As HBO Max approaches its two-year anniversary, the streaming service is actively working to improve the user experience across devices, and on Thursday they released their latest connected TV app update as they launched a new tvOS application for Apple users.
The updated app will focus on making the viewer’s experience inside the app easier and more enjoyable from the moment they sign in for the first time and it will continue to improve the more that viewers engage with the service.
The update will allow for easier sign in and sign up processes, it improves the ability to seamlessly binge series, and it brings more user curation capabilities, including a full “My Stuff” experience that allows users to edit and sort their “My List” and “Continue Watching” lists.
The update also introduces an enhanced homepage experience featuring a scrollable, interactive hero banner at the top of content hubs.
While visually the changes might not be that noticeable, the company says that the focus of the update is to bring stability and performance to the app.
The update for HBO Max’s Apple-using customers is just the latest in a string of OS updates. Already on their new tech stack is Roku, PlayStation, Android, Samsung, LG, Vizio, Vodafone, Comcast, and Cox. In the coming months, the company plans to launch improvements to its mobile, tablet, and web apps as well.
HBO Max’s EVP for Global Product Management Sarah Lyons talked to The Streamable about the most exciting changes inside the improved apps and why now was the perfect time to roll out these upgrades.
“[In early 2020,] we were planning the launch ahead of Paramount+ launching, ahead of discovery+ launching, Disney+ had just launched, meaning that we knew others were coming and we had this window that we wanted to get to market,” Lyons explained. “So for speed, we said, ‘Let’s just use the existing HBO GO and NOW platform,’ but also all of the development teams and product teams that were working on [those platforms can] turn their sights towards getting ready for Max, versus having to run the two in parallel for a while. So that decision was made back then, and I think [it was] the right one, because it got us out there and got us to scale quickly. But we always knew that that platform was never originally built for where we were going which was a global product … It was originally not intended with DTC in mind either.”
In December 2020, WarnerMedia acquired streaming technology company You.i, which has allowed HBO Max to build a suite of apps that they believe can handle both high and low-powered devices, enabling the platform to convert the different versions of its app that were found across the streaming landscape into a unified, global app built on one tech stack to be able to scale to customers across all devices.
“This is really meant to shore up the customer experience,” Lyons said. “We’ve been listening and combing through every single customer comment we see on social or in our customer call centers to make sure we’ve identified every pain point they have and all this replatforming is meant to just kind of knock off the list all the things that we’ve seen in all the complaints that customers have and, month by month, improve and get better and get better and get better.”
One of the main issues that the streamer has heard about from customers since launch was that the app would regularly crash or freeze on Roku, and since the platform is the largest home to HBO Max subscribers, that presented significant problems for both users and the service. Lyons said that the recent replatforming for the Roku experience has led to a nearly 90% crash-rate reduction.
She also noted that they specifically focused on improving the speed of HBO Max on Android, increasing the app launch time by 46%. However, every platform comes with its own challenges, and the company wanted to be cognizant of the specific needs of users as they focused on each individual app update.
“The biggest thing we’re conscious of is Apple users are very used to that ecosystem and how that ecosystem behaves,” she said. “The way that they scrub on the remote is really important to them, and candidly, we had not had some good scrubbing experiences in the past … So we were very conscious of trying to make sure that the scrubbing and swiping on the remote works well.”
Lyons said that HBO Max has tried to follow Apple’s new iOS 15 layout wherever possible, including where and how users select subtitles or languages within the player.
“We’re trying to respect the Apple community and how they’re used to engaging, which is a little different than other platforms,” she said. “So we’ve tried to take a tailored approach to each platform and address the things that matter to those users.”
Specifically on the updated tvOS app, Lyons said that users will notice improvements across their binge mode experience, allowing them to skip credits at the beginning and end of individual episodes in a much easier and faster way. She admitted that that process has not always been the smoothest on previous versions of the app, and it was something that they knew that they wanted to remedy with this update.
Another one of the focuses that HBO Max has had while working on these updates has been centered around improving the personalization of the in-app experience. Lyons said that they now have a two-pronged approach to curation that includes both human and algorithmic insight.
“We’re having the editorial teams over curate,” she said. “So let’s say they curate 500 trays of all different genres, micro-genres, themes, etc. And then the page pulls in the trays for me in my homepage that are most relevant to me, and I only see 25 of the hundreds that are curated. So we’re taking kind of a cross-section of human curation, but then personalizing those curations to the user with underlying data.”
She also explained that the service’s system will remove content that the user has already watched so that they are not seeing the same suggestions over and over again.
“If there’s something that I’ve already seen. It’ll de-dupe it out of that tray for me, so we’ve got a lot of underlying data that’s personalizing these kinds of hand curations, and then that will continue to spread throughout the rest of the app.”
HBO Max has two tiers, an ad-supported plan for $9.99 and ad-free plan for $14.99. HBO Max without ads also includes features like the ability to download offline and 4K streaming.
They also will get Max Originals that aren’t available to HBO channel subscribers, like “The Flight Attendant” (Kaley Cuoco), “Love Life” (Anna Kendrick), as well as reboots to “Sex In The City” and “Gossip Girl.”