That Old Lost Feeling. Reintroduced by Netflix.

 Good Times.

Remember the days when you could go to Netflix, pop in to see the latest New Releases and other DVD’s Releasing This Week, select a few goodies that you have been waiting for and then hop back out? You know the feeling…Quick & Simple.

Netflix-Releasing-This-Week

Gone?

Good times they were indeed. Yep, sometime within the past few weeks the same section that so many people enjoyed, and quite simply, took for granted, is gone and has been replaced with a virtual DVD shelf, sadly reminiscent of those found in a real DVD rental store.

clip_image004

Netflix has (re)captured the experience of wandering around a movie rental store with 5 virtual shelves of DVD’s. The frustration of not finding what you want, the time consuming aimlessness and numbness that comes with staring at the seemingly endless walls of DVDs, the walking of the aisles, back-and-forth, seeking, hoping to find something, anything worth watching can all be found on the new page that replaces all the previous pages of the New Releases section on Netflix.

Why would they do this to us?

The new interface has a clear design goal and is Netflix‘s attempt to offset the demand on the highly popular items and guide users to select the less popular of the new releases. Netflix always has the challenge of meeting demand for the latest and greatest. As a matter of fact, the recommendation algorithm is tuned to try to address this problem, by recommending less demanded, hopefully relevant DVD’s for your viewing pleasure. While this approach makes sense for recommendations, it is just silly to apply that philosophy to the New Releases section.

New Releases & Releasing This Week

Selecting New Releases or any of the sub-pages, e.g. Releasing This Week, clearly indicated action by the Netflix customer to be presented with a straight-forward, factual and easy to use presentation of the new and upcoming releases.

People don’t appreciate the feeling of having been tricked or forced into an unnecessary decision process. As a general lesson, it is always important to deliver on the expectation formed via the text and content that drives the consumer’s action. A customer actively engaging the New Releases section is correct in their expectation of clear, direct, and simple presentation of facts. When people want suggestions or recommendations as to what they might want to see they will ask for, and welcome, those recommendations.

The manipulation of the customers’ selection and experience of loss of control over their interaction within the Netflix product environment will not be welcomed, especially in an area that was once easily and happily utilized and valued.

No one appreciates feeling like they are losing control or are being herded down a road not chosen. Just take a look at some of these sites I have come across discussing this recent change..

As a Matter of Fact

Directly from the press room at Netflix.com you can find the following excerpt…

“Netflix, Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) is the world’s largest online movie rental service, offering more than 7 million subscribers access to 90,000 DVD titles plus a growing library of over 5,000 full-length movies and television episodes that are available for instant watching on their PCs. The company’s appeal and success are built on providing the most expansive selection of DVDs, an easy way to choose movies and fast, free delivery. Netflix has been named the #1 rated Web site for customer satisfaction for five consecutive periods, according to a semi-annual survey by ForeSee Results and FGI Research in the spring of 2005, the winter and spring of 2006 and the winter and spring of 2007. In the fall of 2005, Fast Company named Netflix the winner of its annual Customers First Award. In January 2007, Netflix was named the Retail Innovator of the Year by the National Retail Federation.

Netflix has revolutionized the way people rent movies – by bringing the movies directly to them. With today’s busy lifestyles and consumers demanding more value and control, it’s no wonder that Netflix has become the preferred online provider of the home entertainment experience.”

Pasted from <http://www.netflix.com/MediaCenter?id=5379>

Netflix, it is clear, from your own Press Packet, that you recognize the value that people find in what you provide(d). However, before it is too late, before your core values are compromised, before this update becomes a misdirected trend, recognize that it’s time to iterate past the current incarnation of the New Releases section… going to the previous version is NOT a step backward.

The End

clip_image006Netflix, I know you want everyone to browse and select the less popular items. But, if people wanted the Blockbuster (the brick-and-mortar store), wandering around the store, experience, they would go to Blockbuster. People go to Netflix because your interfaces help them quickly — usually — get to what they want, see what is coming out this week, what just came out, and make a decision, all in a short timeframe.

So, stop forcing your customers to browse the virtual DVD shelves and bring back the old interface. I am sure everyone is open to something better, something that helps people do what they want to do at Netflix: get a new movie, see what is coming out. Your customers, myself included, don’t want to stroll the Netflix “aisles” in the hopes of stumbling upon something.

Netflix is an online product that I usually point to as a company that does the online user experience right. However, with this new user interface, I can only award this “upgrade” 1 star out of 5.

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

P.S. Quick Tip. Through the magic of bookmarking I found a back-door to the old interface. Click here & Enjoy!

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Modular Innovation gets a Weave

weave The direction of products on the Internet is one of Modular Innovation. Key in this emerging next generation of products are the qualities of portability and user control. Mozilla Weave is representative of just such a Modular Innovation.

