As Netflix pushes further into the world of interactive storytelling, which reportedly includes an upcoming episode of Black Mirror in a choose-your-own-adventure style, its product and content teams are working ever closer with each other to craft the right experience for members worldwide.
"We initiated interactive,” Netflix's VP of product, Todd Yellin, told Gadgets 360 at the side-lines of a showcase event in Singapore last week. “And we work extremely closely with the content team, [as] the whole idea of interactive is a joint effort between the two of us. On both sides, we are looking at everything from the script to what the UI looks like, how the story is told and how you hit those choice points.”
For Yellin's team, it's not just about “designing the interface for how a choice point looks like, but how often do you do the choice points, how long you have to make the choice, [and] what happens when you don't make a choice”, which could vary on TV versus on a phone.
"When we did our first title [Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale], we were working with the directors and the writers,” Yellin said. From a story perspective, they look at various things such as the flow of the story, and whether to employ a common or different ending for the several branches.
From its first few toe dips in the interactive water, Netflix has found that kids tend to make choices “a little bit more” on phones and tablets than they do on television, simply because it's easier to understand and do so on a touch screen than with a TV remote, Yellin noted, which people also aren't in the habit of holding in their hands the entire time they are watching something.
Making things easier, and thereby improving the experience, is a big part of Yellin's job. And Netflix's TV app was a recent benefactor of years of A/B testing — a form of experiment where you display two versions, A and B, of something to find out which one performs better — that brought the new left-hand navigation column. Netflix conducts hundreds of A/B tests each year.
"For the longest time, we were trying to give more navigation for the TV UI,” Yellin explained. “That's hard, because it's [just] left, right, up, down. On the website, it's easy. You go to ‘genre', pull down, and choose one of the options if you don't want to see the personalised choices on the home page. But on the TV, it's arduous to get there. It took us years to A/B-test our way into a left rail of navigation.”
“It looks so simple and obvious the way we do it, [but] it took tests over several years to get that right. To design it right, the right size, the right things in the left-hand navigation, what happens when you go another left, how do you get back to it.”
Alongside that, discovery and personalisation are two other important pillars for improving the overall user experience. Yellin said they have been working on surfacing “the right content in front of the right people at the right time” for many years, which involves ensuring a good diversity and not just sending members “down one pigeon hole”.
Comparatively recently, Netflix has started to personalise the look and design of carousel cards as well, Yellin added, be it the image you see, the text around it, or any auto-playing video clips. It's not just about “putting the right content in front of them but making it so they are clear on what the meaning is of that content and why they would want to watch it”.
“What's the right image, what's the right text, what's the right video, is something we are working on harder now,” he said. “Their next favourite TV series or movie might be sitting in front of them, but they might miss that.” Essentially, Netflix is marketing the same content in different ways to different members.
To recommend new titles, Netflix places the highest emphasis on what you have previously watched among its data points, which also includes user ratings, new releases, and more. A big issue is not knowing what you have seen outside Netflix, which can vary heavily. The company is cognizant of that, Yellin noted, which is why it used to ask new subscribers their preference of genres and tones (dark, upbeat, etc.) on first start.
“We got rid of that a couple of years ago and replaced it by something very easy, which is when you're a new member — before you play anything on Netflix — we ask you to pick three titles you like out of a few dozen titles,” he explained. “That's enough really to give us a jumpstart on understanding your taste. And when you hit play for the first time, that tells volumes. Sure, there are many other volumes to learn about you, but it starts down the journey of understanding your taste better.”
Additionally, users can use the thumbs up/ down feature to rate titles they have seen previously, Yellin added. That's not going to please super-users, whose watching history extends into thousands of which a sizeable portion is likely not even available on the streaming service, and who would like their Netflix homepage to be more reflective of their tastes.
"The thing is, we are in the entertainment business. And you don't want to do work,” Yellin said. “For a small minority of members, it's actually fun to rate a bunch of things. But for the majority of members, even putting thumbs up-thumbs down can be a lot. ‘I just wanna be entertained and watch a great movie or TV show'. We don't want to overwhelm them, we just want to make it easy.”
Disclosure: Netflix sponsored the correspondent's flights and hotel for the event in Singapore.