Netflix has changed the way people consume television. But since it launched its streaming service, the company has had a relatively similar interface–a big grid showing off all the titles in its collection, sorted into categories that it thinks you’re interested in.
There have been a few changes over the years, especially as Netflix has started pushing more of its own content: now, the images promoting shows will change over time to try to hook you in, many shows come with trailers, and perhaps most annoyingly, those trailers autoplay if you hover over a title for too long.
The grid worked well for many years, especially since it offers a compelling, heavily visual alternative to the spreadsheet-like TV guides that most television watchers are accustomed to. Today, nearly every other streaming service uses a grid similar to Netflix. But there are some serious problems with the grid interface.
“The grid of choice and the few basic category segmentations really aren’t a lot more creative than what you’d find at Blockbuster,” says Mark Rolston, the head of Austin-based design studio Argodesign, which focuses on interfaces and is a strategic design partner to Magic Leap as well as the designer of the world’s first graphical AI interface. “They’re not taking advantage of what software has to offer, and they’re just ordering things no more creatively than you would in a store. And that’s kind of sad.”
Fast Company asked Rolston and his team of interface designers to solve some of the biggest problems with the Netflix interface: the overwhelming paradox of choice it presents, the challenge of choosing what to watch in a group, the difficulty with finding hidden gems, and the fact that, unlike traditional television, you have to make an active choice at all, even if you really just want to see what’s on.
These are their ideas.
A new kind of “Netflix and chill”
One of the worst parts about Netflix’s current interface is that it makes it difficult for you to make a choice. Instead it often feels like it is encouraging you to browse forever. “I believe the term we use colloquially is ‘menu-tainment,’ where the menu is where you spend all your time because you’re unsure what you want to watch,” says Jared Ficklin, lead creative technologist at Argodesign.
Instead, the Argodesign team presents a radically different interface they call “Chill” that presents viewers with just one title at a time. Using an interface people are more familiar with in dating apps, Chill asks that you read the profile of a single show that’s presented to you, and then swipe left if you aren’t interested, and right to play instantly. (The name is a cutesy reference to the much-abused phrase “Netflix and chill,” which is rather appropriate for a dating app-inspired UI.)
There’s a few added benefits to this kind of interface. One, it would tell Netflix what shows you’re not interested in. Today, a show that you start watching and then abandon will be highlighted for a long time in your “recently watched” feed. But here, if you reject something, it wouldn’t show up again in the pile of shows to swipe through for at least some time. Secondly, this would give Netflix even more valuable data about people’s viewing habits. For instance, what you want to watch at 8 p.m. on a Saturday is probably very different from what you’d watch at 1 a.m. the same night.
The Argodesign designers don’t believe this interface would replace the grid–instead, it would just offer another way of browsing that could help users make a decision faster than the never-ending scroll.
How does a group of people decide what to watch?
We’ve all been there. Whether it’s with your family or your friends, finding something to watch that will satisfy a group of three or four people can feel next to impossible, especially as you’re browsing through the Netflix grid.
Part of the problem is the tyranny of the remote: The person who’s holding it has total control over where the entire group can look for a show or movie. But what if it didn’t have to be this way?
Argo proposes using a nifty piece of technology called a pico projector, which can project an interface onto an existing surface, like a coffee table, wall, or even the floor. But it’s no ordinary projector, because it turns that surface into a touch screen that you can interact with. To solve the problem of what to watch in a group, Argodesign envisions a Netflix-branded pico projector called Night Light that turns your coffee table into an interactive version of the Netflix interface. Then everyone can sit around the table and browse through shows at their own pace. The rule of the remote would be over.
“What happens is once you stick it on the table, it’s more like a board game, like Monopoly, for picking TV shows,” Ficklin says. He likens the experience to what it used to be like to go to Blockbuster with a group, when everyone could fan out and grab their top three picks before reuniting. Of course, you do still have to ultimately pick the show, but this interface could make it easier to include everyone in the decision making.
Once you do decide what to watch, the projector could act as a secondary screen, showing facts or background information about the show (similar to what you might be already Googling on your phone as you watch).
And if you can’t come to any kind of consensus? Argo as a solution for that, too. This interface is called the Wheel of Destiny. It allows a viewer to select two or more Netflix profiles, and then it grabs top-rated shows from each profile. Then the viewer spins the wheel, and Netflix decides which show to play, putting all power in the hands of the algorithm. Of course, given Netflix’s propensity to push you toward watching its own content rather than a show that another studio created, it’s hard to say whether the algorithm would have your group’s best interests at heart–or Netflix’s.
When Instagram meets Netflix
All of these concepts still tend to require some decision making on the viewer’s part, whether it’s making individual judgments on shows, finding something that will appease everyone in a group, or even just deciding to use a nontraditional interface in the first place. But one thing that Netflix is still missing? The feeling of being able to turn on the TV and just see what’s on. This lost feature of live television lends itself to discovering new things, which can be difficult to do when the algorithm continues to serve up the same recommendations over and over again.
“Netflix has this dual relationship in our lives: It’s pushing something we can all talk about. Everyone watched Stranger Things,” Rolston says. “But on the other hand, it’s such a deep well. This long tail of discovery is still one of the delightful aspects of it.”
But how do you surface those hidden gems? Building on the idea that because of social media, people today are attuned to–and interested in–what their friends are doing, Argo envisions yet another interface that’s composed entirely of influencer-driven content feeds.
Rolston compares this idea, called Live Fyre (in homage to the social-media driven Fyre Festival), to “the popularity-honing aspect of Instagram with the simple, sit back, and pick a channel you like of the television guide.”
In essence, this idea makes Netflix social. You could follow what your friends and family are watching, find out what that indie film director you like has in her queue, and yes, probably follow along with mega-influencers like Kim Kardashian as well. Then, when you log in wanting to watch something, you could simply flip to one of their channels–no decision necessary. All you’d have to do is press play.
[Photo Illustration: Samir Abady; Menu: courtesy of Netflix]