The Modular Innovation…

Weave is an open infrastructure and data exchange model that may eventually be, to online applications, what Firefox is to plug-ins.

As though quoting from my own writings on Modular Innovation, the basic principles behind Weave (excerpted from Mozilla Labs website)…

  • provide a basic set of optional Mozilla-hosted online services
  • ensure that it is easy for people to set up their own services with freely available open standards-based tools
  • provide users with the ability to fully control and customize their online experience, including whether and how their data should be shared with their family, their friends, and third-parties
  • respect individual privacy (e.g. client-side encryption by default with the ability to delegate access rights)
  • leverage existing open standards and propose new ones as needed
  • build an extensible architecture like Firefox

Mozilla Weave is simultaneously a product, an architecture, and a data exchange model. It provides for the mirroring and synchronization of both metadata and actual data between different applications, computers, and locations. Basically, Weave exists to provide all the necessary hooks for developers to then leverage in new, extensible ways… all resulting in the user’s greater control of their Internet user experience.

Coinciding with the launch of weave is a POC (proof of concept) whereby the intent is to allow a user of Firefox to synchronize both bookmarks and browsing history across multiple computers. There have been a ton of bookmark synchronizers done in the past, allowing for all of ‘your’ computers to share the same organized set of bookmarks. However, having one’s browsing history can be seen as an early example of synchronizing local computer state across multiple computers. It does not take much imagination to foresee extending this POC to encompass more of the browser — switching to a mobile device or other computer and having all of the browser tabs that were open on your home computer, automatically open, accounts logged into, everything just as you left it, accessible wherever you go via whatever device you use.

The Limitations…

Right now, Mozilla’s Weave is at version 0.1. It is much too early and it would also be too presumptive to claim to know what limitations will remain when/if a version 1.0 ever emerges or what new or different limitations or restrictions may evolve. Today’s limitations of Mozilla Weave can be seen as…

Firefox only. Actually, Mozilla Weave will only run in Firefox 3 Beta and greater. Hopefully, through open standards, Mozilla’s Weave will be able to move beyond a single browser to all browsers and platforms.

APIs. There aren’t any…yet. They will be coming out soon. However, through API’s one can better understand the true directions and intentions of the underlying product. So, for now, we can only infer from the ‘marketing’ and POC.

Redundancy. Information can currently be stored at a single Weave server of choice. However, eventually the needs for reliability of accessibility will dictate being able to setup a primary and secondary (and tertiary and…) Weave server to make sure the user is always able to stay in control of their information and not be dependent upon one server, service, or company. For the moment, it seems logical, that since no restrictions are placed upon whose servers the data can be stored on, that open source will also facilitate the generation of generic plug-ins for use by other/all browsers — as long as Mozilla or others do not put up any new roadblocks into the potential broader adoption.

So, there remains much to do and many paths that may be followed other than the ones I hypothesize herein. The Mozilla Weave API’s won’t even be out until sometime in the beginning of 2008 (first half of 2008?). For now, Mozilla Weave, especially in its current form, is something to be ‘played’ with, discussed, and used to spur imaginations forward about what this and other similar products may eventually bring into reality.

The Possibilities…

There are many cool concepts that can become reality through the leveraging and expansion of the Mozilla Weave framework.

  • Enable fully centralized and portable social network settings (friends, apps, etc.).
  • Store files, spreadsheets, and documents and access and edit them from anywhere.
  • Backup computers and maintain redundant copies of your data, such as file backups and bookmarks (already implemented in the version 0.1 prototype).
  • Increase the portability of one’s own generated content. Easily move from one CMS (content management system), or social network, etc., to another; more easily migrate and convert from WordPress to tumblr to Blogspot… they become platforms for editing and displaying your data, data that is stored centrally on a Weave server, not being dependent upon any of these or product platforms.
  • Control and customize access permissions of your own content by product, groups, and friends.
  • Maintain all state information via a centralized form of persistent state memory. For example, remember the exact state of products and browser windows and be able to transfer those sessions from product to product, from device to device.
  • Couple Mozilla Weave with something like Google Gears and you have an experience that is available both online and offline from whatever device and location you choose!

More use cases from Mozilla can be found here.

Furthermore, I can envision a future optimal situation where a product user can set up multiple servers to be able to leverage local, Mozilla, and 3rd party servers to store the data so that the individual never has to worry about an outage or loss of data; where the servers used within the configuration not only keep the individual’s data accessible and synchronized, but also synchronize between one another, server-to-server, to provide always-available type of access and true user control of their online content and experience.

