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.


  1. As a software developer, I totally understand what you're saying because I go through the same things at work. The candor is appreciated. If anything, I would say changes based on user input have been coming faster than I would have expected, not slower. Considering the website has millions of users, I would have expected the wheels of motion to be very slow around there. Kudos.

  2. Very well said Michael.

    It may seem like we are rushing you to add new features to Netflix, but we all know that some features work better in our heads than on a computer monitor.

    This Blog has been a great launch point for many new features so far. If you want to bounce any ideas off of us as far as features go, you could add some polls to the blog. That would be a surefire was to get a Yes/No answer from us about new stuff.

    Keep up the excellent work.

  3. Thanks for the explanation, Michael.

  4. Follow this?

    I've been reading this blog for a couple of weeks now. The impression I've gotten is that overall the people who respond to the posts are a rather bright group. Sure, some of us, myself included, have our pet peeves and favored wish list items, but we are certainly capable of following a clear explanation (and yours are good ones), and able to ask questions when something is unclear. You've asked if we "get it" more than once, and it's rather condescending.

  5. michael, from netflixJuly 14, 2007 at 8:42 PM

    Agreed- it was a little condescending. Pretty much everyone who posts has demonstrated intelligence and goodwill. Sorry.

    I would request that folks look around a little bit on the blog for answers to their questions. At least once per posting there is someone asking something that other posts clearly address. Maybe if everyone here could help steer those wayward folks in the right direction it would help me out. I will tend not to answer questions asked that are off topic or that have been addressed elsewhere. I don't want to be mean or evasive - but i'm generally going to ignore that stuff.

    You know: i'll probably still sound a little condesending from time to time. I think that's how I come across in this blog writing realm. But trust me -- it's not directed towards you.

  6. I didn't think Michael was being condescending.

    And he was specifically referring to my post in a previous blog entry where I criticized the addition of the "unuseful" privacy features over the addition of screenwriters & full cast/crew info.

    I would like to apologize for being too harsh to judge things, and I appreciate Michael's explanation.

    A friend of mine was just telling me about how this privacy feature is CRITICALLY important for her relationship with her parents. Her parents are evangelical Christians, yet she has strayed from her Christian upbringing to become a Buddhist. Both she & her parents are on Netflix, yet she could never add them as her friends in the past because they would LITERALLY DISOWN HER for renting all of her "paganistic" movies that went against the church's teachings. Her parents have asked her dozens of times to add them as her friend, but she always "forgets" to do it b/c she literally does not want to erupt World War III within her own family. Yet there is already tension brewing because they feel slighted that she hasn't added them yet. Now with the privacy feature, she can actually add them as friends and literally keep the peace in her family.

    So yeah, this may be slightly more useful than listing screenwriters. ;-)


  7. I am very excited to see the future features that you guys are rolling out to the site.

    #1 on my wish list: 1/2 star. :)

  8. The changes to the site lately have been amazing and very quick. So much so that I seem to see something new practically with each visit. Obviously development takes time and consideration, and hopefully most people understand that - but you're doing a great job.

    I like mcwhammer's idea about polls about new features - but perhaps somewhere other than this blog? I didn't even know this blog was here for quite a while, so polls (and new-feature intros!) that are more readily visible would be great, and would get more users involved. Perhaps linked from the main landing page? There's lots of stuff on there already so just an announcement and a link would be great. (Personally - I don't need 2 recommendation areas; one based on what I've watched and the other just further recommendations. Just recommend, period, and use the other space for another feature. Just my opinion.)

    Thanks for communicating with us.

  9. I haven't seen this addressed on the blog, but in the interests of building a true web community, wouldn't it be nice to have the option to tick a box in your account that ALLOWS other users to send you messages/friend invites? I know many people don't want to be bothered by strangers, but as a fan of movies, I would welcome unsolicited messages from similar (and even dissimilar) users.

    Thanks for all your hard work, Netflix is the one monthly bill I'm happy to pay every month.

  10. What about engaging the community of programmers who develop Greasemonkey scripts/Firefox extensions? Maybe release a Netflix API.

    I've seen some good mods to the Netflix site by third parties discovering things on their own. Imagine what they could do if there was an officially documented interface. This would allow the power users to add extra functionality and my mom never has to see it.

  11. Re upgrading the movie info page, how's about moving the 'Language and Sound' and 'subtitles' right up to the top of the page, maybe just below the 'ratings', which might save us having to wade through pages and pages of either "NOWHERE DOES IT SAY THAT THIS MOVIE IS IN SPANISH" or "THIS MOVIE HAS NO SUBTITLES AND I DO NOT SPEAK MONGOLIAN" [you have to click 'subtitles ON' in the 'set-up' section, People!]. And while the fine folks at Netflix are working tirelessly on upgrading their list of movie credits [among a thousand other recent goodies], maybe check-out Blockbusters' website, which DOES list the writer/s, and even gives the name of the character each actor plays!

