Netflix nails it Matt 09 Oct 2006

34 comments Latest by Jake M.

Netflix nails the customer experience. From site design, to emails, to packaging, to coding, the company is a champion at delivering a great experience.

Interactive emails
For one thing, Netflix emails are surprisingly effective. They actually get you to interact. Take this “when was it mailed?” email received from the site:

when mailed?

This is the sort of thing I normally wouldn’t respond to. But Netflix makes it so damn easy. One click and that’s it. No need to figure out anything in the browser window. No middle man. It’s just click and be done. Steve Krug would be proud.

Same thing goes for the company’s emails soliciting reviews. I never review things online. Except at Netflix. And that’s because it’s a no-brainer. An email shows up each time I return a movie. Just one click and it’s rated.

rate movie via email

These empowered emails may seem like a small thing but it’s a sign of the way Netflix works.

$1 million prize
Recently, Netflix announced a $1 million prize to anyone who can come up with a new movie recommendation system that is at least 10 percent more accurate than its current one.

Netflix execs say the idea of outsourcing to the masses came up because in-house innovation had slowed down. “If we knew how to do it, we’d have already done it,” said CEO Reed Hastings. “And we’re pretty darn good at this now. We’ve been doing it a long time.”

Even if it is just a stunt — 10% would be a huge bump — it’s a smart move. If someone meets the challenge, then Netflix will reap the benefits. And if the prize goes unclaimed, the mountain of press it’s garnered makes it an effective PR move.

Rating movies
Neftlix has a history of trying innovative techniques. The site was a pioneer at bringing Ajax to the masses (via the site’s movie rating system).

rate movies

In fact, someone mentioned to me the other day that “it’s actually kind of fun” to go through a batch of movies and zap them with ratings. No wonder the company now has over 345 million movie ratings. The site’s recommendation engine is crucial to the company’s successy so that collection of ratings is an extremely valuable resource. Plus, it gives them a nice leg up over competitors.

Add a movie flow
The flow of adding a movie is also well done. It’s one click to add a movie to your queue and that’s it. Then, if you want to move it to the top you can do that easily too. It’s a simple process that’s impossible to mess up.

add movie

Too bad the site killed the drag-and-drop mini-queue though. It was an easy way to reorder your top 10. (And from a UI perspective, it had a nice affordance clue that explained how to use it.)

The list goes on
The company seems to be constantly working at every aspect of the customer experience. Each time you visit the site, it seems like there’s something new going on there. For example: RSS feeds, rollover movie summaries, or “local favorites”. We’ve posted in the past about the careful attention to detail of the DVD mailer. And Fast Company reports Netflix warehouse workers get free Netflix subscriptions and DVD players in order to understand what customers go through.

Throttling
One curious exception to Netflix’ customer-centric approach: The throttling of customers who watch lots of movies. This policy seems out of whack with the general attitude of the company.

Netflix most likely punishes them by 1) slowing down their rental shipments, 2) reporting returned rentals as received days later than they actually were, and 3) giving them lowest priority for movies in high demand.

This may save money upfront, but giving your most loyal customers inferior service seems like a dubious long-term move.

Competition
Now Apple and Amazon are entering the movie market and, according to some, that makes Netflix “an obvious loser.” Sounds familiar — remember when Blockbuster and Walmart were going to take down Netflix? Check out Walmart’s DVD rental site these days.

walmart_netflix

34 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Lee 09 Oct 06

Maybe for the already-committed.  But a problem for those of us who haven’t quite figured out whether it would be worth it given our situations: they don’t let you “stick your toes in” and build a queue without committing to some paid membership plan.

Ben 09 Oct 06

It certainly is impressive what Netflix has done. However, I think many people will (or should) take another look at Blockbuster when they unveil their new site soon. They recently sent out a “preview” to existing members and it will be a HUGE upgrade to their interface and general UI.

And the ONE BIG REASON I still stick with Blockbuster over Netflix is the fact that they give you free in-store rentals coupons every month! So not only do I get my normal 2 movies in the mail (they have various levels like Netflix) BUT I also get two free movie coupons every month. So for those nights when we just want to be spontaneous and get a quick movie—we can. No such option with Netflix.

Jough Dempsey 09 Oct 06

Netflix definitely does software right (for the most part) but their throttling makes me want to throttle them back. Movies used to have a one day turnaround in each direction which meant two sets of rentals each week - now it takes 3-4 days for them to process a return and another 3-4 days to receive the movie after that.

In the past year they have effectively doubled their prices by slowing the movie turnaround time. If you look at the price per rental, the PPR figure is much higher for me now than it used to be. It’s still cheaper and more convenient than a video store membership, but they’re at about the level of the worst service I’d tolerate right now - if service declines any further I’ll drop them in favour of another service.

