Netflix Has a Serious UI Problem

Netflix and other streaming giants face a serious UI challenge in presenting their content to users. What interface tools should they give users to navigate the thousands of TV shows and movies in their catalog without excessive scrolling or reading? There’s search, but that only works if a user knows what they want to watch.

Netflix’s solution to this UI challenge is providing their own curated lists for users to browse. The landing page is filled with regularly updated lists of flicks: trending, hot, movies from the 1990s, etc. One problem with this UI decision is the fact that these lists change dynamically. A user who regularly selects movies from the “Family Watch Together” list might be disappointed to see that it has disappeared after a few weeks. They might be further disappointed to realize that list contained of a very specific selection of movies that is otherwise unreachable with Netflix’s other search interfaces. Genre search (which is hidden at the top) does not adequately narrow down the search for a film. The only existing second level search filter is sub genre. In that sense, the UI problem that Netflix has is the lack of interfaces to navigate its library. In other words, it’s perfectly easy to get around the site, but it’s difficult to find what you want.

Netflix’s UI is centered too much around confidence in the accuracy of their content recommendation software and not enough around giving users fine tuned controls.

The landing page is dominated by Netflix originals and other curated lists.
Browse by genre is practically hidden compared to original content.

In terms of constraints and trade offs that prevent Netflix from building a UI that offers more control over navigating their catalog, it is important to note that filters, save by genre, are not as useful when looking for movies. As a counterexample, music has genre, artist, and album, each of which leads to a more specific set of options. In the realm of TV and movies, however, there are not many filters that narrow down content as naturally as those in music. Genre is still important, but users don’t typically want to eliminate options based on specific members of the cast or the director. This issue is certainly a constraint that may have lead to Netflix’s list-based UI.

On the other hand, Netflix has plenty of helpful data associated with each movie that they simply don’t include in their search interfaces. A second and more likely constraint that prevents Netflix from expanding its interfaces for browsing their catalog is that it doesn’t benefit them if users have more control. If Netflix can increase the number of people watching their original series and most popular listings, the result is two-fold. First, their servers face less load because at any given time they are not serving as many distinct movies and can appropriate bandwidth accordingly. Second, and more importantly, if users aren’t watching certain films because Netflix buried them deep in the catalog, Netflix can stop buying the rights to that unwatched content.

Sub filters are limited to the sub genre or the unhelpful alphabetical order and year released.

As far as UI suggestions go, Netflix could offer a new interface for narrowing down search results. After a search by genre, users could apply secondary filters such as rotten tomatoes score to narrow down results in a more natural way than “order by year,” which Netflix currently offers. Other drop down items could filter results by maturity rating, or movie duration. Better yet, these filters could stack, so users could apply multiple at once, and there could be an option to remove specific filters and the list would re-update. Considering the above constraints, however, these options do not seem like likely additions.