When you solve the wrong problem: the case of Netflix's Play Something feature

When it comes to behaviour change, there are few silver bullets – a good understanding of the science will go a long way, but the secret to success often lies in the small details. It’s tempting to use intuitive examples from the scientific literature and take them as “truth”. In reality, working logically from a deep understanding of the problem and considering the pieces of the behavioural puzzle as a whole will yield better solutions - otherwise you might end up spending millions developing a feature that does little to change the customer experience.

Why are we choosing not to choose?

Netflix recently launched a new feature that represents one of the most significant changes to its user experience in years: the 'Play Something' shuffle function. This is how it works:

"When you hit the ‘Play Something’ button, you’ll be instantly met with a series or film we know you’ll love based on what you’ve watched before. Or with one more click you can ‘Play Something Else’ and get:

  • A brand new series or film,

  • A series or film you’re already watching,

  • A series or film on your list, or

  • An unfinished series or film you may want to revisit."

I was excited to try it - like many people, the endless scroll around Netflix for something to watch is depressingly familiar to me. Sadly, my experiment lasted 30 seconds and ended in disappointment when I realised it was simply shuffling the same options I'd already rejected on the regular front page many times.

A quick google search confirmed my suspicion that the assumption the new feature was based on was decision fatigue and choice overload:

"There are times when we just don’t want to make decisions. A Friday evening after a long work week. A fridge full of food but nothing jumps out. A family movie night where no one can agree. We’ve all been there."

I don't want a "play something" feature because it solves the wrong problem - it assumes my problem is indecision in the face of too many good options. There are two potential problems this premise:

1. It's an oversimplification: to be honest, it comes across like someone read a couple of pop science books and thought this is a "paradox of choice" problem when, in fact, the 2004 book itself is superseded by newer research which adds more nuance. (TLDR: it depends, there are a lot of moderators.)

2. It assumes all of the choices are good. According to Vulture, that's exactly the case: the new feature is based on an assumption that there are millions of overwhelmed viewers screaming into the void due to the frustration of not being able to choose from all the great choices.

Of course, it's understandable that the VP of Product at Netflix would think they are, but... you should never assume you're the customer.

Choosing the best of a bad bunch

From my perspective as a longtime Netflix user, the problem isn't that I can't decide between good options because there are too many of them. Instead, they are much broader, structural issues:

  1. Most of Netflix suggestions for me are things I don't want to watch, so playing them on shuffle mode one by one is actually even more irritating than skipping over them in rows.

  2. Netflix doesn't remove stuff I've already watched, so the "Now Trending" section is typically full of stuff I've watched ages ago which makes me think there's nothing of interest and adds a lot of clutter.

  3. Netflix also keeps telling me "new episodes" of series I've caught up on, raising hope in vein over and over.

  4. Netflix's poor filtering options for discovering new stuff.


As far as I can see, the root of the problem is the vicious circle of Netflix AI which recommends things based on things I've watched but I mostly only watch things it offered me - ergo, Groundhog Day.

What could Netflix do instead?

To start off with, Netflix could look at self-determination theory and aim to meet intrinsic motivation needs:

  1. Autonomy - acting in accordance with one's goals and values

  2. Competence - feeling able and effective

  3. Relatedness - feeling connected to others, a sense of belonging

These basic psychological needs are inherently rewarding and motivational -

when they're satisfied they lead to flourishing and when frustrated, they lead to a negative experience [1].

Let's go through these one by one to look at how they could be put into practice in the context of Netflix's user experience.

Autonomy: allow people to make meaningful choices

The problem:

The problem of choice overload is undoubtedly real but randomised suggestions is not the solution if it's based on the same curated set.

"We don’t want endless possibility. What we really crave is effective curation." Shlomo Benarzi, The Smarter Screen

Despite having a comprehensive taxonomy of 76,897 micro-genres Netflix doesn't offer me a lot choice when it comes to what kinds of things I'd like to see. Instead, I have to develop extensive workarounds such as finding the "secret codes", making selections on my laptop and saving things to My List one by one to watch on TV.

The ideas:

Offer people a choice of categories through e.g. a quick poll every once in a while to ask "are you interested in any of these genres?" or ask this question first in the Play Something function. You could also prompt people to go to their account to preset these options and allow them to customise their home page. At the very least, the titles in My List could be ordered by category!

