Watch Netflix instant streaming on your television and you know what content you’ll get — but you likely won’t know how you’ll find it. Whether it’s the PlayStation 3, Roku, or the Apple TV, every flavor of Netflix is slightly different, creating interface and feature fragmentation that’s in stark contrast to the ubiquity of the service itself.
Today Netflix is taking a big step towards tackling that problem with a faster, more engaging television interface that will put a majority of its living room customers on the same page — and let them stay that way. According to Chris Jaffe, Netflix’s vice president of product innovation, the idea was to meld Netflix with the experience of watching regular TV, where there’s always something on and viewers can be drawn in at a simple glance.
Answering "Why should you watch this title?"
"In [the old] Netflix experience, we give you all this stuff," Jaffe says. "But the question we don’t answer for you is 'Why should you watch this title?'" The company took a step back a year and a half ago to think about how it could solve that problem, and the result is undeniably engaging. Gone is the overbearing static grid; instead the top half of television screens are filled by a sort of visual masthead. Three large images for the given selection cycle through, matched with a new, streamlined description of the film or show. Rounding out the display is a third element that Netflix calls "the evidence."
It’s essentially a small section of text that lives right below the synopsis, but it’s the top-level home for the company’s personalized social and recommendation algorithms. Say you’re looking at Weeds and one of your friends likes the show; you’ll see a note about it there. If a show is being recommended to you because you watched Sons of Anarchy, the evidence will call out the connection. And should there be no relation to your own viewing habits, it touts additional information like awards nominations and wins.
The familiar rows of Netflix content are still present on the main screen, but the old poster-style images have been swapped out for new widescreen thumbnails, providing a cleaner look that’s also manifested when users drill down into a show’s episode guide. There they’ll find individual screenshots curated for each episode, matched with an episode synopsis written by Netflix’s staff. Searching has also been refined, integrating show results and the names of creative personnel on the same page.
I found myself drawn to shows that had floated around my queue for years
I’ve been using the new interface over the past week on a PS3, and when paired with the automatic My List ranking the experience is like parking your TV on a glossy, high-end station that’s programmed just for you. Granted, much of that is dependent on Netflix actually having content you want to watch in the first place, but with the company’s high-profile deals and own original content there’s an increasingly diverse selection to choose from. I found myself drawn to programs that had been floating around in my queue for years, and ended up revisiting a favorite episode of Lost simply by exploring what the interface served up.
The updated interface begins its global rollout today, and over the next two weeks it will be available on the PlayStation 4, PS3, Xbox 360, Roku 3, and an assortment of smart TVs and Blu-ray players (more legacy devices will be added to the list in the coming months). According to Netflix, after the rollout is complete more than 50 percent of users that watch Netflix on their television will be doing so through the new interface with the same flagship features — a marked change from when items like the Just For Kids mode would roll out on the PlayStation 3, but Roku users would be left wanting.
The Xbox 360 and some Samsung Smart TVs feature voice control
Jaffe says that an important aspect of the overhaul was aligning these various devices on a common platform so that Netflix could add new features in write-once, run anywhere fashion. It’s surprisingly nimble; I also tried the new UI on a Roku 3, and found it swift and responsive, despite the difference in computing power when compared to something like a gaming console. That said, the company has built in support for additional functionality that can be surfaced depending on the capability of the device. The Xbox 360 and some Samsung Smart TVs will allow voice control, for example, while pointer support is built in for devices like the LG Magic Remote.
Of course, Netflix works with partners, so not every device is going to be running the new interface. The Apple TV will keep its current look and feature set, and the Xbox One will be running its own Metro-inspired app (Wii and Wii U owners are also left out in the cold). It’s going to present an interesting conundrum for some users; I’ve personally preferred the straightforward functionality of the Apple TV Netflix app for some time, but over the past week I’ve found the new Netflix to be more helpful when it comes to casual viewing.
"We understand some devices do need to have a unique look and feel," Jaffe says, but from Netflix’s perspective the goal is to provide a consistent set of features to as many users as possible — allowing it to improve and tweak its service as it sees fit. "So the more people we can get on the train, then we can execute new features and raise everybody’s experience."