The simple blueprint that drives YouTube’s addictive UX (and why it matters)

Felix Kasiske • 24.07.2023
Felix Kasiske

People use video-streaming platforms to stream videos. Of course. That means the video is the core product and the star of the show, right? Sure. …Then why does a Youtube video only take up 50% of the screen when you try to watch it? Why is Youtube‘s approach so radically different from, say, Netflix? We’re here to peel back the layers on how Youtube aligns its business model and UX design on its users' intention of use and achieves its relentless success. Grab some popcorn, and sit back.

A split-screen comparison of YouTube and Netflix user interfaces.
  • Intention of Use
  • User Interface
  • Interaction Design

The way YouTube and Netflix display videos could hardly be more different. While Netflix displays a film across the entire screen and hides entire user interface, YouTube confines the video to a relatively small section by default. And there is a lot going on around it.

Why is viewing experience on these platforms so different? The user apparently wants exactly the same thing in each case: to watch the video!

In this article we’ll examine an important keystone of digital products: The 3 fundamental intentions of use. Understanding and applying this differentiation shapes the direction, design, features and layout of all digital products. It’s a tool that every UX designer should have in their pocket.

And it explains why YouTube and Netflix play videos so differently.

Neither interface is bad. The billions in sales of both companies leave little doubt about that. However, the similarity of their goals ends once you look deeper.

We distinguish between three basic intentions of use: Act, Understand and Explore. From this distinction, we can derive rules and requirements that clearly define the success of each interaction type, with clear guidelines for structuring the page and developing effective content. Here we’ll analyse how YouTube has committed itself to one intention of use in particular: »Explore«.

Why businesses need to understand the core purpose of their product

Let's take a look at the conceptual differences between YouTube and Netflix. 

Both platforms are visited to 'watch videos'. But – the business models of both providers are different, and thus so are their offerings. Even though both platforms have the video medium in common, the intention of their users is different.

Both platforms shape the moment when their users interact with a video in different ways. And yet, both work outstandingly well in their own way. This is due to three aspects, in which they could not be further apart: 

  • The Job the video does for its viewers. 
  • The intention of use on which the interaction is based.
  • The business model with which the company monetises the content.

Really, we compete with everything you do to relax. We compete with video gaming. We compete with drinking a bottle of wine. That's a particularly tough one!

Reed Hastings
CEO Netflix

Netflix is all about relaxing, unwinding and switching off.

After selecting the video, the exploration phase is complete, and the customer should put the remote control away. From this moment on, he pursues his goal with focus (and thus moves within the intention of use »Act«). 

Currently, around 231 million users currently pay their monthly subscription to Netflix for the goal of »relaxing quality time«.

Youtube visitors, on the other hand, have other intentions from the outset – "experience products", »discover music«, »be closer to idols« or »enrich your knowledge«. And all this in a community, because it is also a social network. It's not about sitting back passively, but about discovering new things.

YouTube wants users to let themselves drift and keep discovering new content. In this way, they move within the intention of use »Explore«.

What is discovery for the user, is increased advertising revenue for Youtube. Here, too, the user's goal and the company's goal form a functioning symbiosis. 

In the following, we will take a closer look at »Explore« and show how a clear view of the intention of use decodes the entire UX of a page.

On the one hand, this perspective can be used to analyse interactions. At the same time (and more importantly for us), it works excellently for the creation of new ones.

Optimising content hierarchy for the user’s intention

While Netflix is optimised to give full attention to the selected premium content, Youtube invites you to constantly hop around and discover new things. Don't like a video? No problem. Youtube is full of ideas and features that let you move on immediately. 

For effective Explore pages, one simple rule applies: information and features that encourage users to interact with alternative content are heavily emphasised. This type of content needs to be discovered, developed and very presently integrated for Explore pages. The primary task of "watch video" must of course still be respected. But not everything is subordinated to this task, as is the case with Netflix.

Youtube creates a balance between "jumping" to the next video and the actual content of the current page. A balance that respects the task just enough, and yet creates as much space as possible for the next one.

If we take a closer look at the layout, design and functions, we can see how strongly Youtube promotes the Jump, and how immensely the intention of use "Explore" shapes the structure down to the last detail.

Screenshot of YouTube's desktop interface displaying a video about a space tether concept, with related content and user engagement features visible on the side.

How layout influences your users’ behavior

Mobile view of a YouTube video titled '1,000km Cable to the Stars - The Skyhook' with a thumbnail of another video titled 'The Most Extreme Explosion in the Universe' by Kurzgesagt underneath.

The Youtube video being watched, and everything related to it, is not actually the focus of the layout. 

The list of video suggestions is always visible, even on small screens. It is located in the right-hand column of the desktop view, at the same height as the actual video. 

In the mobile view, both the comments and the video description are collapsed. Youtube thus ensures that the potential next videos are also visible »above the fold« on small screens. Description – and especially comments – are important elements for the video platform. Nevertheless, compromises have to be made on small screens, and the focus on Explore is so strong, that these then go out in favour of the video suggestions. 

