Netflix and the constant struggle of making choices

Sandro Cantante
Jul 31, 2018 · 7 min read
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Not so much time ago, watching a film was a simple experience. We sat on the couch, turned the TV on and complained as we saw Terminator 2 or Home Alone for the seventh time with not much choices available. It was about the same with cinemas, which had few films playing at the same time and it wouldn’t be difficult to pick amongst them.

Those times are long gone and alternatives such as cable TV and piracy played a big role in giving us more choice throughout the past decade. Afterward, as Internet connections got faster and stable, companies such as Netflix saw the opportunity to provide alternatives to piracy.

However, now that we have so much choice at the distance of a few clicks, why is that so many times we spend hours without being able to choose a single show to watch? Why was it so much easier to just watch a film on TV with no alternative back then?

The Paradox of Choice

One effect (of choice), paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.

Barry Schwartz

What social scientist Barry Schwartz suggests is that nowadays, we are presented with so many information that otherwise mundane tasks turn into actions with great significance. Something as easy and simple as choosing a film to watch from five different options is not the same as choosing from a list of thousands of possibilities.

It all comes down to the act of choosing one over other available options and the fear of making the wrong choice, even if we are perfectly conscious that other options won’t disappear after we pick one. If we make a wrong choice, it’s our responsibility and that is a whole lot to deal with. We’re not happy by wasting our time on something that we can’t be sure that is the best possible choice.

With so many options, even if we pick one that satisfies us, we will always reduce the satisfaction that may come from it by comparing our choice with many others. This happens either if we do a good choice, reducing its value, since we can’t shake the idea that we could be doing something else, or if we do a bad choice, which will haunt us because of the wasted time and effort. No one chooses one show over the other for us, it’s always our poor judgement.

Netflix’s subscription, which includes thousands of options, is just above the price of a regular cinema ticket, but even if we end up disliking the film at a cinema, we’ll still value it more than an average one on a streaming service, since there is less comparison with similar experiences.

Everything was better back when everything was worse.

Barry Schwartz

Freedom of Choice

In his book — Future Shock — Alvin Toffler states that too many good options will make it very hard for someone to make a choice. We expect a certain amount of good options for every specific need and, when it’s over the expectations, it stops getting better and the satisfaction declines.

How satisfaction diminishes past the optimal number of options we expect

As users and as consumers, we want to be able to make choices, but in our head, we have a number of options that we are expecting for every scenario. For instance, if we want to buy apples, usually it’s fine if there’s only a few types of apple. However, if we want to buy a car, ideally, we’ll have a certain amount of different options to pick the one that suits us better.

This is highly dependent on the situation and circumstance, but Google, for instance, understands this logic and only presents 10 links for each search, instead of the endless answers they could very well provide. The same happens with the overused infinity scroll websites that don’t show all the content upfront. Even if the amount of options may virtually be infinite, it can’t be presented as such.

Information Overload

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Netflix Interface

The image above presents an interface that is similar to what you’ll see once you login to your Netflix account. The experience is slightly personalized to every user based on what you’ve already seen or liked before, but the amount of options available upon entry are always the same.

Upon login, unless we already know beforehand what we want to watch — which is not as common as one might think — an headache starts to take over us.

That film is way too long”; “This series already has three seasons and that’s too much of a commitment to make”; “I really wanted to see a documentary, but none of the thousands available suits my needs now”.

The problem is that, even if Netflix is hiding a large number of categories upfront and hundreds of options in each, it’s still shoving a lot into our eyeballs upfront.

It’s all about the perceived amount of different options that we have. While we are conscious that many different types of apples exist in the world, we are happy to see just a couple of types when we’re at supermarket. Maybe there’s even a whole area in the same supermarket dedicated to all types of apples, but not having twenty different types upfront each time we want to buy them helps to make a decision and leaves us feeling better with our choice.

Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. (…) Consequently, when information overload occurs, it’s likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.

Bertram Gross

The Interface Design Challenge

The biggest advantage of streaming services such as Netflix is precisely having so much choice a click way and that shouldn’t be changed. However, this is an interface design challenge that those companies have at hands. The key is to present the optimal amount of choices at the same time, without overloading the user, something that is not being currently addressed by them.

Others, however, have already provided some interesting alternatives. It’s the case of Flixable, which offers a very simple solution to the tiresome experience of browsing Netflix without knowing what to watch. With it, before you even get to see a single title, you’ll be able to filter what you’re looking for by genre, rating, release year, date it was added and other variables.

Say you want to watch a good documentary. Instead of browsing the Netflix section of documentaries, which will contain hundreds of options, on Flixable you can just filter it by genre and rating, which may result, for instance, in a list of six documentaries rated above 9 stars. That’s much closer to an optimal number of expected choices.

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Reelgood’s list of titles available on streaming services.

Reelgood also provides a good alternative through two different approaches. The first consists on a simple roulette, in which you specify the genre, type and score (both on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes) and you get a random title with that specifications. The second is a list of every title available on a set of streaming services that can easily be filtered by title, year, rating and availability.

Both options have the same end result as Flixable, allowing us to filter down the options that we have, according to individual preferences, before presenting a list of titles. In the end, we’ll have a very limited amount of options, making the decision process faster and easier, with less chances of diminishing the satisfaction that will come from it.

Main Takeaways

Streaming services changed the way in which we watch films and TV series, allowing us to pick from an extended list instead of having very few options. However, more choices don’t necessarily mean more satisfaction and sometimes too much possibilities leave us paralyzed, making it harder to choose.

This is why when we login to Netflix with no clear idea of what we want to watch, we often get lost and demotivated before picking a single film or TV show. We’re overwhelmed by the amount of possible choices, something that leaves us unable to compromise with any of them.

The value of a good choice is also reduced by the constant thought of not having picked other options instead. To be able to make better decisions, there’s an optimal number of options that we expect for each choice and anything above that number will start to lower the satisfaction we get from it.

The perceived amount of different options must be according to our expectations for each experience, even if they don’t reflect the whole lot of different options available. There are already different solutions that are fixing this for streaming services, providing different filters and customization prior to presenting the titles from which we will have to choose.

It’s not clear in which way the streaming platforms will move from here, as unpredictability is part of what keeps that business alive and on the rise, but it wouldn’t be surprising if some interface redesigning took place in a near future.

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Sandro Cantante

Written by

Portuguese content developer, creative writer and cinema lover.

8px Magazine

Life, by designers.

Sandro Cantante

Written by

Portuguese content developer, creative writer and cinema lover.

8px Magazine

Life, by designers.

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