UIEtips Article: The Freedom of Fast Iterations: How Netflix Designs a Winning Web Site

Jared Spool

November 14th, 2006

UIEtips 11/14/06: The Freedom of Fast Iterations: How Netflix Designs a Winning Web Site

You may have seen one of my recent presentations where I talk about the failure of Blockbuster to win at the home-delivered DVD game. In this presentation, I’ll often take a show of hands, first asking people if they participate in Blockbuster’s program, then asking them if they participate in Netflix’s program. Usually, I get only one or two people, if any, who say they participate in Blockbuster’s program. (In contrast, almost everyone raises hands for Netflix.)

Recently, I was stunned at one presentation when several dozen people said they subscribed to Blockbuster. I was even more surprised because
of where I was at the time: in the main auditorium of Netflix’s corporate headquarters addressing a hundred of their designers and developers.

Josh Porter and I were on a swing through Silicon Valley when we had a chance to visit Netflix in their new headquarters. As soon as you pull in the driveway, you can tell these people really like their movies.

The building has an old So-Cal movie studio motif and the front lobby feels like you’re walking on celluloid. They’ve named every conference room after a film, complete with etched imagery in the glass. (The larger-than-life image of Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the window of the Rocky Horror Picture Show room is astonishing.) Even the bathrooms are named for film personalities (the first floor as Fred and Ginger; the second floor has Boris and Natasha).

I think this speaks to Netflix’s success. These folks live and breathe movies. They start many of their staff meetings with a discussion of movies.

However, they don’t just subscribe to their own service, which they get free. Many also subscribe to their competitor’s service.

The folks at Netflix really understand what it takes to make a culture that supports successful experience design. We were quick to notice the quality of the people they’ve assembled on their team and the culture they’ve built to create a great design.

All of that has paid off. Netflix is a darling of the high-tech world, showing how, in less than a decade, you can create a new type of business and beat the established, entrenched players. (Netflix is now twice the market cap of Blockbuster, having regularly shown a profit while Blockbuster regularly shows losses.)

For today’s UIEtips, Josh Porter describes one aspect of Netflix’s culture responsible for their success: Fast iterations. Because they are constantly trying new ideas, they can quickly outmaneuver their competition and stay ahead of the game.

Read today’s UIEtips article.

Is your culture accepting of iterating quickly? Do you face obstacles getting designs in front of users rapidly? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and join the discussion below.

[Overcoming the challenges of web-based applications is exactly why we've put together the UIE Web App Summit, in Monterey, CA on January 21-23, 2007. We've assembled an amazing team of speakers, all of whom have overcome some significant challenges in some very creative ways. You don't want to miss out. See the summit website for more details.]

20 Responses to “UIEtips Article: The Freedom of Fast Iterations: How Netflix Designs a Winning Web Site”

  1. Richard Kerr Says:

    Hi. Interesting insights.

    You can track when and how often Netflix updates their site using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

    It appears that the fast iterations really started cranking out from October 1st 2005.

    Cheers, Rich.

  2. DJ Says:

    Hi Jared & Josh

    Enjoyed the article and the approach sounds great…
    however I have some questions:
    - How would small fast iterations work if Netflix had an unwieldy legacy system to interface with?
    - Does the concept of small fast iterations work better with smaller, more highly skilled and generalist teams?
    - I assume having an internal team with control over all aspects of the technology is essential? Outsourcing aspects of the workflow to third parties is probably less likely to work…?
    - What about “good” software development practice? How do the QA folks get on with this approach? (If we changed the credit card payment page or the search results page every 2 weeks where I work, we wouldn’t be the favourite people that we are!)

    Perhaps I need to drop some of my pre-conceptions about how best to manage this web stuff but appreciate your thoughts on this.

    All the best
    DJ

  3. Joshua Says:

    Hi DJ,

    Fast iterations would probably not work well with an unwieldy legacy system. In fact, most processes probably won’t work well with an unwieldy legacy system… :)

    Netflix doesn’t have a particularly small team. They do have different design arms concentrated on different parts of the site, so they may act as small teams as necessary. Some changes, however, are bigger than a single team. In general, however, it doesn’t take more than a few people to make a new feature (or tweak an older one) for testing.