I used to recommend them and send Netflix new business. Now I warn people about how slow they are. Surely throttling the rental speed has to be hurting their bottom line.

Dan Benjamin 09 Oct 06

I agree that the “throttling” aspect of their service seems on the surface to go against their philosophy of keeping their customers happy, but does it really?

I think the philosophy of the fewer-movie-watcher is something like “if I watch only 1 movie a week, it better get here quickly.” It’s a bit more special to them than the person who’s always got a handful coming in and going out.

I think the problem is actually labeling people who watch lots of movies as being Netflix’s “most loyal customers.” I don’t think it’s a question of loyalty, it’s an issue of cost.

People who watch fewer movies make Netflix more money than those who watch many. Fewer-movie customers spend almost as much as more-movie customers, but interfere less with inventory and put less of a strain on Netflix to meet their demands. I’d suggest that fewer-movie customers are actually Netflix’s mainstay.

Does watching 4 movies a month make me “less loyal” than somebody who watches 5 or 10? I’m still a subscriber, and I’m actually spending more per movie than a heavier user. I’d be putting less of a strain on Netflix’s resources and paying them more for it.

In any case, I think this issue may just go away as Netflix continues to grow and open more local-distribution centers which can process requests more quickly. Once their infrastructure is a bit bigger, I think things will balance out.

Ernie Oporto 09 Oct 06


Netflix throttling is the reason I give Blockbuster my business. I prefer to walk through the store and browse the shelves and hit the counter in person than deal with a postal delay and whatever Netflix might be doing to my queue. I’ve also dealt with missing movies lost in the mail through Netflix, so I’m on the twice-shy side of things with rentals through mail. If the movie I want is not on the shelf, there’s still plenty to pick from on my wishlist, so I can still find something else in the store.

We watch *a lot* of movies in our house, sharing the two-at-a-time between me, my teenage son, my tweenage daughter, my wife and my preschooler. We all have different tastes and as soon as the movie goes back, someone else has a request. This means we don’t individually watch a lot of movies, but as the single customer that Netflix seems us as, it’s more than enough to trigger their queue throttling. No thanks.

M Longfellow 09 Oct 06

Is there a third party/ subscription based rating service that is dead easy to use and install onto one’s own website.

I’m looking for a non-branded (i.e. I can fold in my own branding), easy way to build various reviews of differnt things into my site through a subscription service (much like a Campaign Monitor does for email)? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Dave Woodward 09 Oct 06

I was a loyal NetFlix subscriber for over a year. I loved their site. I got in the habit of sending a movie out and expecting on back in 2 two days (one day to send, one day to recieve).

I was unaware of their “throttling” until I read this and in retrospect it is why I cancelled my account.

Once the movie took longer to recieve, I got less excited about watching them and it demotivated me from sending it back (if I expect an immediate response, I am more likely to respond immediately). It got to a point where I didn’t return movies for over a week because I would think to myself, “well… I don’t want to return now because I won’t get the next movie until next week, maybe I’ll just watch it one more time…”

So after a few months of that I decided it was no longer worth my money so I cancelled my account. All because their slowing response times made me less and less impressed.

gwg 09 Oct 06

I’m on the verge of quitting Netflix because of throttling. I HATE it that they claim ‘Unlimited’ rentals on the plans and then they throttle those plans. This creates - you guessed it - a limit.

Although, I’m not so convinced that BB doesn’t do the same?

I love the Netflix UI, but the Ajax popups that open every time I add a movie to my cue begin to drive me batty. They are slow and clunky and rarely useful.

I look forward to when iTV or some such becomes a real alternative to disc-based movie rentals.

Niko 09 Oct 06

Without having any experience with Netflix, I would suggest another reason for them to throttle high volume customers: those could be said to be the most likely people to make copies of the DVDs and therefore return them quickly.
(you’re free to begin conspiracy theories of hollywood pressuring Netflix ;)

brian warren 09 Oct 06

I really really like the buying experience at Netflix. Have you tried, lately, to purchase a dvd there? It’s wonderful. No page loads. So wonderful, in fact, that I took screenshots. There is another spot that they nailed it.

I’m with Dan Benjamin on the throttling issue. It doesn’t really bother me. Makes sense how they choose to prioritize sending.

awardtour 09 Oct 06

The 1-click review is one of the most compelling piece’s of netflix. I am someone who rarely ever rates items on websites or takes polls so i’m amazed every time I see that I’ve rated 580 movies on netflix. The ability to rate something as “not interested” is also incredibly useful.

I too have had recent problems with delayed deliveries. I guess this is downside of having normally killer execution. I’ve become accustomed to steady 2-day turnaround service for the last year. Comparitively, myspace can go down for 2 days and no one is suprised but if Amazon was down for 10 minutes people would go nuts.

