5 Ways Netflix Could Have Avoided an Ugly User Backlash

Netflix offers a case study in how not to implement a major redesign. Here's what you can learn from their mistakes.

Netflix

A couple weeks ago, Netflix quietly rolled out a redesign of its Web site that included some much-needed improvements in the user interface, such as streamlined movie listings and easier-to-browse categories. But it wasn't long before things got very, very ugly. In the post announcing the changes, 567 subscribers weighed in, calling the company everything from stupid to deceptive. One person even compared Netflix to a creepy uncle.

What on earth went wrong here?!

For anyone who doesn't use Netflix, the changes seem innocuous. And most are. But one in particular sparked the ire of Netflix junkies: Previously, for any movie listing, users could see how friends in their Netflix network rated a movie. After the redesign, friends' ratings--and the Top 10 lists they created--got relegated to a friends page, linked way at the bottom of the site.

Reached for comment, Netflix's VP of coporate communications, Steve Swasey, pointed out that the features are, fundamentally, still there. And the streamlining was necessary: "These are small features used by some folks. But we have 12.3 million members, and everyone is important. We looked at the vast majority of people and how they're using the site. For them, it's about convenience and selection."

Which makes a certain sense. But it doesn't actually address the complaints of the commenters. Where previously, a movie choice might have been all about the opinions of friends, you can no longer immediately see their ratings when you look a movie listing. As one commenter said:

My friends could easily leave me notes about movies they knew I'd like, and I would do the same. Before deciding to queue a movie, I could see if my friends had seen it and this would help influence my decision. I have always been a HUGE proponent of Netflix and have brought a few customers onto the service. One of the reasons I NEVER considered switching to a different service (until now!) was because of all my Netflix friends. Now there's nothing holding me back from going somewhere else.

Ouch. It didn't help that the first 150 comments on the blog post announcing Netflix's redesign had their comments deleted. Netflix blamed this on a technical glitch--but the commenters quickly smelled a conspiracy, designed to silence the site's most fervent users. Based on a history of slowly curbing the prominence of social networking on the site, many assume that the move is part of an eventual plan to phase these features out altogether.

Netflix made the wrong moves in several areas--and other Web-based business would do well to pay attention, and learn from these mistakes. Here's what to keep in mind the next time you undertake a redesign:

1. Design can solve more problems than you realize

More functionality, rather than less, creates a more active user base. Netflix's design streamlining assumed that providing more detail and providing a streamlined UI were mutually exclusive. But good Web designers know that's not the case--it's relatively straightforward to create a good design that offers infinite amounts of data at a single click. Moreover, you can programmatically provide users with customized pages showing what they actually want. Streamlining is nice for your new customers, but it's not a mandatory tradeoff.

2. Your most fervent visitors control your brand perception more than your average users

The redesign was geared to neophytes visiting the site, but these aren't the subscriber that Netflix built is business on--and they aren't the users actively evangelizing for the brand. Why couldn't a newer design place these people front and center, and make more use of their contributions?

3. Think about where your service fits in with the lifestyle of your visitors

The curbing of the social-networking features on Netflix created a huge gap for many users. There wasn't a place for them to get the same functionality after Netflix changed. One solution would have been to think more broadly about integrating the service with other services that users use? For example, shift the friends' movie recommendation engine into a Facebook or mobile phone app.

4. When you redesign, communicate the intent and scope clearly

The original redesign announcement was exceedingly vague, and didn't even mention the changes to the friends recommendation feature. To date, Netflix still hasn't given the hundreds of commenters a full accounting of what motivated the changes, and how their concerns are being met. Which only allowed the fire to grow more out of control.

5. If you've got a hyperactive user base, figure out how to grow their impact, not shrink it

Maybe the biggest shame is that Netflix seems to have viewed their hardcore, legacy users as an unruly minority rather than a base they could build upon by thinking more creatively about their platform.

All of this basically boils down to some basic tenets of "user-oriented design" that firms such as frog design and IDEO specialize in. If you want an example of design-thinking that was simply too short-sighted in its aims, Netflix offers a cautionary tale.

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3 Comments

  • Joe Melberg

    "More functionality, rather than less, creates a more active user base."

    Could not disagree more. I submit the curious cases of the most noteworthy online applications such as those from 37 signals, also twitter & facebook. These all have more functional rivals - but offer a simplified experience. I think netflix was smart to downplay social media in their movie browsing experience - but failed to use it crowd-sourcing this decision - giving their fanatic users ownership of the idea.

  • Shannon VanWagner

    #6 - Make Netflix available for GNU/Linux... Specifically Firefox on Ubuntu GNU/Linux.
    Currently, Netflix's silverlight-based on-demand-video doesn't work with modern GNU/Linux systems. Come on guys, this is 2010! No more of this pushing monopoly of operating systems stuff.

    This can be done very easily. Look no further than hulu.com, which uses Adobe's Flash and works perfectly with GNU/Linux and Firefox.

    ABC and FOX use the movenetworks player, which doesn't work with GNU/Linux... But not to worry, ABC and FOX also port their shows over to hulu.com, and so GNU/Linuxers are not missing out.

    Break the glass people... and start caring for your all your users!

  • David Hobbs

    I would argue that #4 was the biggest issue. Without communicating what was intended and then what is happening based on the feedback, it just gives already-upset users more reason to keep bashing.

    As to the engaging the most active users, it's just as easy to alienate your large base of casual users so it's a careful balance there.