How UX helped Netflix take over the world

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The idea of putting the customer first is something of a marketing cliché. But that’s exactly how Netflix became the world’s biggest broadcaster.

One sign that your company has made it is that your brand name has entered the popular lexicon. “Google” and “Facebook” have long been verbs and while “Netflix” isn’t, the streaming giant certainly gave a new meaning to the word “binge.”

Netflix was founded in 1997, back when home Internet was still something of a novelty and there were nearly as many Blockbuster stores as there are Starbucks. Netflix now is available in nearly every country (China, North Korea, Syria and Crimea being the exceptions) officially making it the biggest broadcaster in the world, chief executive (CEO) Reed Hasting announced during the opening keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas yesterday.

While the Internet has put many companies out of business, Netflix has managed to not only survive in the digital age, but thrive and transform the way we watch TV. How did it become such a force?

Customers always come first

Put the customer first” is something every marketer says. It’s such a common sentiment that it’s kind of cliché, but that’s exactly what Netflix did. And for the company, the user experience (UX) starts with data.

“The goal is to deliver data so fast and well on any device in any broadband connection. This adaptive streaming has facilitated our open-connect network, cacheing content worldwide,” said Hastings. “One day, we hope to get so good at suggestions that we can show you exactly the right movie or TV show for your mood.”

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Test, test and test again

There have been hundreds of A/B tests regarding things like the interface and automatic host play.  There have also been collaborations with some of the biggest names in tech – including Google, Apple, Microsoft and Nintendo – ensuring the best possible experience from a technology standpoint, as well.

“We have helped these companies unlock the value of smart devices and along the way, we helped consumers discover the value of entertainment on demand,” said Hastings. “We want Netflix to work incredibly well, whether you’re watching in the living room on the metro or 30,000 feet on Virgin America. We want your video to start instantly and be the highest possible resolution.”

The risk-taking culture has trickled down from the top. Netflix encourages its creators and directors to be experimental, as well. So far, it’s paying off.

Of the 35 highest-ranked TV shows on the Internet Movie Database, six – Jessica Jones, Making a Murderer, Narcos, Daredevil, Orange is the New Black and House of Cards – are Netflix originals. That’s nearly one-third of the company’s programming, if you don’t count the shows for kids and teens.

“We have what we call a ‘freedom of responsibility’ culture,” said Ted Sarandos, the company’s chief content officer who delivered the second portion of the keynote. “Netflix executives get a lot of freedom to innovate, but we are also responsible for delivering the goods. We treat the filmmakers the same way.”

Bingeflix and chill

Part of that freedom comes in the nature of the binge. Creators aren’t subject to the confines of traditional TV: making episodes exactly the right length, limiting story arcs with the casual channel surfer in mind, even genre.

Sarandos compares the difference to baseball.

“Linear TV scores with home runs. We score with home runs, too, but we also score with singles and doubles and triples,” he said. “We have that luxury thanks to the Internet. Linear TV must aggregate a large audience during a given time of the day and hopefully attract enough viewers. With Netflix, users can enjoy a show at any time.”

Like everything else, the nature of the binge comes back to UX. House of Cards debuted in February 2013, a milestone for two reasons: it was Netflix’s first show and it was also the first time an entire TV season was available at once.

While Game of Thrones fans have to wait an entire week to see what happened after Daenerys got on her dragon and booked it, House of Cards viewers don’t have episode-by-episode cliffhangers. The Internet has made all of the world’s information available in our pockets at any time. Our culture has become one of instant gratification and Netflix is right there.

“There’s no more watching TV on a schedule that’s not your own. There’s no more frustration,” said Hastings, closing out the keynote. “With Netflix, you can watch how you want, when you want, and wherever you are in the world,” allowing the customer to drive their own experience.

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