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The Design Thinking Tricks That Netflix Use to Keep Us Watching

Although design thinking has been evolving steadily since the 1960s, it has seen widespread adoption in the past 15 years. As it matures and develops as a theory, it’s become one of the most talked-about approaches in the business world. 

There is now a multitude of big brands who are harnessing its power to shape the way they work, placing customers at the forefront of the creative process to drive their future success.

In this new blog series, we’ll explore how some of the world’s most successful businesses are putting customer experience and design at the heart of their offering to continually innovate and stand out in the market.  


Netflix: a transformation fuelled by design

Ever since video streaming giant Netflix was founded as a DVD distribution company in 1997, they’ve tried to approach business a little differently. In the days when Blockbuster’s brick-and-mortar stores reigned supreme and people had to travel to rent the latest releases on video or DVD, Netflix disrupted the US market. Their DVD distribution offering gave subscribers a service that allowed them to choose the films they wanted to be delivered to their door.  And, when Blockbuster responded slowly to the technological shift to video streaming, Netflix harnessed a design thinking approach to grow the business. They gave people the opportunity to watch movies and TV shows directly from their computer in 2007, a decision which fuelled their growth into one of the most valuable media companies in the world.

Netflix in 2008

Unlike their competitors, the company placed research, listening closely and empathising with their audience at the forefront of their business strategy. With a focus on customer obsession – defined as a healthy preoccupation with customer’s unanticipated, future needs – cross-functional teams had the insights they needed to work collaboratively, rapidly generating ideas to prototype and test, and come up with solutions that worked. As Gibson Biddle, former VP at Netflix, explains: “The vision was that product leaders at Netflix would develop remarkable consumer insight, fueled by results and learning from thousands of experiments.” Using a mixture of existing data, qualitative focus groups, surveys and A/B testing, seeing the product through a customer’s eyes was core to Netflix’s growth and digital transformation. 

It was an approach that worked. Year-on-year subscription levels rocketed from the moment the digital subscription service first launched into the market. And, this way of thinking has been at the heart of many of the company’s greatest successes since – from retaining subscriptions through the design of the app across channels to creating content that draws in new subscribers. 


Yes Netflix, we’re still watching 

As a case in point, Netflix’s decision to make their own content, movies and series in 2011 was driven by customer research that revealed viewers wanted more provocative content than was offered by PrimeTime networks. Taking new steps to define their market, they decided to focus on different niches to produce shows, movies or documentaries that would become subscriber favourites. House of Cards, released in 2013, was the initial prototype that led to some of the company’s biggest successes, including Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black and Oscar-winning Roma. 

To make you keep watching, AI and predictive analysis research is the force behind the unique user interface seen when you first open the app, alongside the “Because you watched…” feature we all know and love (which reportedly took over three years of prototyping to achieve). It’s a feature that successfully solves a business problem, making it as easy as possible for subscribers to find content they want to watch, without the need to manually trawl through hundreds of shows or movies. 

Netflix homepage

The company have taken this personalisation one step further with the launch of thumbnail artwork that changes according to your viewing history. As they describe in this blog: “Someone who has watched many romantic movies may be interested in Good Will Hunting if we show the artwork containing Matt Damon and Minnie Driver, whereas, a member who has watched many comedies might be drawn to the movie if we use the artwork containing Robin Williams, a well-known comedian.”

As we enter a new stage of technological growth, with an increasing shift to mobile use and the rise of unlimited mobile data packages worldwide, design thinking has also been used to drive discovery. User research has led to the team trialling Instagram style stories for mobile, called “Extras”, to help subscribers find upcoming trailers that pique their interest and set a reminder to watch when the content goes live.  

As Michaela Tedore, Product and Motion Design Lead, and Alex Bronkie, Product Designer, explore in the enlightening WeAreNetflix podcast, the design thinking methodology is so ingrained that it’s even part of the interview process. Potential employees are asked to brainstorm BlueSky solutions to customer problems, and then present prototypes to the interview panel. They are then asked to iterate on their suggestions, drawing out what should be tested qualitatively – speaking to real people and subscribers – to determine business viability. 

“We are aiming for beautiful and simple in the Netflix app, so it can be used whether you’re in India or in the US. We want solutions that will perform well globally. The way we approach design is the force behind this,” they explain. 


A methodology that’s here to stay

One thing is clear: at Netflix, design isn’t simply limited to how the app looks and feels when we open it on our laptop, tablet, phone or Smart TV. Instead, it’s at the very centre of the business – from initial research through to launch stage. The result is that they haven’t just created one product, but instead millions of different products that suit the needs of their subscribers, from personalised recommendations to personalised visuals.  

It’s a testament to the impact design thinking can have on an entire business model. The company now has over 158 million paying subscribers, active in over 190 countries worldwide and there’s only one Blockbuster store left in the world – a relic of a bygone era.  

However, as the company braces itself for a host of competitors set to arrive on the market in 2020 and beyond (including Disney’s much anticipated Disney+),  reports are suggesting Netflix’s growth is beginning to slow. Now more than ever, it’s key that customer research, continued idea iteration and prototyping remains at the core of their strategy if they are to continue to thrive.


Inspired by Netflix to harness your design thinking skills to make changes in your organisation? Our Design Management Masters aims to develop your knowledge to help you harness your creativity and become a more strategic innovator. Over the duration of the course, you’ll explore live business case studies, learning to apply creative solutions to organisational problems in order to create new opportunities. Find out more about the course here.




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