  12. Good point Josh. Listing all spoken and subtitled languages on each movie prominently should help. Though I wonder: If people can't figure out the buttons and simpler functions on their DVD remote, will they read it? I'd like to see a big sweep of "I don't speak Mongolian", "I really look forward to seeing this" and "My disc was scratched so I didn't get to see/finish it" reviews and encouraging subscribers to flag them so that the Netflix gods can erase them, if it could be done easily. Especially if clearing out that garbage would help the website operate more quickly and economically.

  13. Yes,Josh, yes, Michael. This point is REALLY IMPORTANT. There are countless of so called reviews of people complaining the movie is not in english and therefore they couldn't watch it (unbelievable that people don't know how to set up their dvd players), that they were sent the wrong disc, that it is scratched etc. Please make an addition to the "flag it" with another button that says something like "not a review" for those kinds of comments, so that we can help you clean up, and leave space for the REAL reviews...THE ONES THAT TALK ABOUT THE MOVIE CONTENT.....

  14. Just wanted to second Daniel's point about building a web community. Obviously this isn't a social networking site, but it would be nice for users to interact more, and sending private messages would be a first step.

    Setting up discussion forums would be another idea I would appreciate. Obviously, that has the potential to go downhill--witness the hellhole of flamewars on IMDB--but it'd be cool to join, say, an 80s trashy action film group or a Jan Svankmajer appreciation group to discuss movies and make recommendations.

  15. @Josh, yes AMEN, I'd like to see the Language of each film featured prominently. My wife dislikes subtitles, yet we lean toward many of the Foreign directors. Much as I hate a bad over-dub-English-mishmash, I prefer it to my wife rolling her eyes at me yet again when Spanish or French with English subs it the only audio choice :-)

  16. I don't know where to ask this question, so here goes.

    What day of the week and/or time of day is the best, to put a DVD into the mailbox to ensure the fastest in receiving the next one in queue?

  17. nuuu,

    I don't work for NETFLIX but usually if I leave the NETFLIX in my home mailbox in the morning, it gets taken by the mailman in the afternoon, NETFLIX will receive it the next morning. A lot of depends, I suppose, on how far you are from your distribution center and how effecient your town mail system is.

  18. adam, I gotta try it out by putting the DVDs in the return slip in my mailbox - but what if I were to lose it from there?

  19. Re languages and subtitles, thanks for the back-up Mort, Jane and Anon #2; I was braced for cries of "if they want to show movies in this country they should damn well learn to speak English". And it's a great idea to add another option to the 'flag' drop-down such as "Not a review" or maybe even "Please report all disc problems using the 'Report Disc Problem' link in your queue" [silent scream implied].

  20. I'm not a programmer, but I completely understand how something conceptually simple can be difficult to make real. I have faith in you guys though. You're much better than the guys that work at my company. I can build a better webpage than those doofussis (doofussi? doofussae?) I'll be happy with the half stars. Everything else is gratis. Appreciate 'cha! Oh and thanks for the link to Pogue.

  21. I am a very basic Netflix user, and I apologize for placing this post where it probably doesn't belong, for being anon. just because I didn't want to deal with sign up, and possibly asking a very basic question asked elsewhere. I simply couldn't find a good place for it.

    I've just spent an hour or so rating movies, with new screens popping up with every choice, an endless maze... When I say I like a certain film but don't add it to my queue, the damn thing shows up over and over....I've SEEN it, I don't want to get it again. Can't we have a no, thanks, I've seen it choice? A gentle retirement page, films I liked but will probably not rent again? I hate to say not interested when they are a favorite, but that's the only way to get them out of the way. At this point, I'm inclined to just stop rating, period. Genie, not anon.

  22. I have a great suggestion for a new feature. How about setting up something in the user profile where the user can select whether or not they have HDDVD, Bluray, or standard DVD player. I personally have only a Standard DVD player and it ticks me off when I have to go back and change the DEFAULT setting on newer movies. Currently, if there is a movie that is out in HD DVD then thats the default format that get put in your Queue and you have to manually select standard format. Thanks.

  23. @gregory - Don't they? Hang on.

    Here: Under the Your Account hyperlink (up top) there is a section called "Account Preferences" which has a link called "Format Preferences" and you can tell it whether you have HD or Blueray.

  24. Help! I hate that I can't email customer service. I had a scratched disk, ordered a replacement...but we suffered through the skipping tonight and I no longer need the replacement, which will ship Monday. The wait to talk to customer support is NINE MINUTES! Insane. Please bring back email customer support. For trivial things, I don't want to talk to someone.

