netflix retooled

I’m a heavy Netflix user. In my opinion, Netflix is why you buy a DVD player, not the other way around. I visited Blockbuster recently, to get a big pile of movies in preparation for tuesday’s dental surgery, and I noticed Blockbuster has rolled out a new “Movie freedom pass.” It allows you to keep two movies as long as you want, and see as many as you want, two at a time, for a flat fee.

My husband read the offer as we stood at the counter checking out, and snorted “same as Netflix except you have to go to the store and you get crappier films.” The endlessly maligned Blockbuster clerk did not respond, merely continued to ring me up. Sometime I think the clerks’ apathy provide a challenge to my husband’s gallic nature, as he seems to save his most insulting comments about american culture for our arrival at the counter.

So: back to Netflix.com. They’ve redesigned their site. Because I visit Netflix so often, and typically from clicking an email as often as navigating there, I had the good fortune to have old Netflix and new Netflix open in two windows and was able to capture at a page of each for comparison. And here is my rambling observations…

Below is the redesign explanation page. Most sites undergoing a major redesign now respect this best practice. A few years back, complete redesigns & rearchitectures were sprung on users regularly with hardly a word of explanation. Now there is usually a tour or guidepage explaining what sort of mischief the designers have been getting into and how to adjust to the new design. Even when a design is a great improvement, users of the previous design will often have problems as they relearn the interface.

Unfortunately the vast majority of the users will not turn to the explanation page, except perhaps out of curiosity or if they can’t locate a favored feature and want to see if it’s still there. Tours tend to get the traffic of a good banner ad… abysmal. Still, it’s good to offer help to those who seek it.

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In my case I’m thwarted by the move of search (#6) from the left (common not only to the old netflix but to many other of my regularly visited sites such as amazon) to the right. I’m sure someone had a deep and passionate argument about how having the search box on the right was more ergonomic and intuitive, but damn if I don’t keep looking for it on the left every time.
(There was a poster at this year’s ia summit with typical location of things like shopping cart and search– anyone have a link?)

Below we have the old netflix queue page and the new one. This is a page I spend a lot of time on, moving movies up and down the queue as my mood swings from serious to playful and my needs from blockbuster-stupid to intellectually challenging. I doubt I’m unusual in this pastime. Netflix’s few drawbacks is you can’t match film to mood easily.

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netflix_new_thumb.gif

There are two big changes in this page. One is the aqua-ization of the design. Everything is shiny 3-D macraphics. Why? Page was loading too fast? That fountain pen really enriches my renting experience! Those round tabs makes me feel so futuristic, like I’m in minority report!

I will admit that I have a personal aesthetic preference for the flat interface, and I really don’t get what a 3-d tab brings to the experience. But then, OSX leaves me vaguely seasick, and when my XP machine arrived, I spent a hunk of time removing the fisher-price interface and returning to the simple “windows classic”. This is my caveat… I like flat. Still, I do suspect this design will look dated pretty fast.

Moving beyond the veneer, let’s consider use. This page is a highly utilitarian one. Why add visuals that don’t help? The fountain pen neither helps in wayfinding nor explains how to use the page, nor sets the tone for the task. It bespeaks a designer’s struggle digging through clip-art seeking an image that represents managing a queue of movies– maybe the solution was no image?

Is an image necessary on this page at all? Setting the tone of the service’s brand seems far more appropriate on the home page, perhaps lightly across the browse pages. But once you get to a page the regular committed user accesses again and again, why not make it lightweight and swift, with no unnecessary elements?

One thing the image does do is tie the tabs into the page. Often tabs are tossed on top of an interface like a hat, and have no visual connection with the page they modify. This undermines their power– the ability to show state and provide both location and alternatives. The new tabs are far better tied to the pages they modify than the old buttonettes.

Are tabs the right metaphor for Netflix? On the web, you see two uses for tabs. the old software metaphor, which is different views of the same thing, and the new/old folder metaphor, top-level groupings of items. Amazon uses tabs in this way, as do most.

Netflix is using tabs to indicate the three different tasks a user might accomplish on their site, an atypical use for tabs. Tabs are probably the wrong widget, then. But a little rebel within whispers “I bet they tested great in usability.”

Another big change you’ll notice is the removal of the left-hand navigation. I’m going to assume they looked at the number of clicks this received, and decided that it was not serving any purpose beyond noise. On the other-hand, its removal basically renders this page a dead end. You’ve tweaked your queue, you are satisfied the right films are lined up to arrive… now what? What does the user want to do next?

My answer is usually

1. Find more movies on netflix
2. Go to IMDB and read up on a movie, or find suggestions for another.
3. Leave to do something else.

You can no longer easily do any of these on this page. Why not offer movie recommendations here? Why not do a deal with IMDB? Why not take overture text-link ads to take advantage of an exit point?

I think Amazon is the master of the “no dead-ends” philosophy. Every click provides you with a thousand other tempting offers, until you enter the check out tunnel. Netflix has got your money, the best thing they can do is make sure you view them as an indispensable part of your existence. Part of that means making sure you have a rich queue of movies so you never sit at home with no red envelope, wondering what you are paying for.