Saturday, July 14, 2007

Product Development Insights

Once again, i'm going to go out on a limb here and talk pretty candidly with y'all. Hang on. We who make this website, we are called "product developers" because we think of the website as a product, and we take the development of this product pretty seriously. We seriously want to make it better and not worse. That seems simple enough.

Here are a couple little insights into our jobs here:
1) I'm not the only person working on the website. This shouldn't come as a surprise. I already introduced you to Meghan and Vikram and the rest; we're all working on this stuff; and thus:
2) Because you get feature A doesn't mean you don't get feature B. These things are not mutually exclusive. Just because I see a quick opportunity to roll out Movie Privacy doesn't mean Todd isn't going to work on 1/2 stars, or whatever. For the community-type features, my stuff, I am a little more cavalier with than how we are with, say, the Queue. Parts of the site are different, and we generally don't compete with each other for resources. Works goes on in parallel. Follow this?

But it begs the question: If we KNOW something is a feature you want, or a feature we want, why isn't it on the site already -- or why is it taking so long to release? These are good and logical questions.

So here's the answer: sometimes it is because a simple feature is more complicated than it at first appeared, and sometimes its because much more important features are on the top of our engineers' priorities list, but one of the most significant reasons is that we don't want to make the website more complicated than it needs to be. The site not only has to work for powerusers but also for my mom. Or your mom. We have to consider this kind of "feature creep" all the time and it keeps us from just dumping a ton of odd functions into the website.

Do you think we don't want to have the screenwriter on movie pages? (For cryin'outloud--some of my best friends are screenwriters. Heck, my brother is a screenwriter. Believe me, I think it would be great to get that info on movie pages.) So once you and we all agree something like that would be great, we start a serious exploration of the pros and cons, with lots of designing, with lots of testing, and make sure that it really is a good feature and not just another cool doohickie. In most cases, these features do make it to the website. But we are exceptionally careful at this. And the website is pretty good precisely because we are careful at this.

I'm reminded of a great talk by David Pogue, the technology columnist for the New York Times, that he gave at the distinguished TED Conference last year. Pogue is both entertaining and incredibly insightful, and his advice on interface design is very applicable to websites, and a cautionary tale for website builders like us (and his musical interludes are amusing). This runs 20 minutes--but is worthy:

We are movie lovers here at Netflix--the gang of us who build this site--and we have a lot in common with people who read blogs about Netflix. But when we release features, we work hard to get our egos out of the process, and tease out what truly makes the site better in all ways. We value your input here. We combine it with our own instincts and other research, and add new features. I hope it doesn't seem like we are reacting slowly. We're just methodical. Thank you so much for your suggestions. We hope that every month you're with us, you see the service and website improve.