Design Or Die: Amazon Keeps Near-Missing Its Netflix And Apple Challenge

Amazon has been a puzzlement to me for the past couple of years. Somehow it keeps taking half-jabs at obvious rivals like Netflix and Apple in products such as Instant Video, consumer-facing cloud services, music libraries and now devices. But it habitually falls short of connecting in the way one might expect. There is so much weight and talent, user data and goodwill in there somewhere. But somehow the products themselves are awkward to use or just half-baked.

The one thing it already does exceptionally well online -- shopping -- it also does best on mobile. Its catalog and in-store product comparison apps are superb, as this morning’s Nielsen report on shopping apps shows. But I keep waiting for the company to land a solid hit in all of the other areas it is extending itself against Apple and Netflix. The near-misses keep piling up. A lot of it comes down to design.

Its Instant Video offering gave online streaming TV and movie content to those of us who already had an annual subscription to their $79-a-year Prime membership program. Theoretically, the deal gave Amazon a nice advantage over Netflix, in that the annual fee included free item shipping from the company with the video streaming essentially as a value-add.



Amazon struggled at first to get its library of available content into acceptable shape. At first it looked closer to the remainders shelf. If anyone recalls the video offerings of the early online streaming services, that pretty much is what Instant Video resembled for a while. But Amazon has increased the library size and cut deals to include current content like “Downton Abbey,” “Mission Impossible 3” and “Ocean's Eleven.” video services. They are coming close to tempting me to cancel Netflix and simply rely on the more economical bundle.

But Amazon always seems to trip over itself when it comes to delivery vehicles. For the longest time its Instant Video “apps” (if we could call them that) in set-top boxes like Google TV and Roku relied on a Web interface that plays well in the busy desktop browser but atrociously on devices. Navigating an Amazon sell page with a touch screen, let alone via a remote control, is a new kind of torture that dissuaded me from accessing otherwise good content I already paid for. Amazon’s Instant Video access points across platforms has been an object lesson in just how much interface matters in the post-PC age.

Enter the new iPad app for Instant Video. Recent iterations of the service on the Sony PlayStation PS3 foreshadowed this welcome and overdue rethink of the Instant video offering. Now we get a pure post-keyboard navigation system based on screen-filing thumbnails, just as God intended. Launched yesterday, the iPad app finally brings Amazon onto a critical platform to take on Apple’s iTunes and Netflix’s streaming service.

Or does it?

The app is designed to mimic the Netflix experience, with tiers of videos divided by TV and film genre categories. Like all Amazon products, its recommendation engine is only pretty good at rooting out my tastes. Watch one 30’s Bowery Boys comedy -- and boy does that engine stick you in Depression-era fare.

The real disappointment in the app is that the clashing business models between Apple and Amazon combine with design flaws to make for an app that is all about content consumption, not discovery. While the full free video library is open to Prime members on the app for immediate streaming, there is no easy way to look through it. There is no category directory of content, nor even a search box. Huh?

The navigation is a puzzle. At core there is a “Your video Library” section that uses a series of drop-downs and toggles to switch among TV and movie content, your “watchlist” of flagged titles, videos you have purchased or rented from the Web site and just a big wall of undifferentiated thumbnails.

This dumbfounded even me. And as my wife is willing to tell anyone who will listen, I am an insufferable content browser. “Call me back into the room when you have finished watching previews,” she will tell me when I propose to “find a movie” on Apple TV or Netflix. But I can’t make heads or tails of this Amazon app.

On a technical basis too, the app is still uneven. I get video pauses here that I don’t experience elsewhere. And the AirPlay feature in the app is either deliberately or mistakenly broken. In my first attempts to pass the Instant video app content to Apple TV I was able to get the audio stream only. I even tried using the full mirroring mode to work around the problem, but that kicked me out quickly.  

Part of the problem is that clashing business models compel Apple’s rival to offload all movie rentals and purchases to the Amazon Web site. Instead of splitting revenue with Apple for anything ordered on the iPad, Amazon has to push renters and buyers to the main Web site where they can make purchases that then show up in the app. It is kludgy and awkward, and makes for only half a catalog of offerings.

Which still doesn’t explain how Amazon continues to near-miss on basic design and discovery. It is not as if this is undiscovered territory. But it demonstrates just how fundamental design is to the success of content on devices. We already know that usability is paramount when it comes to app usage and return rates. The touch interface helped surface and underscore something that the Web only suggested. Every click and swipe matters.

Users have a memory for the sites and apps that are and aren’t a pleasure to use. Touch interfaces make available a flow experience that the Web with its clicks and cursor repositioning never really achieved. There is a rhythm to app interaction, a flow of hand and eye that can be pleasurable. It is all the more jarring here when a design makes you struggle and fight to get at what you want.

Amazon’s Instant Video library may actually approach Netflix’s in containing the content I actually will want to consume. But my Netflix account remains secure because on some level, my head takes a deep breath before I load the Amazon app that it doesn’t take when I load Netflix. Design is now fundamental to a business model.       

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