In UX we trust: Netflix as a case study in how good search isn’t good enough

Last night, prompted by a Dan Benjamin tweet, I felt inclined to watch one of my favorite ’80s movies, Fletch. I own Fletch on DVD (two versions, in fact), but I didn’t feel like busting them out. I wanted to watch it on my iPhone in bed, so I decided to check the iTunes Store and Netflix.

Unsurprisingly, iTunes did have it, but only for purchase, not for rental. And I’m not inclined to pay $14.99 to buy a digital copy of a movie I already own twice over on disc. While on iTunes, I saw a recommendation for The Sting. Intrigued, since I have never seen it (gasp!), I considered it as a possible alternative, and was pleased to see iTunes had it as a $3.99 rental. But before dropping four bucks on it I decided to check its availability on Netflix.

I checked the iTunes Store first, because I have learned to assume Netflix won’t have what I want available for instant streaming. Or, more accurately, I have learned not to trust that Netflix will have what I want.

And that’s where the problem lies: I don’t trust Netflix. It’s not that I think they’re up to anything nefarious (it’s not the same as the distrust I have these days for Google, for instance). And it’s not even entirely that I have become jaded by past experience discovering just how woefully limited their selection of streaming content is.

It’s that I don’t trust their interface to really show me what’s available.

Why not? They have a search box, after all. I can just search for what I want. To the best of my knowledge, the search box works pretty well. If they have something, it comes up. If they don’t, it doesn’t.

As usual, I couldn’t keep my frustration to myself, so I took it to Twitter:

So, again, why don’t I trust Netflix? I’ve been pondering that question all morning, and I think I have it figured out. It’s because good search, alone, isn’t good enough. Search is open-ended. It’s also kind of like standing outside a locked door and whispering through the keyhole to someone inside. You know there’s a lot of stuff inside the room. You even know that the room probably holds things you want. But you can’t see for yourself what’s inside, and the person on the other side of the door is only answering yes-or-no questions.

Of course, Netflix does offer more than search. But on mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad, it doesn’t offer a whole lot more. Sure, it has recommendations. And you can browse by genre. But I don’t really give a crap about their “recommendations.” That’s the person behind the door, offering a little bit more information, but it’s far from flinging the door wide open. And browsing by genre is great, if you know what genre the movie is in. If it even fits a genre. (I honestly don’t know what genre I’d find The Sting in. Is it a comedy? Drama? Action? I don’t know enough about the film to find it by genre.) And once you’ve selected a genre, you’re dumped into an experience not unlike rummaging through the cutout bin at a record store. (And if you’re too young to understand that analogy, get off my lawn.)

I took a few screenshots on both the iPhone and iPad, as well as on the Netflix website on my computer, to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

First, search results:

Well, that’s lovely. No results. OK. Did I spell it wrong? Is it case-sensitive? Am I hallucinating and this movie never even existed? Is anybody out there?

OK, well… hmm. What should I do now? Maybe I should browse comedies.

Really… that’s where we start? Can I fine-tune my selection a bit? Sort them into some kind of meaningful order? No, why would I want to do that. I’ll just flip through all of these aimlessly until I find something I can tolerate for the next two hours… I mean no, wait. Help me find what I’m looking for, dammit!

Well, OK. I’ve used enough apps between the iPhone and iPad to understand that the experience is often stripped down on the iPhone due to the smaller screen. That’s understandable. What about if I do the same search on the iPad?

You’re joking, right?

Let’s back up a step and see what Netflix presents to the user when they first enter the “Comedies” genre:

Well… um… that’s… a little better… I guess… than the iPhone experience. This is actually pretty close to what you get when you visit Netflix on the Apple TV, as well, and is somewhat of an improvement — aesthetically, at least — over the old version of Netflix for iPad. But still… it’s just that person behind the door, or the cutout bin.

Open the damn door and let me see for myself what’s in there.

Not that I think this is an adequate solution, let me say that right away, but I decided as a last resort to see if the desktop web interface for Netflix offered a superior experience. Here, where Netflix acknowledges that DVDs do, in fact, exist, the results are a bit better:

Thank you for at least acknowledging that the movie I asked about exists. Thank you for telling me that it’s not available for instant viewing but is available on DVD. Would it be so hard to do that on the mobile apps? I recognize that DVDs are useless on an iPhone or iPad, but simply providing this information reassures the user that their search worked. Now I can move on with my life.

What about browsing? Will you finally just open the door and let me see what’s in the room? At long last, sir, will you please just do that?

Yes!

You may note here that not only am I (after a few extra clicks) able to get a simple, alphabetized list, I am even able to browse subgenres! Who knew such wonders existed?

Sadly, browsing by title within a subgenre is probably the best way to get at what may be an ulterior motive behind the limited browsing interface Netflix presents in its mobile apps, as expressed in my tweet last night: their selection of streaming movies kind of sucks. There are plenty of reasons for this, and I’m not going to criticize Netflix for the challenges involved in working out licensing deals to stream thousands of movies for a very small, flat monthly fee. Netflix is a pretty amazing thing, when you look at what cable TV was like when I was a kid. (What am I saying? Look at what cable TV is like right now!)