I hope to see other enablers just like Weave emerge to offer everyone further redundancy and allow us all to not be locked into one platform or framework or service provider. Mozilla Weave is clearly all about user control, ownership and portability of one’s own content and data. It will be very exciting to see how this Modular Innovation enabler evolves, how others similar to it evolve, and how well they also interact with one another.

Read more…

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Prisoner of Amazon.com (checkout)

amazon-logo I have been wanting to conduct and share the results of a thorough assessment of Amazon.com for some time — even more so with the website updates that were rolled out just prior to the Holiday season. The goal and timing of the updates were aligned to boost sales performance during the busiest shopping time of the year — making it easier to browse and buy. Amazon reported that this Holiday season was their best ever.

There are many factors that went into producing those record breaking sales performance numbers and one key contributing element was definitely the upgraded user experience (UX).

Real Stress Test

Why did I wait until now to review the new look-and-feel? (a look-and-feel that was rolled out just prior to Q4 of 2007)

Old New

I wanted to really stress test it all. What better way to put the Amazon experience through all its paces than during all of my, and there was a lot, Holiday Shopping!

I browsed. I bought. I interacted and experienced.

I shopped and bought a great range of items from all parts of Amazon.com, from movies to clothes to groceries. I intentionally interacted with as many interface elements and other tools that I could, to (hopefully) help me do my shopping for all the people on all my gift lists. This was a great way for me to experience everything that Amazon had to offer, both old and new.

I wanted to wait until the dust cleared from my REAL stress testing of the new Amazon UX improvements… Holiday and New Year’s shopping… and here are the key topics worth highlighting and discussing…

  • The Navigation Experience… Long awaited, but appreciated improvements.
  • Some (Not All) Good In-Page Elements… Some good ideas, generally better, but still not good.
  • Trapped in Checkout… The surprisingly unimproved and yet a requirement (on the critical path) for any purchase.

The Navigation Experience

The general improvements that can be seen throughout the new user experience within the interfaces are…

  Simpler / Cleaner color scheme
 
  More pleasant to look at and allows for more intuitive guidance to the correct information and actions.
  Improved buttons (e.g. shopping cart, list management)
 
  Larger and with improved mouse-overs (e.g. logo) result in many core actions being easier to find as well as discerning between action and content features.
  De-cluttered layout
 
  Less overwhelming presentation of information through the (1) basic reduction of information, (2) better use of white space (what little there is), and (3) greatly reduced, expandable ‘Shop All Departments’ navigation menu. De-cluttering is important in helping to streamline the decision process and easing the stress of finding the needed information.

One of the biggest factors in the de-cluttering of the homepage (and many of the other sub-pages) is the introduction of the new, expandable, drop-down-like navigation menu. I am typically not a fan of drop-downs. In most cases, interfaces should not hide information from the user — there is no need to make the user ‘hunt for the elusive feature.’ However, Amazon.com has unique interface and experience challenges. In this case, reduction of information and simplification of the decision process was, beyond doubt, needed, and therefore moved the overall experience in a positive direction.

menu-up menu-down

The new navigation improves UX by reducing the information overload feeling, but falls short of actually making it easier to navigate.

The down-side of the new navigation is that clicking on the primary category label does nothing. It can sometimes be a very clumsy experience to have to open a drop-down, and slide the mouse pointer over to a sub-category of choosing — for me the menu closed a few times when I overshot, and it also looked like, because of the mouse-over, that I was permitted to click on the primary category (I tried clicking a bunch of times before I figured that out). To simplify this universal navigation element the user should definitely be permitted to click on the primary categories and be permitted to drill down to what is desired from the subsequent sub-category pages. This will have a very good impact on the site’s overall ease of navigation.

Some (Not All) Good In-Page Elements

Horizontal Scroller

The Horizontal Scroller is nice and can be a slow way to browse. What would be a better approach would be to expand and collapse a grid of similar items (in this case) from 1 row to many. This would allow for easier comparing of different, multiple rows of items as well as much quicker display of the items of desire, at a glance.

horizontal-scroller

More Information Inline Pop-up

The More Information Inline Pop-up is a strange element within Amazon.com. On one hand, it serves the de-cluttering purpose quite well — only showing me more information when I want it. On the other hand, it is clumsy, elusive, feels sluggish, and inconsistent in usage from one area of the website to another.

On the homepage, to make the Inline Pop-up appear, one has to know to mouse-over the teeny-tiny down arrow. When you make this discovery, you see the More Information, displayed within the screenshot. Definitely hard to figure out — and the slow time-to-display anything definitely doesn’t help to discover this “secret” feature.

more-information-secret more-information-popup

During my Holiday shopping I went all over Amazon.com working really hard to make sure I got something for everyone. (I can’t leave myself out. <wink>) On “Jeremy’s Amazon.com” page I ended up stumbling upon (again, a secret feature) a slightly different, slightly better implementation of the same sort of Inline Pop-up. I still hope that Amazon.com implements a better way to reveal more information than these Inline Pop-ups, but at least on this page, a mouse-over of the product is all that is required to display the More Information.

