"We make a lot of this stuff up as we go along," the lead designer said. Everyone in the group laughed until he continued, "I'm serious. We don't assume anything works and we don't like to make predictions without real-world tests. Predictions color our thinking. So, we continually make this up as we go along, keeping what works and throwing away what doesn't. We've found that about 90% of it doesn't work."

NetflixWe were talking with the design team at Netflix. Netflix.com is one of the most successful web sites in the world: the sole customer interaction point of their home DVD-rental business. Over the past 9 years, the site has grown from nothing to serving almost 6 million customers who use the site to prune their rental queues, rate movies, and handle any billing and transaction issues. The designers of Netflix.com have a smashing success on their hands, but we didn't find them resting on their laurels. They want to get even better, and for them that means iterate, iterate, iterate.

Netflix isn't the only company using a fast iterative design approach. Google has also gained attention for their unorthodox design methods, with many people complaining that they have a huge stable of products, but only a few they've designed well. Yet, Marissa Mayer, Google's Vice President for Search Products and User Experience, explains how trying out lots of ideas helped Google design a better toolbar:

"In the case of the Toolbar Beta, several of the key features (custom buttons, shared bookmarks) were prototyped in less than a week. In fact, during the brainstorming phase, we tried out about five times as many key features -- many of which we discarded after a week of prototyping. Since only 1 in every 5 to 10 ideas work out, the strategy of constraining how quickly ideas must be proven allows us to try out more ideas faster, increasing our odds of success."

This "try and see" attitude is taking hold. The designers at Netflix told us they try out many new features with every site iteration to keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape of the Web, as well as their customers' increasing comfort with the current site. Much of what they do try doesn't survive to the next iteration.

So how often does Netflix update its site? Every 2 weeks.

Every 2 weeks they make significant changes. They understand that some of the changes will work, but most won't.

At first, this sounds like a frustrating design constraint. In talking with the team, we realized that it doesn't frustrate them at all. Instead, it frees them up to be flexible and adaptive, so they can react effectively to customer needs. As a result, they don't deal with the many "when we redesign" issues that so many of us deal with in the design world. They're building for the present -- all the time.

Besides living in the now of their web site's design, The Netflix team gets other benefits to fast iterations. Here are a few our research has uncovered:

Benefits of Fast Iterations

Side Effects

These benefits don't come easy. There are significant changes design teams have to make to their core process to iterate quickly. It's not a switch a team can turn on or off.

Release Early, Release Often

Eric Raymond, in his famous work, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, wrote the words organizations like Netflix live by: release early, release often. At the time, Raymond was referring to software created in the open commons, by thousands of people, with little or no delivery deadline.

This dictum now applies equally well to web-application development. Fast iterations provide the freedom to innovate because teams can test more features. This reduces the risk of each tested feature. However, it takes getting used to and not everyone adjusts so easily. As with most design processes, teams get the most benefit from quick iterations when they fully embrace the process. •

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