    Outsourcing would definitely make this a bigger challenge than not, because there would be more communication necessary.

    Certainly, some apps should change more than others. As I hinted in the article, the designers at Netflix aren’t satisfied with their already amazing site, and want to continually improve it. Other businesses would have different constraints…especially if their website isn’t the only conduit to success as it is with Netflix.

  4. Walter Underwood Says:

    A few answers for DJ …

    Unwieldy legacy systems? Not to be flip, but if you are afraid of changing your code, any of it, you are already dead. I’ve seen it happen too many times.

    Do fast iterations work better with smaller, skilled, and general teams? It is easier with small teams. Skilled people keep teams small. Generalists have nothing to do with iterations, though it may be helpful to have one around to cover holes in your expertise (see Jared’s work on teams and desgn for a scary list of useful skills).

    Outsourcing? I would only outsource slowly-changing parts of the system. That doesn’t mean you write everything. Use libraries and third-party stuff like crazy.

    What about “good” software development practice? Netflix handles credit cards, so I think you have your answer. Good process fits the business requirements. A practice-based process, like many agile ones, may be a better fit than a milestone-based process. Test-driven development is another process than can work well. Some things don’t change — you must know exactly what code you have running on the site.

    Where I am now, the QA people sit with the developers. We are actually in alternating offices, QA, HTML production engineer, QA, Java developer, but I don’t think that is by design.

    Don’t people hate it if you change the pages every two weeks? Of course. If you have enough traffic, test the changes on a slice of users. If you don’t have a lot of traffic, evolve the site, change one part of it, use visual changes to signal functional changes.

    This stuff isn’t new. We had a two-week push cycle at Infoseek nine years ago. Also, think of much shorter cycles than two weeks. For an emergency push (site down, security vulnerability) the whole process might run in a few hours. With full SarbOx.

  5. DJ Says:

    Good answers, thanks guys.
    I think this probably reinforces my understanding that getting to a more “agile” and responsive web development approach is not really about technology, it’s about people, process & culture.
    I guess if you’re in an environment with entrenched people, processes and culture which is not so compatible with the sort of approach that’s embedded at Netflix and a few other dotcoms then one way or another you’ll need some serious clout behind you to change things…
    Also proving the value of doing things in “different” ways to the accepted norm can only help in the long term.

  6. Joe McCarthy Says:

    I paticularly liked one of the observation in the UIEtips article:
    “Once, a designer had spent time and energy working on a feature that testing showed didn’t work. When it came time for the team to remove the feature from the site, the designer was distraught. He had become too emotionally invested in his design, and it got in the way of his job. ”

    I just saw Bill Buxton give an inspiring closing keynote at the Computer Supported Cooperative Work conference, in which he shared some related observations:
    “The worst thing in the world is a precious idea. The worst person to have on your team is someone who thinks his idea is precious. Good ideas are cheap, they are not precious. The key is not to come up with ideas but to cultivate the adoption of ideas.”

    (more notes from Bill’s talk can be found here … near the bottom)

  7. Donald Says:

    The article cites Eric Raymond and open source as an inspiration for iterative design and development. Alas, too often the open source community has been prone to emphasize implementation at the expense of design.

    Recognizing this, Red Hat has a number of initiatives underway that attempt to combine a fast-iteration, user-centric, prototype-driven “design thinking” approach with the open source development method. Red Hat’s open community site Mugshot (mugshot.org) is developed using a design thinking approach — see developer.mugshot.org for background. Design Thinking and its applicability to open source was also featured in a recent edition of the online Red Hat Magazine.

  8. Donna Maurer Says:

    Jared/Josh

    Do you know if they do traditional user research or usability testing? I’m exploring whether some of these successful companies do so – I’m guessing no (I know you have looked at this before).

  9. Jared Spool Says:

    Netflix does a ton of user research. They have a very slick lab, right off the main lobby behind the receptionist’s desk.