Don't we need to focus on the user's task and put the video in the foreground? Both yes and no. YouTube puts the user's desire at the centre, but in this case it is »discover interesting things«, and not »relax«.

On YouTube, full screen mode is only one option out of several. Where space permits, there is also »theater mode«: a larger video view that still allows exploration.

The size and position of the video player (in the desktop view) have hardly changed through the years. The focus on the push to the next video was set in stone from the beginning, albeit initially with the simplest means.

The layout is by far not the only aspect that addresses the intention of use; it determines the entire character of the platform and thus also the visual design.

How the visual elements of a user interface create community culture

The video description and comments column, with all their functions, are kept in grey, as are the interactive video controls.

The recommendations, on the other hand, stand out dramatically. Creators use all the tricks of the trade to vie for attention with freely designable video thumbnails and titles. They fight to set themselves apart from the endless alternatives and catch your interest. Clicks mean more revenue for the platform, but also more revenue for the creators. It's no surprise that tutorials on how to create the best thumbnails have millions of views – small collages with strong emotions and large texts complement the main title so well that they have developed their own aesthetic. Within this aesthetic, there are trends and perennials that change and become increasingly effective.

A detailed view of YouTube's video ui elements for interactions like liking, disliking, sharing, downloading, expressing gratitude, and more, displayed in a clean black and white design.
An array of YouTube video thumbnails covering topics from Keith Haring's art to science explanations and adventurous challenges, capturing a spectrum of content.

Not only the creators, but also the platform itself, promote the video suggestions with visual markers such as the red »live« badge.

The focus on exploration by means of creativity as described has crystallised relatively quickly in the span of Youtube’s development. 

Five functional features that keep users on the platform

What has been strengthened immensely over the years is the functional deepening of Explore. In other words, functions that simplify discovery in various ways, and in some cases even push it. Here are some examples:

A user interface displaying YouTube video thumbnails with engaging titles, one about magnets catching a cannonball and another about traveling to extreme places in the universe, amidst a scrolling  interface with skeleton loading elements.

Infinite Scrolling & Pull to Refresh

No two feeds are the same. YouTube ensures that you are always supplied with new content by utilizing Infinite Scrolling and Pull to Refresh, the lightning-fast reloading of extra video suggestions.

A mobile screen displaying the YouTube mini-player featuring a Kurzgesagt video, with navigation icons for Home, Shorts, Subscriptions, and Library.

Mini Player

You can even leave the video page to continue hunting, while the current video continues to play in a Mini-Player. Playlists can be filled so that users do not have to choose between new discoveries and the video in progress. 

A YouTube recommendation collage with video thumbnails about the universe, galaxies, and physics, under tabs like 'All', 'Universe', 'Galaxy', 'Physics', and 'Maths'.


Youtube’s most powerful Explore feature is an increasingly intelligent algorithm that has evolved from simple logic to artificial intelligence. The AI is optimised to pinpoint videos that are most likely to entice the user. For this purpose, the behaviour of all other users is analysed in detail. Over the years, more and more parameters have been included and differentiated. 

According to product head Neal Mohan, the algorithm is responsible for over 70% of the time spent on Youtube. 

YouTube mobile app displaying a 'Shorts' video by Kurzgesagt explaining how lasers work, with the mini-player showing another video beneath.


Shorts (timed vertical short videos) also fit perfectly into the Explore flow. While your video is playing in the mini-player, you can interrupt it with shorts. Meanwhile, your video will be paused and resumed automatically whenever your excursion into the world of shorts is complete.

A YouTube mobile app interface showing an 'Up next' video about supervolcanoes by Kurzgesagt with an autoplay countdown and options to cancel or play now.


The Autoplay feature is particularly representative of the emphasis on the intention of use »Explore«. It was tested in late 2014, and not only permanently integrated in March 2015, but also implemented as the default setting for all users (over 18). The algorithm ensures that the most relevant videos are played without the user having to make a selection. Continue watching as default - »auto-explore«, so to speak.

"Intent to Explore" impacts the interaction design of YouTube.

Youtube does not show videos in the same way as Netflix. Because it is entirely dedicated to the Explore, and that is exactly what its users want from it. 

The intention of use perspective explains the structure, design and product feature development of YouTube's highly optimised video site.

For us, understanding intention of use as the intersection between user and business goals is more than an analytical tool. It is a great foundation for digital product design. New features can be developed and evaluated for each intention of use. Identifying the right intention of use is simple and provides a space small enough that it is easily filled with ideas. 

It is not an abstract theory. For us, looking through this lens has changed the way we look at interaction design - it gives us clarity. And that clarity, in turn, has changed how we design new solutions - it gets us better results faster. 

The cover of 'UI Design for Humans' featuring stark black text, a bold red geometric design, and the tagline 'A step-by-step guide to using Interaction Archetypes'.
Align your user interface with its users' intention of use.
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