Netflix, Please Fix Your User Interface On… Everything

By Greg Kumparak , written on March 14, 2012

From The News Desk

I've got a bit of a problem with Netflix. It's actually something that I've been meaning to bring up for a while... but then Netflix went and made, and immediately un-made, a bunch of mega-crap decisions and everyone started railing on them. It felt like I'd be beating on a sick (read: not at all dead) horse, all while hoping said horse would get up and continue to race for years to come.

Now that the angry horse-beating mob has moved on to Yahoo or Encyclopedias or whatever the Internet is mad about these days, I must ask: Netflix, what the heck is going on with your user experience team?

Netflix is one of very, very few companies with the swagger and man-power to be on everything. It's on your PC. It's on your Xbox. It's on your PS3. It's on your iPhone, your iPad, and a zillion different Android phones. Windows Phone. Roku. It's everywhere.

Alas, being on a million different platforms means having a million different interfaces. Every platform has its own signature nuances, requiring all sorts of tweaks and intricacies to ensure that Netflix feels right at home wherever it may be found. As a result, Netflix has had to reinvent their own wheel well over half a dozen times now.

The problem: every time they reinvent the wheel, they find some new way to keep it from rolling juuuuust right. To ditch the metaphor for the sake of clarity: on just about every platform Netflix is on, there's some glaring UI flaw or omission that makes me want to pull my hair out. Every time they fix one thing, they try to overhaul everything and end up borking something else. It's like there's no one on the user experience team whose job it is to say, "Wait, wait, no — this one thing is crap. Lets not do that."

Take the Xbox 360 app, for example. I'd originally planned on stepping through its evolution iteration by iteration, pointing out the strange little touches as it went from bright and cheery (if simple) to the red-and-grey doom and gloom of today — but hell, lets let bygones be bygones and focus on the interface of today. (But really: why does it look like a storm is rolling closer and closer every time Netflix gets an update? I fully expect the next update to turn the interface entirely grey with sad faces replacing all of the box art. Cheer up, guys.)

1) TV Shows: Up until the most recent update, watching an episode of a TV show worked as you'd expect. You pick a show, pick an episode, and watch the episode.

Nowadays, Netflix for 360 automatically starts playing the episode it thinks you want to watch, based on whichever one you watched last, as soon as you pick the show. Oh, you wanted to watch a different episode? Better wait until this episode buffers, or do it quick — if you're still in the episode list when the buffer hits 100%, you get booted back out. Oh, your girlfriend/boyfriend/roommate watched a few episodes without you? Hope you notice before getting 15 minutes into the episode and suddenly realizing you've missed a ton of stuff.

2) The Silly Screenshots: Sit on a title's cover art for more than a second or two, and it's replaced by a (seemingly random) screenshot. Wait, what if I wanted to read the details from the cover? How the heck does an unsolicited, often blurry screenshot improve the experience? I get that the idea is to help people determine if they've seen a movie, but more often than not, the screenshot is anything but helpful. Also, oh god spoilers.

3) They removed Party mode, which allowed for group viewing (and, better yet, group heckling.) I know that's less of a UI flaw and more of a disappointing omission, but I'm still chafed over it weeks later.

"Oh, Greg. That's just the Xbox 360. Everything else is fine!"


Just days ago, Netflix updated their PS3 app to add a "Just For Kids" mode. Great! Kids are awesome! But now you have to pick whether you want normal Netflix or the tot-friendly edition every single time you boot it up. Why? I don't have kids. It'll be years before I have to worry about the Just For Kids screen. Why make me choose over, and over, and over again when it could be a one-button switch right within the standard Netflix app? How does a design team make that decision? (I've seen one report that if you just keep picking standard mode, it'll stop asking eventually, which doesn't seem to be true for me. But even that is poor design — how is a user supposed to know that? What if they eventually want it, but the change from expected behavior makes them assume it's gone? Blegh.)

Meanwhile, their iPhone (and Android, if I recall) app inexplicably lacks the TV show episode descriptions that they've got on pretty much every other platform. Hope you remember episode titles! This is made all the worse by the aforementioned case where you and a housemate are watching the same series, but not always at the same time.

And don't even get me started on the crazy slow side-scrolling views on the main page of their web interface. Auto-scrolling mouseover buttons? Come on, really? My PC's browser isn't touch-based, and even if were, dragging the items to scroll (as you might assume you're supposed to) doesn't actually work. Don't try to cram the same design concept into an entirely different interaction model.

I could keep going, but you get the gist. Wherever you look, Netflix's UI is wonked out in one glaring way or another. The only place they really seem to nail it is on iPads and Android Tablets, and thats after a few do-overs.

It reminds me of a quote from the best character on one of TV's best shows:

"Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing."
On their own, any one of these issues would be trivial grievances hardly worth a mention. However, with Netflix striving for ubiquity and looking to be in front of your eyes wherever they may point (well, excluding BlackBerry devices), they all blend together into one big unpolished blob. If there's anything that a major consumer tech company can't afford to be in this Apple-obsessed day and age, it's unpolished.

As I touched on earlier, being on a ton of different platforms is really, really hard. One codebase with its own interface is hard enough for most companies to manage... but a bunch of different builds of an app all with entirely unique interfaces? Insanity. Grievances like this are bound to pop up. The problem isn't that the quirks exist; it's that rather than fixing them, Netflix throws the baby out with the slightly-murky bath water… and then just finds a whole new way to murk things up again.

[Illustration credit goes to the awesome Dana Zemack. This is her blog, and this is her Twitter.]