    It has one of the largest observation spaces I’ve ever seen, with huge plasma displays for everyone to see what’s going on. Apparently, there are so many people interested in observing that it frequently fills up.

  10. Donna Maurer Says:

    Wowwwwwww!

  11. Mabel Ney Says:

    Great article! In traditional development so many great ideas get swept under the “consider for the next release” rug only to never get a chance to see the light of day. This methodology allows the team to feel more creative and as though they’ll have a chance to try out those great ideas.

    I wonder if you can elaborate on how you specifically measure the success or failure of a change and how that fits into the design cycle.

  12. on2.biz Says:

    On2Biz Iterative Development – a winning strategy?…

    On2Biz is a living breathing application. It is permanantly “under construction”. We keep adding and modifying features that help users improve their comfort with the tools. And the process never ends. Compared to traditional product develo…

  13. ExperienceCurve Says:

    Fast Iterations vs. Big Bang Design…

    One question that comes to mind as I read the excellent UIE article The Freedom of Fast Iterations: How Netflix Designs a Winning Web Site the question comes to mind, what would have Netflix looked like if a big interactive agency had been involved? I …

  14. Rein Groot Says:

    Great article!

    I myself am a (Cooperian) Interaction Designer in the field of web applications with a background in webprogramming. But I find myself developing ever greater interest for the iterative development process.

    I have been reading more and more about this way of developing. One thing I tend to not find in these (mostely) success stories is an explanation of how these companies guard their code from ‘scar tissue’ because of the many changes (also see: http://www.fawcette.com/interviews/beck_cooper/default.asp).

    Do any of you have more information about this because culture and attitude is one thing, but keeping your code healthy is another.

  15. Mike Sabat Says:

    Great Article-

    Can you tell me what some of the best tools are to track the effects of a redesign. Obviously, I want to focus on conversion rates and watch where people click, but are there any more specific tests etc?

  16. ibah Says:

    I feel rapid iteration development works well when you have a consumer product or service. I worked at an entertainment software development company where rapid development was employed in the engineering team.

    This process started to break down when they began to hire engineers at a faster clip. Whereas in the past there was time to bring an engineer up to speed, now the team began to let new eng hires work on features due to pressures to fix bugs and get features out the door. These not-yet-up-to-speed engineers became responsible for many of the kinds of bugs they were hired to help fix. Fixing bugs instead of working on features meant more new engineers needed to get hired. Rinse and repeat.

    Not being on the engineering team, I was able to view this from the sidelines and noticed that net productivity was nearly the same with almost double the team!

    I think this approach to development works well with small and well managed groups. At this job, the team had grown too big too soon with no growth in engineering management.

  17. solkem Says:

    the netfix approach is really excting stuff but it has a lot of the ingredients of xtreme programming(xp) and i surrely is the way to go.

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  19. Melanie Says:

    Great post. I think this probably reinforces my understanding that getting to a more agile. Actually the process started to break down when they began to hire engineers and other free slots from the industry. In the old development there are so many great ideas get swept under the “consider for the next release” rug only to never get a chance to see the light of day.
    Yours, Melanie

  20. JVignone Says:

    This is an informative article and I like the way the idea of quick turnaround is discussed as a positive element of the design and development process.

    I would like to venture further however, out of the realm of web-based applications. I think that there is more of this happening in the form-based desktop application development process as well. With technologies such as .NET and companies such as Infragistics producing functionally comprehensive modules, I have worked on teams where my work (user interface design) is turned around very quickly into a working prototype. I work in the financial industry, and oftentimes it is critical to see the interface and the data together early in the development cycle to best register the impact of how long it takes using certain modules to achieve the right functionality. This may make for some less than perfect iteration, but I see this as part of a dynamic environment where the benefits can outweigh the shortcomings. That is not to say this is the best approach to use all of the time, and I do not throw design out into thin air when it clearly needs analysis, assessment, user input and feedback. But it does provide another path in a rapid application development environment that can be a very useful tool in creating powerful applications.

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