The theory:

One way to deal with scarcity of attention is chunking - simplifying the presentation of information and limiting the number of alternatives by dividing a large choice set into useful categories [2]. These types of information compression techniques ease the cognitive load. In many cases, we also tend to compare options in pairs (pairwise comparison) so a choice engine that presents two options at the same time would be much more effective than one like the Play Something feature does [3].

2. Competence: allow people to feel like they can control what happens in their Netflix account

The problem:

Managing your home view in Netflix is incredibly cumbersome and extremely restricted. We can't choose what categories are shown - even if I never choose a title from a set, it's still there. I have no idea how the algorithm makes recommendations because most of the time they seem arbitrary which makes me feel like I have very little control over my experience or no idea how to improve it.

For example, I don't know whether I need to keep items I've watched in My List for them to influence my recommendations - as a result, it's very cluttered and practically meaningless. There appears to be no rule to the order in which titles in My List are presented (see below) which is a real problem when I have 397 to scroll through in no order whatsoever.

Some things on my list were so meh I wouldn't want to see more content like it

When I went through the entire list of "secret" Netflix codes to look up different categories and several times I found something interesting - only to learn it was already in my list!

Removing anything from My List is also a time consuming process because there is no bulk editing option.

The ideas:

Tell people how they can influence the algorithm and improve their viewing experience! I've heard that the 👍👎 rating doesn't actually count for much and instead they look at whether I finished a title so now I don't bother rating them. But is that true? Who knows!

Allow people to easily remove titles from My List in bulk, and group them somehow - even if it's just films and TV series separately.

Make it easier for people to find things they like by letting them choose categories and which content the "because you watched" suggestions are based on - there are a lot of things I watched despite not wanting to see something similar again. We watched Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee when there was literally nothing else on and I'll happily go through the rest of my life never watching something like it again.

The theory:

One way to supercharge people’s enjoyment of a product or service is to foster a sense of personal expertise in using it [4]. Similarly to the well-known IKEA effect, this kind of subjective expertise creates a sense of ownership over the topic which spills over to the product or platform .

Too much choice is not a good thing, yet too little choice can feel restricting - personalising categories helps to create a more manageable consideration set and create a sense of choice closure [5]. For example, archive titles that customers have already watched and let them choose that they don't want to receive recommendations for a particular category.

3. Relatedness: allow people to connect with each other

The problem:

There isn't inherently a problem with the Netflix platform that is directly linked to relatedness but it does offer an opportunity to enhance the experience by deepening our connections to other people - especially at a time when we are feeling more isolated than ever!

The ideas:

Let friends and family link up accounts and create either a passive recommendation list of "this is what your friends are rating highly" or allow people to make active recommendations by ticking a box "I'd recommend this to my friends".

Of these, the active recommendation is preferable because it removes ambiguity - you might rate something highly because you want to see more content like it, but at the same time you might not want others to know.

The theory:

Experiencing a sense of connectedness to others is core to many theories of wellbeing [6]. Watching the same things as your friends and family would provide common talking points and enhance social interactions.

Will the experience ever improve?

Most of the ideas above would probably be way more expensive in terms if R&D than a "play something" feature so that's what we have - although it might not be the case, the cumbersome user experience certainly makes it feel like Netflix doesn't need to truly care about user needs.

We're a captive audience if we want to watch certain titles, and none of the streaming services do this well. Our Dutch broadband/TV provider, like the ones I experienced in the UK, are equally terrible. Put simply, we are used to being treated badly in this category.


In the meantime, you'll find me watching the full series of Brooklyn 99 for the third time.


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[1] Peters, D., Calvo, R. A., & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Designing for motivation, engagement and wellbeing in digital experience. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 797. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00797/full

[2] Benartzi, S., & Lehrer, J. (2015). The Smarter Screen: What Your Business Can Learn from the Way Consumers Think Online. Hachette UK.

A nice overview of the book: https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2016/12/book-review-the-smarter-screen.php

[3] Noguchi, T., & Stewart, N. (2014). In the attraction, compromise, and similarity effects, alternatives are repeatedly compared in pairs on single dimensions. Cognition, 132(1), 44-56. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027714000456

[4] Campbell, T.H. & Ariely, D. (2015) ,"Feeling Like an Expert: Subjective Expertise and Consumption Enjoyment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 43, eds. Kristin Diehl and Carolyn Yoon, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 239-243. https://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/1019127/volumes/v43/NA-43

[5] Gu, Y., Botti, S., & Faro, D. (2013). Turning the page: The impact of choice closure on satisfaction. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(2), 268-283.

[6] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1995-29052-001

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