Jeff Martin 09 Oct 06

I don’t know if Blockbuster throttles or not, but I don’t think they do. I’m on the 3 at a time plan and I’ve had weeks where I’ve got 4 or 5 movies in a week, plus my free in store rental every week. And 2 or 3 times now, I’ve had 3 movies at home that I hadn’t had time to watch. After about a week, they sent a 4th movie.

wally 09 Oct 06

I’m amazed at the # of comments that talk about netflix “throttling” as if it were a given. If you are not renting a new release, then I’m convinced that the only thing throttling you is your own speed in watching the movie and the US postal service. Is anyone surprised that something that involves the USPS sometimes takes an odd amount of time?

Michael S. 09 Oct 06

I got a nice little touch when I logged in recently. They must have updated the information they ask from users (or maybe I never completed mine). But instead of redirecting me to my account screen with loads of fields to look through to see what’s missing, they presented just the two fields in the middle of the welcome screen. Easy to fill out, a no-brainer. Took me two seconds and I barely noticed it, and they got the information they needed.

Michael S. 09 Oct 06

I got a nice little touch when I logged in recently. They must have updated the information they ask from users (or maybe I never completed mine). But instead of redirecting me to my account screen with loads of fields to look through to see what’s missing, they presented just the two fields in the middle of the welcome screen. Easy to fill out, a no-brainer. Took me two seconds and I barely noticed it, and they got the information they needed.

k8 09 Oct 06

Great post — Netflix really does have the simplified, efficient user experience basically nailed.

With that said, I feel like they actually do too much continuous improving to the Netflix site. After years of the same method, they’ve changed their system of quick mini-reviews and Netflix friend recommendations TWICE now in recent months. For a longtime user accustomed to doing things the other (equally efficient yet less AJAXy) way, it’s a pain in the ass. Don’t get me wrong, I love their service, but the incessant upgrading with quietly slicker bells and whistles on their site is just getting annoying.

I have the 5-at-a-time plan and have yet to experience any throttling (knock on wood). My turnaround is still lightening fast and I watch about 20 Netflix movies a month. Of course, I also have the Blockbuster movie pass, which I use to rent new releases (2 a week) at the actual Blockbuster store. In my experience, Blockbuster’s selection just doesn’t compare to Netflix, so I use them for the mainstream stuff and the instant gratification of spontaneous renting. This keeps me from having to fight the Netflix masses for the new releases (which is, from what I hear, where most people get frustrated).

Anthony Baker 09 Oct 06

While I agree with everything in Matt’s post, the one area I think Netflix can improve upon is their queue page. With the AJAX-based capabilities found elsewhere in the site, I’d hoped that they would have redesigned the queue page long ago to make it more responsive — perhaps something akin to the capabiltiies found in Backpack or Basecamp pages for resorting items, etc.

Additionally, I think they could do a better job to improve the discoverability of titles, to surface more “long tail” content, in much the same way that a service like Last FM does.

For me, it’s still difficult to come across obscure titles or non-traditional films in their current UX. I’d love to be able to be directed to — or stumble upon — more content than I do now. Going to a good video store (and I’m not talking Blockbuster) is still a better experience for this type of thing.

Andrew Kasper 09 Oct 06

In case anyone’s curious, it looks like someone has already beaten the heretofore-thought-nigh-unbreakable 10% barrier. Stories can be found on the front page of Slashdot (10/9/2006) or in the Netflix “Current Results” listing.

Cheers.

Brian Sweeting 09 Oct 06

My only disagreement would be a small issue with the mailer. I think it’s great for its dual use, but whenever I send a movie back, I really have to think about the way I insert the DVD sleeve into the mailer in order to expose the the bar ode through the window. I guess I could take a devil-may-care attitude and throw it in, but hey I like Netflix, and I don’t mind helping them get things done faster. My proposal would be to have two openings on both the front and back so the bar code shows through, regardless of how you insert the DVD sleeve into the mailer.

Scott Chacon 09 Oct 06

Andrew - they didn’t break the 10%, they eeked out a slightly better score than Cinematch, which is the Netflix standard. They’re in the running for the Progress Prize, which will be awarded in a year if nobody gets the 10%. The million dollar prize is still far from won.

Phil 09 Oct 06

In the case of Apple & Amazon vs. Netflix, User Experience (while being the true winner) will still lose, and here’s why:

If Apple and or Amazon win, people will say it’s because they’re Apple and or Amazon. They’re better, they’re bigger, they’re smarter, whatever.

If NetFlix wins, people will say it’s because they were in the market first. No one will credit the user experience… (unless 37s and others keep beating the drum!)

