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.

What does Route 66 sound like?

Much of it is probably pretty quiet these days. I know the remnant of the once great U.S. Route 66 running through the Cajon Pass in Southern California is an all-but-forgotten back road now: Interstate 15 roars with 8-plus lanes of cars and trucks 24 hours a day, while less than a mile away, the former divided 4-lane Route 66 has been reduced to a single 2-lane blacktop county road, with the abandoned southbound lanes left overgrown with weeds and populated intermittently with parked cars, their occupants wistfully dreaming of the glory days of the erstwhile “Main Street of America.”

My latest music project, entitled simply 66, is a 21-minute, 10-part suite that seeks to capture, in my own quasi-prog-rock fashion, some of the experience of cruising along the “Mother Road” from its origin at Lake Michigan in Chicago, through St. Louis, across the American Southwest (following, roughly, the path of current Interstate 40), past the Grand Canyon, into the California High Desert and on to the Pacific shore in Santa Monica.

Route 66 is in many ways a symbol of America, from its optimistic (if never so simple and wholesome as some prefer to remember) origins in westward expansion, to its decommissioning in the 1970s with the advent of bigger and better freeways, and its subsequent haphazard mix of abandonment and preservation. Route 66 represents the best and worst of the American prospect. It’s a fitting inspiration for an extended, varied, and ultimately unpredictable piece of music.

You can listen to the entire album online or download it for free at my official 66 album page. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it.

Off Target

TargetI’ve been shopping at Target for years. In fact, I’ve been kind of a Target freak even as I’ve railed against the “evils” of Walmart.

I know Target does a lot of the same “bad” stuff that Walmart does — fighting unionization, driving competing local businesses into the ground, forcing its suppliers to operate by its rules or lose their shelf space, skirting local taxes and ordinances — but Walmart has always seemed to be leading the “race to the bottom.” Plus, unlike Walmart, spending time inside a Target store can actually be a pleasant experience.

But the ostensible “savings” Target offers as a discount store do come at a price. Since a Super Target (a gigantic Target store with a full-service supermarket inside) opened near our home in late 2007, we’ve done almost all of our shopping there. SLP complains that their selection of many goods is lacking, and I’ve found some questionable pricing tactics (more on that in the next paragraph), but it hasn’t been enough to dissuade us from shopping there.

On the matter of pricing, here are some examples I’ve observed: Market Pantry (Super Target’s store brand) peanut butter inexplicably jumping up to become more expensive than Jif, after months of being substantially cheaper; Market Pantry milk gallons selling for $2.99 and then a few weeks later displaying a “Price Reduction” tag but selling at $3.29 (“marked down” from $3.49); 8-packs of Gillette razor blades selling for more than the price of two 4-packs of the same.

Essentially there are three tactics happening here: in the first case, Target relies on your assumption that store-brand items will cost less than their name-brand counterparts. And, in fact, they are cheaper… for a while. But then Target can, on occasion, jack up the prices on the Market Pantry items and most unsuspecting customers won’t notice. In the second case, they’re audaciously labeling a price increase as a price reduction by jacking up the “regular” price considerably, but then selling the items at a “reduced” price that is somewhere in between. And in the third case, they’re relying on the buyer’s assumption (based on years of experience) that larger quantities of… well, just about anything… will cost less per unit than smaller quantities. Most people probably don’t even check the price on the shelf, and even if they do, they’re probably not doing the math in their heads. And Target doesn’t offer price-per-unit information on those tags (unlike Cub Foods and a lot of other supermarket chains) to assist customers in making economical choices.

By the end of 2008, we were often shopping at Target 3 to 4 times per week, rarely dropping less than $50, and in general spending upwards of $1,000 per month there. Super Target counts on the fact that, since you can buy just about everything you need there, in fact you could pretty much just live in the store, you won’t be able to keep track of how much money you’ve been spending on whatever it is you’re buying there, and, you know, it works. I bought an iPod at that Super Target shortly after it opened, and on my bank’s website, the purchase was just lumped into the “Grocery” category. Even if you realize that’s what’s happening, unless you’re extremely diligent (and/or have a lot of time on your hands), you’ll probably just give up. And that’s exactly what they want you to do.

So as 2009 was rolling around, an experiment was devised: we would live for one month without shopping at Target. At all. For any reason. I considered writing a daily blog about the experience; given the trend of people coming up with a random little experiment for themselves, blogging about it, and landing book deals, Oprah appearances, and whatnot, it almost seemed silly not to. But in the end, I decided there just wouldn’t be that much interesting to write about something that’s fundamentally not-very-interesting to begin with, so instead I would just wait until the end of the month, or near it, and then reflect upon the experience and the lessons learned (or not).

Today is January 26, and so far we’ve made it. It’s actually been surprisingly easy. And I’ve made some interesting observations:

  1. There’s a big difference between “if we had it in the house, we’d use it” and “we need it.” I had never released how much I was conflating the two before this. I rationalized that if it was being used in our house, it was more-or-less necessary, and if it was (ostensibly) cheap (or… oh man, on sale!) at Target, all the more reason to get it!
  2. Even if things cost more at another store, you still might end up paying less. How’s that? Well, it relates to the first observation. The individual items you’re buying at, say, Byerlys might cost more — sometimes, a lot more (the Barilla pasta sauce I was used to paying $2.09 for at Target is a jaw-dropping $3.49 at Byerlys). But if those higher prices discourage you from buying stuff you don’t really need, or less of the stuff you do, the net result might just be less money spent.
  3. There are much better places to get things than Target. We already knew this about certain things, like furniture and fresh produce. (In fact, Super Target’s pathetic options for fresh produce have long been one of SLP’s biggest complaints about shopping there.) But this experience has really reinforced that although you could live your life only buying anything you ever need at Target… why would you really want to?

January is almost over, and with it, our “Off Target” experiment. Will we go back to Target? Probably. We are starting to run out of some of the “we need it” items that, even after contemplating everything above, are probably worth going to Target for — mostly household items like dishwasher detergent and plastic bags. But will we go there less, consider our other shopping options, and/or just buy less stuff in general? I most certainly hope so.

The pleasure (and pain) of independent discovery

Menu screenshotI was pretty proud of myself when I came up with the solution for the dropdown menus I use in the navigation bar in my current site design. They don’t require all of the cockamamie JavaScript most older solutions did. They surely don’t work in older browsers (I’m guessing), but that really doesn’t matter now. Most significantly to me, though, I had never seen a solution that worked like what I am doing.

I guess it was just a lack of looking. There’s even a term for this approach, Suckerfish Dropdowns, although I’m not doing exactly what they recommend as far as IE support is concerned. However, I haven’t actually noticed it being necessary.

Now that may well be because I’m not even trying to support versions before IE 7, what with all of the transparent PNGs I’ve got everywhere. But still, the solution I’m using works great across all of the browsers I’ve tested: Firefox 2.x, Safari 2.x/3.x, and IE 7. The only complaint I have with it is that the positioning differs slightly between the browsers: the menus appear a few pixels higher in IE than in Firefox or Safari, such that they’re jammed up against the text of the menu header. But if I move them lower, the necessary contact (or really, probably overlap) between the menu header and the menu itself doesn’t happen… and if there’s a gap of even 1 pixel between the bottom of the header and the top of the menu, the menu will disappear if you don’t mouse over it fast enough.

Geez. I read a paragraph like that last one and I just have to ask myself, what am I doing with my life???