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Ever spent way too long browsing Netflix's catalog? You're not alone.
"We've all been there" Netflix Product Innovation Director Cameron Johnson admitted in a conversation with Protocol this week. "People have a really hard time choosing. It's just kind of a human problem."
To help consumers overwhelmed with choice, Netflix is adding a "Play Something" button to its TV interface this week. Pressing it automatically launches a new show or movie based on the service's existing personalized recommendations. And if it's not the right title for the moment, consumers can click to play something else.
The button seemingly represents a small update to Netflix's ever-evolving TV UI. However, the many months of testing that went into it show that the company is well aware of the challenges that come with building brands around original content from scratch, and the way Netflix implemented the feature sets it apart from attempts of others in the industry to bring a more TV-like experience to streaming.
Netflix began testing the "Play Something" button last summer. These trials included both A/B tests with millions of consumers around the globe as well as more traditional focus groups, according to Johnson. The result is a button that is featured prominently in three different places: the profile splash page, the sidebar menu, and on the home screen itself, where it is strategically placed in the 10th row of content, as a kind of hint for people who just keep scrolling down. "That is an indication that you are struggling to choose," Johnson said.
In early tests, Netflix was using the button to launch the last show someone had been binging on. Ultimately, Johnson's team decided to focus on new content instead. "It will always play a title that you've never watched before as the first title," he said. Aside from skipping known shows for the first result, Netflix's new button relies on the same algorithms that are also being used to curate a subscriber's home page.
Johnson painted the new button as a solution to those moments when you don't want to have to choose, but it could also be seen as an answer to a challenge Netflix has been dealing with ever since it began emphasizing its own shows over licensed content: Without access to known franchises from studios like Disney, Netflix is increasingly creating its own cinematic universes, often based on previously unknown stories and characters.
The company arguably has done this reasonably well, but getting people to take a chance on these new franchises is always challenging — even more so if the shows are from around the world, featuring actors unknown anywhere but in their home countries. A "Play Something" button can help introduce these new stories to global audiences by nudging viewers to take a chance.
With a more leanback-friendly discovery mode, Netflix can also appeal to recent cord cutters who are looking to replace more passive cable viewing. Part of the new "Play Something" feature is an option to switch to "something else" by pressing just one button, which Johnson likened to channel surfing.
However, the company decided against a true channel-based leanback experience, which has been adopted by streaming services like Pluto TV and Samsung TV+ to offer cable defectors a familiar interface. "We didn't want to replicate internet TV," Johnson said. "We want to invent the future."
Netflix is now looking at ways to bring "Play Something" to mobile, where the company plans to test the new feature within the first half of this year. For that implementation, Netflix may look to social apps like Instagram and TikTok for inspiration, with Johnson praising their take on video as successful watch-first experiences. "That is something that we should all aspire to," he said.
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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.