@M Longfellow: I think the Yahoo User Interface tools has a rating wiget… or at least a “pattern” for it. Check out their design patterns library.

Andrew Kasper 09 Oct 06

Phil:
You’re right. One of these days I’ll learn literacy.

Andrew Kasper 09 Oct 06

Scott:
You’re right. One of these days I’ll learn literacy.

[My worst posts ever.]

Matt Sanders 09 Oct 06

While I generally agree that Netflix’s interfaces are great, I think the recently revamped friends area is a disaster. AJAX side-scrolling animations makes for a sluggish load and the overall interface while “simpler”, also just feels less useful. It’s interesting how a redesign can completely change your experience of a site in a negative direction as well.

That said, I applaud their ongoing attempts to find a better way. They do a great job as many have mentioned with only giving you the information you need at the time and most of their AJAX is light-touch and very responsive.

Matt Carey 09 Oct 06

Calling all UK readers…

What do people recommend as a UK equivalent to Netflix?

paul haine 10 Oct 06

Matt: I use Lovefilm.com (formerly screenselect.co.uk - I think they actually own several of the rental companies in the UK). I’ve had fantastic results from them over the last couple of years, but they do also do the throttling mentioned throughout the comments here - if you start returning them too quickly then the turnaround goes from 1-2 days to 3-4. But that’s my only complaint.

paul haine 10 Oct 06

Oh, they also do a two week free trial if you want to try before you buy.

Dean 10 Oct 06

I have been using Lovefilm for about a year and in the last month or so I’ve noticed a delay creeping into what used to be a one day turnaround. I’ve told Customer Services that I’ll be cancelling if it keeps up but got the standard cut and paste reply.

They’ve also introduced a new queue system which I think is worse than the old one.

Dave Weaver 10 Oct 06

I don’t use Netflix personally (I enjoy visiting the local Blockbuster with my daughter), but the features and functionality of their service is hard to pass up. From a developer’s standpoint, I am fascinated by the level of interaction they provide thru their email. I get email from my banks, phone companies and different websites, but I typically ignore them. The difference I see with the Netflix emails that you show in this post are that they focus on one specific thing. I find that if an email asks one question I am more likely to answer it on the spot. Anymore than one or two questions and I tend to flag it for later, and in the case of my online services will likely never get back to them. Very smart Netflix.

Tom 10 Oct 06

I’m surprised by all of the arguments supporting blockbuster. I say good riddance to blockbuster. They are the reason Netflix was able to be successful in the first place with their lame return-by-Noon-on-a-certain-day policies. I was always forgetting what days to return them by and incurring the lame fees. I love the netflix drop-it-in-the-mail-whenever-you-feel-like-it policy. And I’m not constantly watching movies so there’s always another one lying around the house for me to watch. I’m in Denver which is one of their mailing hubs so I get the next one back often 2 days after I sent out the watched movies so I’m astounded that they can turn it around so quickly.

Hooray Netflix! (no, I don’t work there, I’m just a happy customer).

Chris 10 Oct 06

Throttling is why I never reply to shipping questions. I don’t want to help them build a model that will be used to degrade my customer experience.

Kirk Franklin 10 Oct 06

You can turn off some of the popups by unchecking the “Enable extra movie information” checkbox under Account Preferences on the Your Account page.

Jake M. 11 Oct 06

Don’t be fooled by the “interactive” e-mails, asking for receipt information - this is done to all the better throttle you in the future. They’ve also started sending out similar e-mails, but for when you mailed it back. If you are a moderate to heavy user, I’d advise against responding to these. Also, for anyone still thinking that throttling is a myth, well, after the various lawsuits surrounding it, it’s now actually an explicit policy. And throttling comes in many forms - either sitting on movies a day or two to marked them “received”, or sending shipping movies from far flung distribution centers - I live on the East Coast and have gotten movies from Utah, California, and (this I love) Hawaii. All the better to gum up the works. Ah well, though - I’m still sticking with Netflix, so I guess I’m not complaining too much. I’ve made my peace with their throttling ways…

Jake M. 11 Oct 06

Don’t be fooled by the “interactive” e-mails, asking for receipt information - this is done to all the better throttle you in the future. They’ve also started sending out similar e-mails, but for when you mailed it back. If you are a moderate to heavy user, I’d advise against responding to these. Also, for anyone still thinking that throttling is a myth, well, after the various lawsuits surrounding it, it’s now actually an explicit policy. And throttling comes in many forms - either sitting on movies a day or two to marked them “received”, or sending shipping movies from far flung distribution centers - I live on the East Coast and have gotten movies from Utah, California, and (this I love) Hawaii. All the better to gum up the works. Ah well, though - I’m still sticking with Netflix, so I guess I’m not complaining too much. I’ve made my peace with their throttling ways…

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