YouTube TV’s live guide and library are getting much better starting today

YouTube TV subscribers will notice some refinements and tweaks to the service’s “library” section starting today. The new interface lets viewers see more programming and recommendations at once and includes simplified filters for drilling down into the type of shows you actually want to find. It’s not a wholesale reinvention of the TV guide — but so far, it looks like a quicker way of finding something to watch.

“This UI model is almost like the hybrid, I would say, of a grid and a feed. We’re continually thinking about how to reinvent television so that we don’t have to just rely on one model,” Esther Ahn, the head of design for YouTube TV, told me in a call last week.

YouTube says its design philosophy is centered around “TV made for you.” These improvements are all in service of cutting down on decision fatigue — finding something to watch can be a chore when you’ve got several streaming services at your disposal — and steering you towards the content that’s most important. YouTube TV continues to add new channels (including free ones), and the coming addition of NFL Sunday Ticket will be a huge moment for the service. How do you bring all of that together into a cohesive user experience that’s actually enjoyable to use? It involves a lot of user research.

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“We go into homes all the time, which literally means we’re in living rooms watching TV with individuals and their families,” said Ahn, who has been at YouTube for nearly seven years, first as the head of user experience for YouTube Music before shifting to the premium TV service in 2019. That UX research went remote during the pandemic; YouTube TV didn’t want to lose out on a regular loop of user feedback, so it used interactive prototypes to test different ideas and see how they were received by viewers. (YouTube TV reps are also active on the service’s subreddit and will often pop into threads to answer questions or address bugs.)

“We’re trying to meet viewers where they are and ultimately design a very intuitive experience, regardless of what you’ve used in the past,” Ahn said. Cord cutters are very accustomed to traditional TV listings and have proven reluctant to let go of the classic channel grid: a few years ago, Hulu learned a painful lesson after trying to radically shake up the presentation of live TV. The service’s big redesign had bold ideas, but it bombed with customers, and the company spent months retreating back to a more familiar interface.

Ahn said that in the leadup to YouTube TV’s launch, the team had similarly ambitious thoughts of ditching the cable-like live guide altogether, but ultimately decided against it. With the latest refresh, the live guide has a condensed grid that displays more channels and programming on screen. At the top you’ll see a row of personalized recommendations; just scroll down past those and you’re in the standard grid. The team also worked to reduce the number of remote clicks necessary to record content (“add to library” in YouTube TV lingo) and make it more obvious from the guide when a show, movie, or sports game is set to be saved to the service’s unlimited DVR.

The new library puts your most important content right at the top

But an “unlimited” DVR has a way of producing an unwieldy library of random stuff. “We understood that the library, in its previous state, it was challenging to navigate,” Ahn said. Parents bemoaned that kid-friendly programming often infiltrated their larger library; other people wanted simpler ways of separating serial content (weekly shows) from daily news, nightly talk shows, and other programming.

So YouTube TV came up with a new library page that, based on my brief first impression, does seem better and more useful. The side navigation is gone, replaced with a row of filters — “chips” in Google UX parlance — that will drill down into specific content categories when you select them. “We’ve broken out the notion of shows and the series versus daily shows. You can also go dive into movies,” Ahn said, noting that movies will now have taller artwork in the library to help you visually distinguish them from TV shows.

YouTube TV’s research shows that most people use the library for verification — meaning they want to check and make sure the latest episode of their favorite show or a big sports game was properly saved. So the team tried to make the library more helpful at a glance: at the top of the revamped library page is a new “catch up on your favorites” section that puts your most relevant content in one place. It also added clearer badges and overlays to show how many new episodes are waiting or the number of your team’s games that have been saved recently. Below the catch up area, you’ll find the filters for exploring the rest of your stuff. These will dynamically change based on what’s in your library.

A screenshot of YouTube TV's redesigned library page.

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The new library will roll out across TV platforms this month. As for what’s ahead for the mobile and tablet versions of YouTube TV, Ahn said that those might look different. “I wouldn’t say that this is about replicating the exact UI across mobile and desktop. But it’s honing in now on the best use cases for why would people want to be on their phone versus when they want to be on the computer versus when they want to lean back in the living room. And so we’re determining the right adaptations based on use cases.”

Today’s blog post says that YouTube TV is also working on enhancements to the Home section (it was left mostly untouched this go-round) that will focus on browsing and easier discoverability. “We’ll also bring more flexibility and interactivity during live playback and add the ability to easily switch between user profiles.”

That all sounds well and good, but when people are paying $64.99 per month for YouTube TV, it’s damn well better have a top-notch user experience. It’s right there in the upper echelon of streaming services along with competitors like Hulu with Live TV. I’m more willing to accept less from services (like Sling TV) that aren’t as expensive.

Ahn and her team seem focused on the right things design-wise, but there are still pain points for the service as a whole. YouTube’s 4K add-on remains considerably overpriced — even if it comes with unlimited concurrent streams. (YouTube has recently been offering different promotional pricing for the 4K package, so maybe it’s gotten the message.) And across YouTube TV forums and on the subreddit, customers in some regions continue to complain about receiving so-so video quality from the live TV service. Ahn said the YouTube TV team is constantly monitoring feedback (including the sluggishness and lag some subscribers have encountered with the new live guide in its early stages) and optimizing performance across devices.

There are no special hardware requirements or device cutoffs for these new features: if you’re using YouTube TV on a given platform right now, you’ll be getting the improved UX. YouTube TV spokesperson Allison Toh said “we are rolling out slowly across devices.” The live guide has already made its way to select customers watching from Apple TV, Roku, and other hardware.

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