigger the load action just to get all the channels to show up, since scrolling is what’s bound to the trigger to load the rest of the networks. This is solved quite easily if they’d just list all the channels – which is the purpose of this page anyway. Make the network logos into an SVG icon font and the payload to pull this off would be tiny. Problem solved.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Before you get to that network listing page, you actually have to go through a lander. Because of course you do. Gaze upon this magnificent beast:

You want networks? Well... you haven't bled enough for them yet.

You want networks? Well… you haven’t bled enough for them yet.

Holy crap guys. First off, the Subscribed list has an arbitrary, hard limit of 14 networks shown. I’m dying to see the user research that determined that magic number. You have to use a ridiculous side scroller to see the rest of that 14, and you have to use the Show All link to get to the full listing I showed you above. Oh, and if you want to try and use a keyboard to do this, you’re completely screwed again, because you can’t tab through the interface. Because who cares about accessibility (I say more on this below) or even reasonable usability? Why is any of this hidden in a side scroller? I mean just look at how much negative space is left in the interface, along with having the space committed to channel upsells that I won’t use. This blows my mind, guys. It seriously does.

Welcome to side scroller hell.

Welcome to side scroller hell.

God I wish I was done with this section of the article. I’m not. If you’re daring enough to test the Shows listings, bring a hard hat. The above screenshot shows the top four rows at the time (they change, some are even worse, like Trending on Social). I’m going to repeat, again, that everything is controlled with side scrollers, and your only option is to use a mouse. But beyond that, these top four rows represent nothing relevant to me as a user. Allowing for a pass on the “featured” row, the Catch Up section contains no shows I’m actively watching, and thus wouldn’t need to “catch up” on. I don’t have kids, nor do I watch any kids shows at all. But there they are, front and center. And likewise, I’ve never watched any shows that would qualify as “summer travel.” This is just awful “predictive” analytics on their part as to what I would be interested in watching. They aren’t trying to help me discover new content I’d enjoy based on my viewing habits, they’re just throwing spaghetti against the wall. I’m debating if it’s worse than Netflix’s page, and I think the answer is that yes, it is.

You know what I watch. You know the specific shows, along with their networks and genre. There’s no reason you couldn’t be making better suggestions to me at this stage of the interface. Netflix isn’t a lot better at that, but they are trying, at least.

At least they're consistent, I suppose.

At least they’re consistent, I suppose.

If you’ve made it as far as the network information pages, you’re presented with at least a minor treat: their bad design pattern is repeated, so you’re not shocked when you see a barren, barely useful listing page. Call it “familiar badness.” Side scroller hell is here to stay, requiring the same Show All click through to actually see the content that starts with a letter beyond B that you should be able to just see right here to begin with. I can visualize two changes you could make to this page that would make it lightyears more useful. DirecTV, you’re welcome to email me and we’ll set up a consulting contract and I’ll be happy to share that wisdom for a fee. Sorry readers, you’ll have to be left wondering. I like to think it’s really obvious though.

And we’re still not done.

Is... is this a joke? Are you screwing with me now?

Is… is this a joke? Are you screwing with me now?

Imagine you see a show you want to watch, and you think to yourself “Sure, let’s actually catch up on this random show they’re suggesting I catch up on.” So you click the show, go to see what episodes are available, and are promptly presented with this. I have an allergic reaction to showing users things that don’t help them and aren’t actionable (I’m look at you Expired Amazon Lightning Deals), and giving me a link to a season of a show that doesn’t actually have anything in it is textbook uselessness.

And now, finally, I am done whining about the listings pages.

The Other Things

Come on people, why don’t keyboard controls work? Like, ANYWHERE??? I want a normal, standard way to control the listings, guide, and video player. Spacebar to pause. Tabs and arrow keys to navigate, advance, rewind, or adjust volume. Ideally they’d use the exact same mapping places like Netflix or YouTube use. This is also an accessibility issue, absent the basic usability question. I’m genuinely shocked they haven’t been sued over this yet, given how active the ADA lawyers are these days about going after web accessibility of big scale products. Even outside the legal implications, this is a perfect example of how good accessibility would create good usability. The missing keyboard controls really create a crap experience if you don’t use a mouse.

Zero is too many?

Zero is too many?

Now that more general problems like streams simply not working (the dreaded Error Code 40) appear to have been addressed (accept when it’s not), the most common thing I’m running into are errors about too many streams when I’m the only one watching. DirecTV Now allows two concurrent streams – perfect for our household. But sometimes with such a low limit, it gets confused and thinks there are streams when there aren’t. I’m assuming that problem isn’t helped by the constant need to restart streams because of that bedamned guide interaction design. They should offer me a way to kill “ghost streams.” This could be especially true in cases of shared logins.

Did you know they recently added 72 Hour Rewind? Yeah, pretty cool, huh? It’s sort of a stopgap solution to not having DVR functionality. I don’t mind that, as it’s not been a big problem for me, but I do take issue with the fact that so far, 72 Hour Rewind is a unicorn of sorts. See, it’s only available for certain channels. Which would be forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that there’s no indication if a channel does or doesn’t support it when you’re viewing it. There’s just nothing there. As it turns out though, you can’t actually use it from the player, as would seem obvious. Here’s how you use it:

  1. Select a network from the Guide or find it from the Network list.
  2. Networks that offer 72 Hour Rewind will provide the list of available programming.
  3. Make your selection and enjoy the show!

Enjoy the show… You know what would be cool? If you could actually do that. See, I went through a ton of the channels listed as supporting the feature. None of them appear to have this anywhere. I suspect they’ve taken it down for some reason, which makes their promotion of the feature incredibly strange. Not that it really matters, since most of the channels I watch aren’t listed as supporting it anyway.

Conclusions

I know that’s a lot of criticism to drop. I want to reiterate though that I do like the service, and I think it’s well worth considering if you want to go to streaming TV. They’ve been adding channels lately, and it sounds like DVR is now being tested with some user groups. All of which is great. This is a matter of polish and finish on a product that could really impact how folks perceive and use the platform (not to mention avoiding an accessibility lawsuit). The system does work pretty well on mobile devices too, and works great in combination with a Chromecast in my experience. The interface there is slightly different, and much better to use, both in Android and on systems like the Fire Stick (that’s not to say it’s a perfect experience there, it’s just better).

My tl;dr wishlist would roughly boil down to the following:

  • Keyboard controls
  • Improved listings pages
  • Kodi integration would be suh-weet
  • Figure out a way to make Error 40 more useful
  • A functional watchlist
  • Interface scaling
  • User profiles/custom channel lists

Do you use DirecTV Now? What do you think? Or maybe you’ve picked another service. Share your experiences in the comments.