  25. I cannot use the function to reorder my movies in my queue when I use Netscape. I cannot drag and drop, and I cannot type in a number to reorder. I called customer service, and their response was "use Internet Explorer." That sucks. I am a website designer myself, and I must design well, and that means making the site available to IE and Netscape. Making it available for IE only is discriminatory. I hate IE and only use it if I have to. And Netflix says I have to. And I hate that. It's stupid and it sucks. IE has proven to be unreliable and not as secure as Netscape. Over and over again. I hate IE and refuse to use it unless I have to. When I want to reorder my queue, I am forced to leave Netscape, open up IE, go to the website, type in my account and password (Netscape conveniently has all passwords memorized with only a Master Password) and then use that other, weaker, less stable, less secure browser just because Netflix has failed to design a proper website.

    My default browser, my favorite browser, my personal browser, is Netscape. When I open up email, and view a message from Netflix, and hit a link to go to my queue, it automatically opens up Netscape. But because your website is so poorly designed, I must also open up IE and manually type in username and password to access the same info that I should be able to access in Netscape.

    Poor web design. If I have a problem with a car, and the answer is “don’t drive that car,” then people will not use that service any more. If I call Netflix, and the answer is “don’t use Netscape, only use IE,” then eventually you will drive your customers away. The whole beauty of Netflix is ease of use. And if Netscape cannot be used because your webmaster is a bonehead, then ease of use is no longer a benefit.

    This didn’t used to be a problem. The problem only started occurring a few weeks ago. So, you used to do it right. Now you don’t do it right. Somebody screwed up. Fix it.

  26. Is it possible that we can browse the Entire site starting with the NetFlix Home Page by # of Rated STARS that a Movie receives?
    I ask this a while back Feb. 14, 2007. RE:
    and was told NetFlix could not do this yet but would look into it.
    I see NetFlix did look into it and only in " some areas " can you browse by # of stars rating.
    By the way, Nobody said Thanks for the ideal or even offered me a Free movie " after " it was put into use but that's OK I would like to see the Browse by Star rating in each movie category to look up ALL 5-star or 4-star movies in each category. What about the rest of you?

  27. I can't find a place to make a suggestion for a feature that I can't find on the site. Can I leave it here? Thanks!

    I really like the Queue for building an ordered wish list for movies I want to have sent to me. But how about having the same thing for movies that I plan to watch instantly on-line? This would be a good feature for when my time runs out (as it seems to do very early in my billing cycle).

    Perhaps this is already available or others have requested it?

    First I would like to apologize for putting what I am going to write here, here. I found out that I can no longer send an email to Customer Service for my questions. This feature was replaced by a contact number. When you go to the Help link, it takes you to the Help Center page that contains the following info:
    "Phone US
    24 hours a day

    For faster customer service, please provide this customer identification number when you call: 757 087"
    I called it at about 11pm CST, I received the following recording 'Welcome to Netflix. we are sorry we are closed due to system maintenance'

    I'm surprised. Why did the information said 24 hours a day? Could we say that this is falso advertising?

    I found another toll free number in the site for Website questions, the page again indicated
    "Phone Us
    24 hours a day

    For faster customer service, please provide this customer identification number when you call: 757 087"

    I called the number and alas, i got the same message about being closed for system maintenance. Had any other subscriber tried calling these numbers? And was it successful? To netlfix, have you considered putting back the email capability for situations such as this so that you are still reachable in cases where you get this "system maintenance closure" which is contrary to what you are noting in the web pages.

  29. this is off topic, but it's something that really bugs me and I can't find a good place to post it.

    whevever I return an unplayable disc, it is replaced by yet another--actually, I assume the same--unplayable disc.

    I have gotten the same broken or scratched disc three or four times in a row. on several different ocassions.

    extremely annoying. in fact, it's gettin to the point where it's going to be a dealbreaker.

  30. This is in regard to the previous posting. Has anybody else experienced this problem of having the same broken or scratched disc returned to you more than one time? Please chime in if you have. I've complained in as many ways as I can think of and have always been ignored.

    It's starting to look like my only recourse is to switch to Blockbuster.

  31. A feature that I would dearly love to see is: Along with the "Add" to queue and "not interested" buttons, how about an "I own it" button. So that the movies you own at home will not be suggested to you again. After all you bought them so that you could watch them whenever. That way when I rate a movie "Loved it", it will stay on the suggestions list. Or perhaps, a list of movies that were seen, rated, and you'd like to watch again sometime, but not enough to buy. I don't know about you, but I cannot always remember all the names of movies I've seen in the past, but get nostalgic to see again.

  32. Since I couldn't find any place on the site to post a suggestion like most, if not all of the other websites on the internet have, I'm posting it here. People don't always like to call customer service and wait on hold. Why can't users leave comments or ask questions through the site? That's one reason I canceled my subscription. The other reason is they kept trying to charge my debit card two or three days before pay day, every time. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that most people get paid on the 1st and 15th. Why not just set up your billing cycles accordingly? I know that doesn't have anything to do with product development, but if I could have posted this suggestion on the site, I would have. ;)