When Smart People Get Stuck: Netflix

Getting one of the smartest teams in the world unstuck.

With aesthetically differentiated top-lists and many other changes, the modern Netlfix is very different.

When Netflix Got Stuck

The Netflix Consumer Insights team was stuck on updating their user experience. While the platform business was over 97% streaming, the user flow was still largely based on their DVD-centric era. It was time to modernize - but moving on was hard.

Importantly, Netflix was not stuck because they were dumb - they were STACKED with talent! On the first day I was there, the room contained a talented treasury of Netflix experts, executives, creatives, and Stanford PhDs.

With all these brilliant minds gathered, I had but one goal: to get them unstuck.

What Netflix Needed

When smart people and specialists get stuck, they don't need lectures, or TED talks, or overly-standardized advice from big names. They usually need something special and relevant to their problems to get unstuck.

For Netflix, I customized their "something special" in three ways:

1. Test Tomorrow Prototypes

These rough UX designs were built to inspire and to make scientific insight usable. The designs enticed exploration, ideation, and immediate testing — a hallmark of Netflix.

2. Analyze Today Plans

These data analysis plans were built to immediately look at existing data in new ways with more hypotheses logic than is commonly applied to big data, augmenting Netflix's already world expert skills in new ways.

3. Context Change Analysis

We went through a perspective-inducing Context Change Analysis, or CCA. This framework helped Netflix better see even more so how had made them amazing in the past (e.g., complete algorithm focus over social and individuals over communities) were now chains that prevented them from being their best in an exponentially more competitive and connected world, and what new types of psychology needed to be considered.

When Netflix Got Unstuck

After the unstuck sessions, they asked a few follow up questions. These led to Netflix developing some testable UX ideas on the spot and to breakthroughs that were only possible due to the combined power of that very smart set of people getting simultaneously unstuck.

Today, Netflix still reflects many of the things we talked about in those unstuck sessions: a top 10 list that uses hierarchical norms, aesthetic differentiation and a reducation in "sameness" across visuals and video, subtle super signals, and clearer reflection of the larger cultural zeitgeist.

Like any group of smart people, Netflix Consumer Insights didn’t need someone to solve their problems for them. They didn't need a TED talk, or generic advice from a recognized name: they just needed something special to get them unstuck.

Any one of those smart people could read about norms, signals, habit formation, aesthetic differentiation, and emotionally-based choice - but, just reading a paper or even having a PhD in behavioral science doesn't tell you everything, including how to best use this knowledge and what critical details to consider that aren't covered in those papers.

I helped them define and apply the best science for them in ways that leveraged their existing knowledge, expertises, and creativity. I helped them get unstuck by bring "something special" and leveraging what's so, so special about them.

Tying to stay unstuck,


Note #1

The Netflix work was co-completed with friend and colleague Adrian Camilleri. Together we also competed more long term R&D for Netflix, when we identified issues that required something more than the fast and furious unstuck approach.

Note #2

Netflix is a model for innovation.

The staff at Netflix is full of experts, PhDs, and life time learners, who are smart but get smarter every day in their ability to learn knowledge and do brand new things with that knowledge.

The teams there have highly effective approaches to get themselves unstuck and constantly inspired. One of these approaches is the one referred to above. It is very similar to departments and lab teams at top universities.

This method involves constantly bringing in outside experts to 1) speak or report to their whole team, 2) meet one-on-one with team members, and 3) converse amongst themselves about what they liked or didn’t like from the expert.