UX Case Study: How YouTube keeps you watching and addicted

Michael W
Michael W
September 24, 2021
7 min read
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As a product, UX designer, and YouTuber myself, I always have one thing to say about YouTube. The truth is that on that platform, nothing is accidental or coincidental. On Youtube, everything is carefully designed and expertly deliberate.

YouTube tailors all its recommendations and suggestions to suit users’ specific interests. This combination of high click-through-rate thumbnails and videos maintains end-to-end engagements. YouTube’s ultimate goal is to keep users on the platform for as long as possible. The more videos watched, the more ad revenue they make. In 2021 alone, YouTube generated $7 billion in ad revenue.

It’s impressive to see the power of good UX design in action. No doubt the amount of income YouTube’s UX team generates justifies a huge paycheck for the designers themselves. In case you didn’t know, generating profit for a business is one of the ways UX designers leverage higher salaries.

So, how does YouTube keep users on the site? What UX tactics has YouTube used to maximize watch time?

These are my favorites:

How YouTube tracks your every move

UX Case Study - Tracking
Engagement tracking of one of my videos – YouTube.com/Mizko

Youtube, and Google, for that matter, have a powerful system that works around the clock to build a digital profile of you. The digital profile helps their AI understand who you are, your preferences, and, more importantly, what you might like to see next.  

When you watch a video, every single like, comment, watch time, and drop-off is tracked in the system to help build your profile.

I can see exactly where the biggest drop-off is per video. These metrics help me understand what kind of content is engaging and what I need to drop.

For example, one of my UI training videos had a long introduction leading to a drop-off point early on in the video. By changing the way I create content, I retained viewers for longer and ultimately helped Youtube retain users.

Remember that YouTube has carefully designed everything to hook users in. The better the content, the longer the binge-session, and the happier YouTube is.

More engagement = More ads = More revenue.

Dynamic and intuitive personalization on the home page

YouTube is a master of giving you a personalized, tailored experience. The algorithm is incredible when you think about it.

Mysterious, complex, and enigmatic, it can predict (with great accuracy) what you want to watch, what you need to watch, and how to keep you hooked.

UX Case Study: YouTube Homepage
YouTube Homepage

When someone first lands on YouTube’s homepage, the selection of videos is a little broad. This is because the algorithm waits for the user to give the first signal of what they want to see. The selected videos for the homepage are chosen based on two kinds of “ranking signals”:

  • A/B Testing: Based on likes, dislikes, click-through rates, average view duration and percentage viewed, and even viewer surveys. When someone uploads a video, the algorithm pushes it to the homepage of a few users. If they engage with it enough, it gets pushed more and more.
  • Personalisation: This is what captures my UX attention: YouTube has mastered personalisation. This means that they present videos to people that they believe are relevant based on their past behaviour. If someone watched a lot of cooking channels last week, they’ll be pushed to watch even more cooking channels. As their interests shift and change, so does the algorithm to keep up.

YouTube predicts preferences based on what you don’t watch

UX Case Study - YouTube Don't Watch
YouTube Tracking

Interestingly, YouTube also considers and takes into account the videos that you don’t watch. It helps to narrow down your choices and gives the algorithm more to work with. Their AI can understand you better than you know yourself.

For example, if you’re browsing cooking videos, you might ignore a 15-minute fresh pasta cooking guide by Nigella Lawson. Instead, you go with the quick Jamie Oliver 2 minute version.

The AI now knows that you aren’t looking for a long cooking lesson, only short bites. The algorithm will fill your homepage with Jamie Oliver clips and Jamie Oliver-related content. It may also decide to test your preference in presenter—just in case there’s another presenter they can hook you in with.

Notifications give direct access to user’s attention

UX Case Study - Notifications
YouTube Notifications

If you have the YouTube app on your device, you’ve probably had a notification flash across your screen.

New uploads, channel updates, even trending videos – YouTube has strategically created ping notifications that give them direct access to users’ attention.

Experts revealed in the 2021 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems that notifications were specifically targeted and designed to increase usage time.  

The report stated that “The ‘Notifications digest’ lets a user bundle push notifications together into a single notification each day, which may reduce the triggers that lead to non-conscious, habitual use.”

While many users simply disable notifications on their devices, those who don’t have an increased chance of interacting with YouTube frequently and habitually.

Influencer-driven content draws users back to the platform

UX Case Study - Influencer Driven
YouTube Influencers

Ask a few people what the appeal of YouTube is, and they’ll say that they appreciate user-generated content. That is content created by creators and not content produced for big-budget streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu.

A marketing study by ThinkByGoogle found that brand collaborations with YouTube creators are “4x more effective at driving lift in brand familiarity than those with celebrities.”

Many believe that this shift in dynamics is due to how YouTube creators are perceived compared to other platform influencers. YouTube seems to foster authenticity and honesty, creating higher engagement and strong audience retention.

Auto-play and the “lean-back” hook

UX Case Study - YouTube Autoplay
YouTube Autoplay

The auto-play feature enables what Youtube describes as a ‘lean back’ experience for the user. Relevant videos continue playing without you even needing to reach for your mouse.

Taking everything into account that YouTube knows about you (which, I hate to say, is a lot more than you think), autoplay helps to keep you on the site longer by literally continuing to play content for you.

This kind of system is a God-send for those looking to use the platform for background music or a binge-watching session. It also helps to take the guessing work out of deciding what to watch next.

For example, a user is building their own PC and watching a product review by a well-known industry expert. Based on their Google search, YouTube knows the user is searching cooling systems. So, the same industry expert reviewing cooling systems is the following video to pop up on auto-play.

Coincidence? There are no coincidences with YouTube.

When you subscribe to a channel, YouTube prioritises relevant content

The sentence: “Thanks for watching guys, and remember to like, comment, and subscribe to my channel!” seems to have become a given in the YouTube universe.

So, why does YouTube like you to subscribe to channels? It’s because it’s an opportunity to keep you watching longer.

If you show interest, YouTube will do everything to keep you there. Once you subscribe to someone, they will bombard you with their videos to keep you on the platform. This means videos from years ago, old videos, even videos the creator probably forgot they uploaded will be pushed in front of you.

Engagement loops pique your interest

This is a favourite tactic of mine, purely because it’s so simple you don’t even realize it’s happening.

YouTube is designed to surround you with content at all times. Videos in the sidebar, suggestions on what to watch, links, promotions – it’s an engagement loop designed to keep you hooked on the site.

The power of YouTube

Once again, I am just staggered by the numbers. Not only has YouTube become a titan entertainment/education/search engine platform, but it’s also managed to convince more than 50M users to pay for a free service.

What this platform has achieved is nothing short of phenomenal.

From the lens of a YouTube Creator and heavy user of YouTube, I only hope that the platform continues to grow to allow me to connect with and educate a wider audience.

From a product UX case study designer lens, I think they still have a lot of room to grow into. I am sure that churn and activation rates are key metrics the product team is focusing on.

From a UX designer’s lens, I can appreciate how the talent of the design team. Creating a platform that hooks users instantly does not happen overnight and there is an incredibly talented team behind the scenes making it work.

For those aspiring UX designers out there: experience and teamwork built the platform, but at the core of YouTube are the same basic UX skills you can learn too.

That’s why I always say that you need to get the fundamentals in UX design squared away. Whether you’re doing it through a paid course, a free course, or if you’re just passionate about design, remember that when it comes to UX, there’s no limit to how high you can climb.

If you want to level up your skills the right way, our Ultimate Figma Masterclass is always waiting for you.