Ultimately, though, whether or not Netflix is deliberately hiding its poor selection behind a mediocre browsing interface, it still has a mediocre browsing interface. Who cares? you say. Just search for what you’re looking for. Have you been reading this at all? I reply. Search, no matter how good it is, by itself is not good enough. Users need to be able to get their bearings, see what’s inside the room. We need an understanding of the scope of information we’re dealing with in order to make a meaningful search, and to make sense of the results we’re given, when we can’t find what we’re looking for.

So, a couple of final thoughts on how all of this ranting translates into a meaningful lesson in UX (user experience):

1. Don’t just rely on having a search box as an excuse not to organize and display your content in an easy-to-browse way.

2. Give meaningful feedback when a search fails. Don’t just tell the user “no results.” That’s obvious. Help them out. Give suggestions for alternate searches. And if there’s anything relevant in your database about the user’s search terms, even if it’s not directly available to them in their current context, at least let them know as much.

P.S. As it turns out, Netflix has neither Fletch nor The Sting available for instant viewing. I ended up not watching anything last night, and played around with this synthesizer app instead.

Google: anatomy of a (half-assed) web redesign

There are many things Google is good at. Internet search and targeted advertising clearly being the top two. I use and appreciate several of Google’s products, especially Gmail, Google Reader and Chrome. But I only use Gmail as a reliable email provider with great spam filtering; I hate the web interface, and check my mail using the native mail clients on my Mac and iPhone. I use Google Reader solely to manage my subscriptions, whereas I actually read my RSS feeds, on all of my devices, with Reeder. And the only times I fire up Chrome are when I need to use Flash, per John Gruber. In general, I like Google’s products for the power of their underlying technologies, just as I hate them for their miserable user interfaces.

I think there are very few people who would consider design to be one of Google’s strong suits, from their traditionally un-designed home page, to their hideous logo (which, nonetheless, went through several apparently well-, or at least extensively-, considered revisions), to the notorious case where, engineers to the core, they logically weighed the relative merits of 41 shades of blue.

If you actually use any of Google’s websites directly, you’ve surely noticed in the last 24 hours that there has been a redesign. The most distinctive feature is the jarring black bar now at the top of all (well, most) pages. Personally I’d prefer something a little more subtle, but it’s tolerable, and presumably achieves its goal of getting your attention by being the only solid black area on your computer screen.

What really bothers me about this redesign is the lack of internal consistency as you dig deeper. To wit, let’s have a look at the landing pages of Google’s three biggest search tools (as determined by their placement in the black bar): Web, Images and Search:

The main things I notice about the main Google (Web) search page compared to the previous version are that the logo is slightly smaller (and appears to have been refined in terms of the extent of 1997-era Photoshop effects applied to it, although I think that change happened a few months ago), and that the “Google Search” and “I’m Feeling Lucky” buttons have been redesigned. They have very slightly rounded corners, an extremely subtle off-white gradient, and are set in dark gray Arial bold 11-point (or so) type.

On Google Images, the logo appears to be basically the same (although perhaps a bit more dithered), but it is much higher on the page. The search box itself is darker and has a drop shadow. The “Search Images” button is larger, has sharp corners and a more intense gradient, and is set in black Arial, larger and normal weight. If I’m not mistaken, this is how the buttons on most Google sites looked prior to yesterday’s redesign, so this appears mainly to be a case of Google Images not keeping up with the changes happening elsewhere.

The page is also cluttered up with instructions and a rather arbitrary set of four sample images. I never bothered to read that text or figure out why the images were there until just now as I was writing this article. Being able to perform a visual search by dragging a sample image into the search box is a really cool idea, but anecdotally I would suggest Google has a daunting challenge in educating users about it, if making it the only thing on the page besides the search box itself still doesn’t get the user’s (i.e. my) attention. Maybe their insistence on using undifferentiated plain text (while it might make Jakob Nielsen proud) for everything is part of the problem.

Google Videos is really the odd man out. A smaller logo, set too far down on the page, and a bright blue search button with no text, just a magnifying glass icon, that would look more at home on a Windows XP start screen than on a Google page. (Astute observers will also note from these screenshots that Google Videos, unlike Google Images and Google Web, displays a glowing focus state on the search box, which is due to the lack of :focus { outline: none; } on the CSS for that element.)

I realize this blue button is more of the direction Google’s heading and I do like it visually, even if I don’t think the search button needs to be so prominent on a page that contains very little else. But the thing that bothers me is the overall inconsistency between these tools.

Consistency is a big buzzword for me. To me it is absolutely the most important thing to consider in good UX and UI design. It doesn’t matter how novel your design elements are; if you present them consistently users will quickly learn how to use them and will gain confidence with your tools. They will also gain expectations that you then have to manage. These do impose limitations on you in the future, sure, but they also relieve you of the burden of having to reinvent every page.

Consistency demands a good style guide, something that is easy to overlook. And just as important as having the style guide is having the commitment to using it. That’s something even a company as big as Google clearly struggles with.