Ten years ago, Netflix got the idea that its app should work more like regular TV. This was early on in its transition from DVD delivery to streaming on demand, and product engineers at the company were still figuring out how the platform’s user interface would work. Instead of having subscribers start their streaming sessions scrolling through rows and rows of content, they wondered what would happen if a show or movie simply began playing as soon as someone clicked into the app — you know, like turning on your dad’s boxy old Zenith.
“It was the early days of Netflix having a television user interface, and we saw this as a great possibility,” says Todd Yellin, who as vice-president of product for the streaming giant helps shape how users interact with the platform. They liked the idea so much, they quietly tested it out among a small slice of subscribers.
But users weren’t impressed. “It failed,” the 14-year Netflix vet tells me. “The technology wasn’t as good. And I don’t think consumers were ready for it.”
Netflix believes audiences are ready now. Today, the company is launching Play Something, a new viewing mode designed to make it easier for the indecisive among us to quickly find something to watch. As with those early forays into instant-playing content, the goal of this new shuffle feature is to eliminate, or at least ease, the Peak TV-era anxiety so many of us feel while trying to find something to watch. But unlike its past attempt, it won’t be automatic: You’ll have to opt in — either at start-up or when you’re browsing your home page. If you do, the usual page upon page of box art and show descriptions disappears. Instead, the Netflix matrix chooses something it thinks you’ll be into and just starts streaming it, along with an onscreen graphic briefly explaining why it chose that title. Don’t like what you see? A quick button press skips ahead to another selection. If you suddenly decide an earlier selection is actually a better pick, you can also go backward. (The feature will initially be available on all Netflix TV apps and, soon, on mobile for Android devices.)
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