Jed Cohen

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How I Would Change: Netflix

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Let’s call this the start of a semi-regular series.  In each of these entries, I’ll take a look at some product that I interact with and point out a few ways I would improve it.  Almost like I was a product manager at the company.  Except I’m not so as always these entires represent only my opinion and not the opinion of anyone I’m associated with.

I’m going to assume you know what Netflix is.  If you don’t, I’d recommend checking out their website and then coming back to finish this post.

I’m going to break Netflix down into the two services they offer – rental DVDs via mail and streaming movies via the internet.  We can’t really change the DVDs via the mail that much.  You could get more disks at once for the same money.  Netflix could stock more disks or build more distribution facilities, but those wouldn’t really translate into benefits for consumers (since disks are delivered next day anyway).  Or they could open physical stores, but we’ve seen that and it hasn’t exactly been working so well.

But we can improve the streaming experience.  And we can do it in a few ways.

Shift control away from the computer.

In order to stream Netflix content to your television, you’ll need an Xbox 360PS 3WiiRokuBoxee Box, or some other kind of streaming device.  But most of the time watching movies on your TV doesn’t actually start there – it starts on your computer.  This is where you add content to your “instant queue,” which is the main pipeline of content from Netflix to your device.

But what if you’re not at your computer?  What if you’re at your TV and you want to watch something that’s not in your instant queue?  Then you need to get up, walk to your computer, search for what you’re looking for, and add it to your queue.  Not exactly ideal.  So let’s add the ability to modify your instant queue from your device.

Yes, this presents problems.  You’d have to input text into a search field using your device’s remote.  This means a lot of arrowing around a keyboard on your screen to type in a title, but a predictive search option will help with that.  And given the convergence between television and computing that devices like the Boxee Box are fostering, you might see more QWERTY keyboards coming to remote controls sooner rather than later.  In addition, the rise of the smartphone means that Netflix could create a mobile application to let users interact with their account and alter their instant queue.

As streaming continues to grow, Netflix will need to shift the management of the instant queue away from the computer and to where people already are – their couches (and maybe their pockets too).

Redesign with the family in mind.

The average US household had 2.59 people in it in 2000.  And I can bet you that at least a portion of those 2.59 people did not all want to watch the same thing at the same time.  So the second major change that Netflix needs to make is to allow multiple family members to establish their own identity within one household account.  Netflix addresses this somewhat with profiles, which are sub-accounts that let you set up individual DVD queues and allocate a set number of disks to each queue at a time, but they don’t translate into the watch instantly queue.  By establishing profiles for the watch instantly queue, Netflix would bring an additional level of customization to their streaming service.

At the same time, this would add a layer of complexity, which can translate into user frustration.  As such, Netflix might have to redesign aspects of its user interface (to change profiles) and device registration process (perhaps to specify a default profile).  There are difficulties with this, given the fact that most of the devices people use to stream Netflix are made by other companies.  But building this functionality into the streaming experience now will provide them with a leg up as more and more people shift away from traditional cable/satellite towards digital platforms.

And for a company whose revenue stream is based entirely on subscriptions, that can’t be a bad thing.

So that’s what I would do to improve upon Netflix (which is already pretty great).  But I’m curious – what would you do?  Leave a comment to let me know!

Written by Jed

March 12th, 2010 at 5:52 pm

  • Netflix needs to move away from Silverlight to a more widely supported platform. Silverlight has to be completely rewritten for each browser and OS. It is supported in IE, Firefox, and Safari for Windows and OS X, but not for Opera or Chrome, and Linux is only supported via an open source plugin from Novell that only works in Firefox. HTML5 is the future. Even Flash would be better than Silverlight. But HTML5 would enable Netflix streaming just about anywhere. iPhone, iPad, netbook, Windows, Mac, Linux.

  • Welcome back Edward! Great to hear from you again.

    I agree that HTML5 does seem to be the most user friendly option for video streaming, and it's great that sites like YouTube are jumping onboard. There are parallels to be drawn to Adobe AIR as well, given the multifunctional nature of the technology.

    I confess to being unsure as to what technologies the various devices use to stream Netflix to a television. I don't know that I see the computer continuing to be the primary device in the Netflix ecosystem however. We may soon reach a point where the term cloud computing defines not just storage or processing power, but also how we interact with computers – in every aspect of our lives. As a (relevant) example, TVs are coming with built in internet capability (and more and more boxes that we connect to TVs are capable of the same). So who says that we need to keep the traditional computer as the dominant device for a service that originated in another format entirely? Sure, people will want to stream content to their laptop on the go, but do they want to do so when they have the option of watching on the much larger screen in their living room? I certainly don't.

  • edwardra3

    I also wanted to suggest, instead of physical brick & mortar stores, maybe Netflix could expand into kiosks like Redbox has. That would be lower overhead than a store, which is one of the things that is killing Blockbuster while still giving people the option of access today of new releases, which I have noticed aren't all that present on the Netflix streaming service.

  • Well, there are positives and negatives to that. They're easier for consumers to access, but also have a large initial cost and subsequent smaller costs for the management of each of the kiosks. I certainly look forward to Netflix improving their streaming service, and could one day see myself opting out of receiving physical DVDs entirely if digital releases occurred on the same time frame as physical ones.

  • Well, there are positives and negatives to that. They’re easier for consumers to access, but also have a large initial cost and subsequent smaller costs for the management of each of the kiosks. I certainly look forward to Netflix improving their streaming service, and could one day see myself opting out of receiving physical DVDs entirely if digital releases occurred on the same time frame as physical ones.