How Piracy Has Become the Best User Experience in Media

June 27, 2016

Media is a hot industry. Netflix is making major moves in creating award-winning new content. HBO recently launched HBO Now for users without TV service. Everyone from Hulu to Yahoo! is trying to get a piece of the media pie. But, for all the money each of these industry titans is pouring into their streaming products and platforms, it is the underground community of pirates that is truly defining the media user experience.

Considering the investments major media companies are making, it’s surprising not only that this is happening, but also that these big companies are letting it happen by relying only on legal action to curb piracy. Recent developments indicate that there are far more effective ways of stopping piracy. So let’s take a look at how the pirates have taken the lead in media user experience and why the major media companies are sitting back and watching this unfold.

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The Ideal Streaming-Media Experience

We’ve done a great deal of research work in media, going back to the days before tablets, when people waited for their Netflix DVDs to arrive in the mail and connected Mac Minis to their TVs to create their own Home Theater PCs (HTPCs). Over the intervening period, there have been some overarching trends in what users want and what the market demands. Those needs tend to boil down to certain categories, which include hardware, software, and content.


There has been huge progress in the hardware that delivers the media experience, with the release of AppleTVs, Rokus, Chromecasts, Amazon Firesticks, and even the integration of Over The Top (OTT) capabilities into gaming consoles such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Plus, tablets and smartphones with large, high-resolution screens have decoupled media from televisions, which are no longer the only means of watching your favorite shows or movies. As Figure 1 shows, a little dongle has replaced the HTPC. With distribution across devices and a plethora of delivery options, media has become an omnipresent experience. In this way, the streaming-media industry has met one major need of users.

Figure 1—The little dongle that has replaced the HTPC
The little dongle that has replaced the HTPC


Software has seen a similar evolution. The dated U-verse and Comcast user interfaces, the latter shown in Figure 2, feel completely outdated in comparison to those of user-interface innovators like Netflix and YouTube. Not only are these streaming platforms letting you consume their content on whatever device you want, navigating to that content is faster and more seamless. Netflix and YouTube also provide solid examples of driving content discovery through sophisticated algorithms that provide recommendations for additional content viewers might enjoy. While these algorithms aren’t exactly perfect, they are light years ahead of the days when we all lusted after 200 channels in our cable package.

Figure 2—The user interface Comcast still uses for their TV service
The user interface Comcast still uses for their TV service


Ultimately, it’s content availability that has proven to be the main stumbling block in creating the holy grail of media experiences. This also just happens to be where piracy excels. While streaming-media juggernauts like Netflix and Hulu really have defined the media experience from a user-interface perspective, they are hampered by Hollywood’s unwillingness to license premium content such as recently released feature films. By side-stepping the licensing quagmire, pirates can provide an incontestable library of content.

At the same time, loose coalitions of developers have put together clients and browser plugins that leverage torrents for source content, but provide a Netflix-inspired user interface with attractive navigation that lets users easily find and watch whatever their heart might desire. Taking a look at the Popcorn Time user interface, shown in Figure 3, it’s not hard to imagine someone believing that it’s a legitimate streaming service rather than a tool for piracy.

Figure 3—Popcorn Time’s UI is virtually indistinguishable from Netflix
Popcorn Time’s UI is virtually indistinguishable from Netflix

While Popcorn Time previously required the user to download and install a desktop application to access content, a fork of the code has recently emerged that lets users access the Popcorn Time experience through a browser window. A browser plug-in called Torrents-Time even includes built-in VPN to keep its users hidden. By combining a huge content library with the polished user interface of a legitimate streaming service and eliminating ads, Popcorn Time and Torrents-Time have become the best user experiences in media.

Taking the Media User Experience Back from the Pirates

Ultimately, the pirates are in the ascendancy because of the reluctance of content producers to reach licensing agreements with their legitimate streaming partners. Recent research has shown that making content available through paid streaming services has almost completely eliminated piracy in some places. Users of piracy services have even demonstrated that they are willing to pay for access to this content, considering the popularity of paid VPN services. By extension, if content producers made Hollywood feature films and television shows available through a subscription service, we believe there would be a similar drop in video piracy.

The hangup preventing this is economic in nature. Another recent study found that, while subscription streaming services have reduced piracy, they’ve also reduced the number of media sales, including purchases of song downloads, leaving the content creators and producers no better off. The economic reality is that it costs money to create content, and the companies that specialize in content creation have an obligation to make money so they can continue to create content and provide value to their stockholders. These companies have a proven history with the existing distribution methods, and current research data does not indicate that they would enjoy an economic advantage by embracing a more comprehensive streaming model.

The media experience is ripe for innovation. Production companies and the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) have tried to stop piracy through legal means, but The Pirate Bay and others have proven incredibly persistent. The Pirate Bay was subject to police raids in 2006 and 2014, their founders have been convicted in courts of law, and they have had to change their domain name numerous times. But the site remains online, is easily accessible, and is still illegally offering media files for free.

Rather than trying to resolve this issue in court, we may be able to fix this problem through UX design. If the UX community could innovate a distribution and monetization model that would enable Hollywood studios and other content creators to generate the sorts of revenues they currently get from physical media, we might have an opportunity to solve this problem and, finally, provide the perfect media experience. Then we could take the media experience back from the pirates, and users would be able to enjoy whatever content they desired at any time. We think this is something everyone would love to see. 

VP, UX & Consumer Insights at

Co-Founder and VP of Research & Product Development at Metric Lab

Redwood City, California, USA

Demetrius MadrigalDemetrius truly believes in the power of user research—when it is done well. With a background in experimental psychology, Demetrius performed research within a university setting, as well as at NASA Ames Research Center before co-founding Metric Lab with long-time collaborator, Bryan McClain. At Metric Lab, Demetrius enjoys innovating powerful user research methods and working on exciting projects—ranging from consumer electronics with companies like Microsoft and Kodak to modernization efforts with the U.S. Army. Demetrius is constantly thinking of new methods and tools to make user research faster, less costly, and more accurate. His training in advanced communication helps him to understand and connect with users, tapping into the experience that lies beneath the surface.  Read More

President & Co-Founder at Metric Lab

Strategic UX Adviser & Head of Business Development at

Redwood City, California, USA

Bryan McClainBryan is passionate about connecting with people and understanding their experiences and perspectives. Bryan co-founded Metric Lab with Demetrius Madrigal after doing research at NASA Ames Research Center for five years. While at NASA, Bryan worked on a variety of research studies, encompassing communication and human factors and interacting with hundreds of participants. As a part of his background in communication research, he received extensive training in communication methods, including certification-level training in police hostage negotiation. Bryan uses his extensive training in advanced communication methods in UX research to help ensure maximum accuracy and detail in user feedback. Bryan enjoys innovating user research methods that integrate communication skills, working with such companies as eBay, Kodak, Microsoft, and BAE Systems.  Read More

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