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Netflix’s recommendations suck–but it’s not too late to fix them

Netflix’s subscriptions are stalling, but tricking users into watching mediocre content is a recipe for disaster.

Netflix’s recommendations suck–but it’s not too late to fix them
[Source Images: Netflix]

This past weekend, Netflix made a bold move: It deleted all of its user reviews. Thousands of critiques, accumulated over the last decade and intended to help you make informed decisions, were gone in an instant. In doing so, Netflix completely eliminated any remaining trace of useful content discovery, embracing a smart recommendation algorithm that doesn’t seem very smart at all. Netflix’s user experience team seems to have forgotten the people. Yet it’s not too late to fix things.

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If you use Netflix, you’re probably familiar with the “smart” recommendations of this system. It thinks I should watch its abysmal series Insatiable because I previously watched Ozark. It thinks the movie Inferno is a “98% match” because I watched one scene from Star Wars: Rogue One. This machine guessing game has turned my Netflix home screen–allegedly the site’s prime method for content discovery–into a mosaic of titles that I emphatically don’t want to watch. Every time I tried to follow any of its obscure suggestions, I find myself turning it off after 20 minutes. Which apparently triggers more recommendations of things that I don’t want to watch.

I don’t care how efficient the company says the algorithm is–from my personal experience, it doesn’t work. A machine can never fully replace personal taste and exploration based on human interaction.

[Source Image: Netflix]
At the same time, the company is testing ads for its own series, which will appear while you’re binge-watching another series. It’s a move that has the faint smell of desperation: As its subscription level reaches a plateau, Netflix needs to keep increasing engagement with the platform’s original content. Content that, on average, is perceived as mediocre by critics and public alike. It also suggests some envy of YouTube’s “rabbit hole”–a well-known time-warp effect that traps users in hours-long strings of recommended related clips. Whatever the reasons, Netflix is rapidly changing its platform to get more Netflix content in front of us–and removing any way for spectators to voice their opinions.

[Source Image: Netflix]
It wasn’t always like this. Netflix was once centered around the experience of users, rather than its original programming, with reviews and star ratings that viewers could see before deciding what to watch. The ratings didn’t influence Netflix’s recommendation engine, but they provided important information to other customers. Netflix also allowed you to create lists to share with your friends and, in 2013, introduced a simple way to share titles with your Facebook friends (which also no longer exists). User reviews, meanwhile, were available in the “Details” tab on each title page. Netflix has argued that it axed the reviews because people weren’t using them–which is hardly surprising since the company was hiding them three clicks away.

Despite cutting human recommendations from its app, the new content I watch on Netflix still always comes recommended from friends or critics that I trust. That’s how I got into Cocaine Coast and A Very Secret Service. Just today, talking to my colleagues, I discovered three new highly rated series that were never shown to me in any of Netflix’s recommendations. In fact, Netflix only shows these titles as 67% matches. An informal poll among friends paints a similar picture: Netflix’s recommendations are usually secondary to the recommendations of actual people.

There are even user-built tools designed to discover content on Netflix–third-party tools that search for and surface series based on user-determined criteria. Meanwhile, many entertainment sites publish a new “What’s New on Netflix This Month” article each month, along with what’s disappearing.

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[Source Image: Netflix]
Meanwhile, the streaming service is investing in other optimization tricks to hook you: carefully designed thumbnails, trailers that play automatically as you hover your mouse over with audio, and reminders to watch something else when you reach the end of a season. Talking to Fast Company‘s Elizabeth Segran, Netflix’s global manager for creative services Nick Nelson acknowledged that “if you don’t capture a member’s attention within 90 seconds, he or she will likely lose interest and move on to another activity.” Which is why the company is investing in ways to capture you through the way content is presented, from color and shape to text positioning.

Could there be another way to increase engagement, besides design tricks, algorithms, and inter-episode ads? I believe Netflix should put its users back behind the wheel. Here are a few ideas:

  • Reinstate ratings and reviews. You can’t use Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb because they belong to the competition, sure, but you have a huge pool of dedicated customers. Let them vote and let others see the average stars and the reviews.
  • Allow people to follow other Netflix users–whoever they are, friends or reviewers they trust.
  • Allow your clients to set their own recommendation lists that other people can then subscribe to.
  • Make it easy for people to share titles right in the platform or on social media.
  • Offer a smarter way to dive in and explore content on your own. A good search engine with listed results would be ideal, with filters like “Added date,” “Minimum user rating,” “Director,” or “Actor/Actress.”

Dear Netflix, consider being more transparent with your users–and keep your UX honest. We’re sick of algorithms telling us where to go, who to listen to, and what to watch. Your machine predicts a 98% chance that I would like to watch Frozen. I never will. In fact, I have yet to find an instance of any algorithm surprising me with a smart suggestion. And when it comes to entertainment, I’d like to be able to sort through this cluster of mediocre content in the most effective way to fit my tastes and my feelings at any given moment–not be presented with what a machine thinks I feel like.

In the end, honesty is the only true path to meaningful engagement and sustained subscriptions levels. If people don’t like what you trick them into seeing, they’ll eventually give up and leave.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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