Discussion on recent Netflix UX initiatives

By the end of 2020, Netflix started testing new User Experience (UX) initiatives. Two of them, in the fields of linear TV and Search by categories, are particularly interesting to study how Netflix is experimenting things while their brand becomes more and more articulated with Super-aggregators and traditional TV Networks. 

“Direct”, the new Netflix channel

The linear experience as an answer to hyperchoice?

Let’s start with the feature they have coined “Direct”. Emily Grewal, product manager at Netflix, published a post explaining: “In France, watching traditional TV remains hugely popular with people who just want a “lean back” experience where they don’t have to choose shows (…). Maybe you’re not in the mood to decide, or you’re new and finding your way around, or you just want to be surprised by something new and different”.

This statement echoes UX studies we have conducted with IPTV customers showing that about 75% of their subscribers still don’t know what they are going to watch on TV when they switch it on. It can sound counterintuitive to see the SVOD superhero getting back to old school linear TV experience, but it shows how much hyperchoice is now becoming a problem. 

Does it mean that linear experience should necessarily be the same for everyone like it used to be in the broadcast world? 

With “Direct” Netflix did decide to create a broadcast channel. That’s interesting because the other way around, there is a trend among IPTV providers to experiment ways to create personalized TV channels, which means individualized, lean back TV streams connected to the diversity of every user’s interests. Netflix comes from a UX paradigm where everything is personalized from the homepage to search results. Traditional TV providers come from a UX model where everything is the same for everyone. On demand increases opportunities of new discoveries, while broadcast reinforces feelings of community. Media convergence is showing that lean back and on demand experiences are not in contradiction. They complement each other because they respond to different situations.

Rediscovering serendipity

More than that, in the Covid context of general lockdown, it can also be understood as an echo of what is experienced in the music industry with the concept of “escapism”.  A paper published by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications in 2019 describes how “escapism” is a major motivation for using Radio Apps. 

In this study “escapism” is defined as a way “to enter a non-thinking, relaxing period and forget about daily life” as opposed to other motivators like entertainment (fun and enjoyable moment), habit (part of my routine), information (learn about things happening in the world), pastime (I have nothing better to do), and socialization (spend time with friends and family). In the vocabulary of recommender systems, “escapism” is a motivation that resonates with the concept of Serendipity, which is the feeling of unplanned and fortunate discovery.

The role of recommender systems in the Entertainment sector is not to focus solely on content prediction. It is to cover the full spectrum of people’s needs when it comes to content selection assistance:

  • From predictability to serendipity;
  • From collaborative prescriptions to proactive discovery;
  • From privacy by design to data controllability and privacy by users.

Search by categories

Another recent UX initiative taken by Netflix has been to propose a new way to navigate into content genres. The homepage shows a table enabling people to click on preferred categories.

The table of categories lets you zoom into your favorite content without having to bounce from one section of the menu to another. 

Going beyond and across categories

This functionality recalls how the Spideo Mood Board implementation has impacted some of our customer’s user experience in the past 10 years. The Spideo Mood Board is slightly different in the sense that it is conceived in order to allow combinations of moods and categories. 

The Mood Board can be generic when implemented for search purposes. 

But it can also be personalized when articulated with profile-based recommendations. 

Discovery enhancer vs. Onboarding feature

In all cases what’s important to keep in mind when evaluating opportunities of interactive search by categories is that it works much better as a discovery enhancer than as an onboarding tool. In other words, people won’t start going spontaneously on abstract categories to begin with, but they will use a Mood Board if they don’t find any relevant piece of content on the homepage. This is true for aggregators, generalist OTT brands and niche content platforms. When well implemented, the result comes with a double digit percentage increase in search engagement.