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New users testing Netflix features

Often guinea pigs without knowing it

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TORONTO -- Want to be a guinea pig for Netflix, get early access to new features, and help shape how the video streaming service grows and evolves?

If you're a relatively new subscriber, you may already be a beta tester. Or perhaps you used to be.

At any given time, Netflix is conducting hundreds of tests across its website and other platforms. Some are based on bold new ideas and are immediately obvious to its test subjects, while others are being run invisibly beneath the user interface.

'Most testing is done with brand-new users who don't have learned behaviours'

Users who have been with Netflix since the company launched in Canada in September 2010 aren't likely to be in on the testing, but newer members almost certainly are, whether they realize it or not, said Netflix's chief product officer Neil Hunt.

"One of our limited resources is users to try out new ideas, so I would say it's the unusual individual who doesn't end up in some kind of test at some point," said Hunt.

"Most testing is done with brand-new users who don't have learned behaviours to unlearn; that gives us the cleanest read, and so the typical new user coming in will end up in half a dozen or a dozen different test experiences, most of which will be very trivial and minor and invisible."

A year's worth of testing culminated in the recent release of Netflix's Profiles feature, which allows users to create multiple log-ins within the same account. And it took almost two years of testing before Netflix released My List, which allows users to bookmark titles to watch later. Netflix relies on the statistics generated by user tests to inform its decisions, Hunt said, rather than following the so-called "HIPPO" philosophy. That acronym stands for "highest paid person's opinion" and refers to an organization's preference to make top-down decisions.

"That seems like a really bad idea and so the nice thing about the strategy that Netflix uses is, the customer speaks, the customer's behaviour and actions on the service tell us what the winning proposition is based on how it affects the metrics we care about," he said.

"We like to test lots of different stuff, as simple as the size of an image, or the font on the page here or there, or a colour or a shape, all the way up to large and complex features like Profiles and queues.

"This is our whole innovation strategy, try out lots of ideas, quickly get them up in front of customers, measure and see what works well, feel that result, and then move on to build new and different ideas."

However, "We've become very sensitive to the notion that things winking in and out and changing randomly is a bad, bad idea and so we generally expose people to testing ideas for the long term," Hunt explained.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2013 B7

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