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Netflix dumping its autoplay trailers is a wakeup call for tech

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Last night I had an extraordinary experience, one I never thought I’d have again: I browsed Netflix on my Apple TV with zero anxiety. 

That’s because the streaming giant has finally done what it should have done years ago. It has given us an option to stop those damned trailers from automatically playing, with sound, on every show and movie in every version of its interface. (The feature needs to be opt-in rather than opt-out, but maybe all the positive press Netflix has received for this minimal change will lead to a larger one.) 

Under the automatic trailer regime, which was introduced in 2017, I’d flick through a minimal number of categories like “trending” or “popular” as fast as I possibly could. I’d rarely even make it to “my list.” If I skipped from one item to the next in under a second, I wouldn’t get a noisy, unwanted trailer in my face. If I had to get up from the couch before making a decision, I’d select a random show and hit “episodes,” just to stop the trailers. Or I’d exit Netflix altogether, which is surely something the company doesn’t want. 

Without the trailers, here’s what I did instead. I browsed at leisure. I read show descriptions. I dug down into categories I’d been too exhausted to find before. (British TV comedies? Yes please!) In short, I spent more time on Netflix, watched more stuff, bookmarked more stuff, and felt less anxious. In what world is that not better for Netflix’s business? 

“We’ve heard the feedback loud and clear,” the company said in a tweet. If that’s so, why didn’t it hear the feedback loud and clear three years ago? Or at least two years ago, when an Adblock-based workaround for trailer-free computer viewing became popular, and director Rian Johnson tweaked the company over autoplaying trailers? 

Sure, there’s more competition in the streaming space now, with the arrival of Disney+ and Apple TV+ and Hulu’s recent aggressive price-cutting, which stands in contrast to Netflix’s aggressive price-raising. So Netflix has good reason to pay more attention to what users want now. (Notably, none of those rival services — or Amazon Prime — ever adopted autoplay trailers.) 

But that still means there were two years when the company wasn’t paying attention to users. No business should want to be in that position, ever, especially not one with such a savvy and vocal user base as that of big tech. 

Netflix won’t comment on its internal product process. But it would hardly be the first Silicon Valley company to convince itself that a new, cool-looking feature cooked up by engineers is something the users must want too. It’s a fact-free approach that flies in the face of what cooler heads have been telling businesses for years: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. 

Sometimes the CEO drives the change; sometimes it’s that dangerous drug known as groupthink. But in all cases, tech companies would do well to take the  advice offered to creative types by both William Faulkner and Stephen King: Kill your darlings

Social media companies are often the worst offenders in this regard. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is the poster child for making endless, jittery changes (Maybe a redesign! Maybe take away likes!) while increasingly disaffected users offer loud and clear feedback (stamp out abuse and ban the Nazis, please and thank you). We wanted Facebook to fact-check political ads as it does regular posts, so of course Mark Zuckerberg…changed the logo to all-caps

The Bowie incident

Such pretty colors. Such a terrible UI.

Such pretty colors. Such a terrible UI.

Streaming companies are hardly immune to this privileged cluelessness. Other than Netflix’s autoplay dystopia, one of the dumbest decisions of the last decade was Hulu’s user interface redesign, which also arrived in 2017. From the start, there were multiple user threads on how terrible it is to browse, how minimal the information is on each show, how confusing it is to navigate (the thing you want to select is underlined from…above?), and how it sacrificed information and legibility for pretty colors. 

But if you want to see what they were smoking thinking inside Hulu at the time, it’s all in this unintentionally hilarious Verge story. The redesign was “developed under the codename Bowie.” Designers were encouraged to “give the status quo the middle finger.” That nonsensical on-top underlining was likely a reference to Ziggy Stardust makeup. The “gradient splash that changes color as you browse content” was “inspired by the art of James Turrell.” Yeah, I had to look him up too. 

In Hulu’s own beta tests, amazingly, users didn’t go wild for the Turrell homage. “Our viewers needed a little more help understanding the UI than we thought they would,” the lead designer told the Verge. “We’ve found that users are struggling a little bit to find everything.” But rather than considering this a bright flashing warning sign, Hulu pushed out the “Bowie” update anyway, with minimal tweaks. I’m not the only user to have spent less time browsing it as a result. 

Kill the algorithm

As for Netflix, it’s hardly out of the doghouse yet. The streaming giant still automatically minimizes the credits at the end of a movie or show, overly eager to jam something else into your eyeballs. Not only is this jarring — give us a moment to process our emotions, you ghouls — but many viewers (including the creator of Bojack Horseman) find it disrespectful to the creators who spent years of their lives on this piece of entertainment. 

Also, years before instituting autoplay trailers, Netflix abandoned its star-based user rating system on its content. Instead, you now see a “match percentage” — the algorithm’s judgment on whether you will like a show or movie, given what you’ve previously watched. It doesn’t matter whether you were watching it ironically or not, or whether your friend had grabbed the remote that night. 

By contrast, Apple offers Rotten Tomatoes scores alongside its movies. Amazon Prime has user ratings, the number of reviews its score is based on, and the IMDb score for each movie and TV show. As the amount of content increases, so does our desire to sort out what the good stuff is — according to humans, not algorithms. 

Hopefully, this kind of competition will continue to force Netflix to do the right thing for its human users. As for the rest of tech and media, we hope the trailer autoplay debacle will serve as a cautionary tale for years to come. If senior management happens to have fallen in love with a darling, a change inspired by something obscure that flies in the face of actual on-the-ground user experience, it would be wise to kill it. 

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