7 March, 20226 minute read

The Disney+ play button is unreliable

Disney+ is a fantastic service. Pound-for-pound it’s cheaper than Netflix while also delivering (arguably) superior content, and it is clearly better designed from a user experience standpoint. Disney+ is breathtakingly simple and elegant. Instead of leaning into content discoverability and presenting users with an alphabet soup of recommendations, Disney instead compartmentalizes their content by brand.

Compartmentalization works really well here because Disney understands their strong brand positioning, and recognizes that their users generally already know what they’re looking for. Disney+ is to Apple as Netflix is to Amazon—focused, clean, and delightful.

“As a principle, we wanted a simple, elegant experience [...] We want to make this easy. We don’t want the product to get in the way of the content.”

Michael Paull, Disney streaming president

There’s a lot to dissect about Disney+’s unique design, and other articles have already analyzed a lot of them in depth. Building a product which is as good as Disney+ can be both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, users love things which are well designed which is great if you’re building a mass market product such as Disney+. On the other hand, however, it means that small seams in the experience become really jarring. When something works 99% of the time, the 1% it doesn’t work feels really bad.

AirPods are a great example of this. Are AirPods good? Yes. But if you’ve used them for more than a few days you’ll know they are far from perfect. They routinely fail to pair or connect (and the only way to fix it is to pop the AirPods back in their case), automatic device switching is unreliable at best, and sometimes one AirPod won’t charge overnight for unknown reasons.

If you aren’t neck deep in Apple’s ecosystem you might not mind this so much, but for those of us who are AirPods completely break the “just works” illusion. I rarely run into issues with my other Apple products, so when my AirPods play up it just feels bizarre and out of place.

Disney+ has it’s own version of AirPods, and unfortunately it’s part of the app’s core mode of interaction. On iOS devices the play/pause button does not work immediately, and can take up to a second to function after being tapped. That this is annoying should be clear, but I want to touch on how this particular issue ends up impacting the media consumption experience by sabotaging a ubiquitous filmmaking technique.

The “freeze frame bonus”

Having never seen Futurama as a child I decided to start watching it on Disney+. Futurama is a big deal in the history of animated television: it was one of the first shows to really embrace CGI, it proved that shows didn’t need to target mass audiences to find success, and it had real narrative and emotional complexity.

It was also released at a time when Web 2.0 was right around the corner: Futurama’s first run concluded in 2003, the term Web 2.0 became part of the zeitgeist in about 2004, and Youtube launched in 2005. The rise of social media played a big role in cementing Futurama’s legacy because now users had the ability to connect with people all over the world to discuss the show.

And there a lot to talk about with respect to Futurama. Matt Groening’s previous show, The Simpsons, had launched during the VCR era and had popularized the idea of “freeze frame gags,” where some joke would be visible for a brief moment in the background of a scene. As these jokes were “blink or you’ll miss it” deals, the idea wasn’t really a thing until VCRs enabled consumers were to pause and rewind their media at home.

“We could hide these jokes in the background that were called freeze-frame jokes, because early on it was the beginning of the VCR era”

David X. Cohen, executive producer Futurama

The Internet then unlocked the ability to build online communities which would dissect these “freeze frame jokes” with each other, and compile lists of all their occurrences (https://www.gotfuturama.com/Information/FreezeFrame/). Futurama was in the right place at the right time.

“[...] is a perfect example of a freeze-frame gag, a form of humour that was largely developed by the show's writing team.”

Simon Singh, The Guardian

This kind of visual storytelling tends to be more broadly known as a “freeze frame bonus,” because they actually get used for purposes other than just comedy. A Hollywood blockbuster might briefly include a character in the background of a scene for foreshadowing purposes.

Avatar: The Last Airbender uses the technique in an inverted format from that of The Simpsons or Futurama: comedic relief character the “Cabbage Merchant” has his cart violently destroyed out of fear there are parasites within his cabbage, and attentive viewers can freeze frame and see a cabbage slug flying out from one of the cabbages as this happens. The inclusion of this slug grounds the comedy of the scene in the dark and gritty world of Avatar—in addition to everything else the characters are going through, there are also invasive species to worry about.

Still from Avatar: The Last Airbender. A cabbage slug is visible in the scene for a fraction of a second.

Moments such as these where you notice and appreciate the in-joke are wonderful. They add depth to the show being watched, and reward the most attentive fans. Internet communities spring up around shows and discuss these freeze frame moments to death, giving longevity to the series far beyond its initial run. The insertion of these freeze frame bonuses adds richness and vibrancy to

And if you’re watching Disney+ content on a mobile phone, you are robbed of this experience.

Disney+’s play button

For some reason, the play/pause button on the iOS Disney+ app doesn’t respond instantly to user interaction. On iPad and on computer the button works as expected, but on the iPhone pausing the video on your screen can take up to (what feels like) a second. By the time your eyeballs register something interesting in the background, your finger moves to the play button and taps, and the Disney+ app has actually registered your command the gag is long gone.

Your options from this point are:

  1. Give up and miss out on the detail
  2. Scrub the footage backwards by dragging on the progress bar. This is hard to do if your phone is small or the video is very long
  3. Hit the “back 10 seconds” button and waste time rewatching, while also risking that you’ll miss the freeze frame a second time anyway

This isn’t a hardware issue—I’m using an iPhone 13 Pro Max. No other streaming service has this issue, and if I’m watching Disney+ content in picture-in-picture mode then Apple’s native player pauses perfectly. If you reinstall Disney+ the play button is perfect—but from the second open onwards, the play button is broken and unresponsive.

To really put this into context: if I pause by squeezing my AirPods then the delay feels about the same as when I pause with a finger, so there’s something going on in the Disney+ UI which is causing this delay. There’s simply no reason for a interaction over Bluetooth to be just as fast (or slow...) as a command via the device’s main input method.

Other parts of the Disney+ UI are also slow, although at least these other annoyances don’t break the viewing experience. Adding or removing a show to my watchlist has a slight delay to it, which I assume is just from a lack of optimistic updates. I can forgive that because it doesn’t infringe on my viewing experience and optimistic updates—even seemingly simple ones like this—can be tricky to implement depending on your tech stack.

But I really want my pause/play button to work correctly. Pausing a video stream in a timely fashion is something that quite literally every other digital media company is capable of achieving—even Disney themselves, because it works fine on other platforms I’ve tested. It’s just iOS (and maybe Android?) that has a broken play button.

Tools, apps—anything you can think of—have some fundamental mode of operation. A toaster’s fundamental mode of operation is to cook bread, a light bulb’s is to turn on and off, and Disney+’s is to consume media. I can’t fully accomplish that with the Disney+ app because my access to freeze frame bonuses is hindered by a laggy UI. When small details matter, they matter a lot.


In case someone who works at Disney+ sees this:

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