For the shoppers of Amazon.com to benefit from this feature, it will need to be made obvious and quicker — and, PLEASE, not implemented in a way that hides parts of the very page at which I am looking.

my-page-before my-page-mouseover

Today’s Recommendations For You

As a Web 2.0 Consumer and seeker of the cool UI design, I really enjoyed the “Today’s Recommendations for You” interface. However, the average shopper is going to be overwhelmed by the sense of information overload. For the younger user, more familiar with blogs and tagging, they should be more comfortable with experimenting and figuring out how to make the most of this mini-UX. Again, users should not have to guess how it works, it should just make sense — otherwise, many will be dissuaded from attempting any interaction.

You click a tag and the Horizontal Scroller is filtered to display only the content associated with the selected tag. Nifty. But, it didn’t help me with any of my purchases — too many pages to navigate, too much scrolling. With a little bit of work here, this may become a tool of more frequent use in my Amazon.com shopping arsenal. More than a little work will be needed to make it middle-aged and senior friendly, two groups that would appreciate the recommendations — but not if the recommendations are done in a complex manner.

todays-recommendations

Consistency!

OK, not really a “UI component,” but more an important UI nit-pick — consistency is important. It builds comfort and familiarity, allowing the user to have better intuition about different areas of interaction with the site.

I like mouse-overs. They help you know when there is something actionable. They help you know when to click. Notice that in the second screenshot, there is a background highlight (my preference), which does not exist in the mouse-over state of the first screenshot. Pick one (hopefully, my preference) and stick with it. This is one inconsistency example, of many that can be found throughout Amazon.com that, in aggregate, damages the overall user experience.

mouse-over-type1 mouse-over-type2

Trapped in Checkout

Amazon, I applaud your (incremental) user experience improvements. They were long in coming, but I am glad some have arrived and look forward to many more UX improvements that simplify and streamline and help me get done what I want to get done FASTER, EASIER, MORE ENJOYABLY…

BUT, before you re-focus on the rest of the site, please, please, please fix the unavoidable part of your site, the part of the site with the worst user experience – The Shopping Cart Checkout. People want to feel confident, not hesitant, in their purchase decision and enjoy, not dread, making their purchase. No one feels any of that confidence when checking out of Amazon.com. Adding items to the shopping cart and CHECKING OUT should be enjoyed and people will want to do it again and again.

checkout-prison

It is odd, that with all of the other improvements that move the user experience forward, that the lowest hanging of the UX fruits, the checkout process, remained untouched. Today, the shopper that wants to checkout, typically a shopper’s final experience with the site before moving on to other activities, cannot easily exit the checkout process nor can they easily modify and add items once the process has begun.

Most websites allow for a free and flexible checkout flow. They recognize that people change their minds. They recognize that people may want to add or remove stuff. They recognize that people don’t like the feeling of being trapped in the process, forced to commit and see it through. You, Amazon, should allow people to jump in and jump out (and back into) the checkout process. The more control the consumer has the better they feel about their decision and the more often they will complete their purchase, rather than abandon it entirely.

No one likes the sense of entering an unalterable path – the creation of the “get me off this crazy thing” experience. With no ability to get back to the normal Amazon.com site, with no ability to add to or otherwise easily modify the purchase decision, the impression is one of being FORCED to buy — intimidating someone to make the decision to buy.

Amazon, you do not need to lower the user experience, by forcing people into decisions to abandon or buy, you can and should put the shopper in control. Help the shopper enjoy purchasing, give them confidence in their decision, and you will then quickly see how unnecessary are the excessive controls and restrictions that you place over the checkout process that traps/imprisons your shoppers. The positive shopper feedback and ROI will be there.

Overall..

Very positive user experience improvements — cleaner, less confusing, simpler, more intuitive.

Shoppers (and I) are pleased to see much less of those weirder interface elements with excessive motion and questionable value, which more closely replicated the less desirable in-store experience than the value-add online experience that would be expected of visiting Amazon.com.

The cleaner interfaces, expanding navigation, simpler color scheme, and some other incremental information elements definitely help in zeroing in on the products being sought. The reduction in the feeling of information overload also helped further minimize distractions and led to decreased undesirable confusion.

This year, I can definitely say the shopping experience was clearly improved, easier to use and navigate — easier for me hop on, buy, and hop out.

Amazon has a fun (depending on what you find to be fun… it is for me) challenge of trying to figure out how to present a boat load of information that the user requested and may also be interested in or may be relevant to the current item in a way that does not result in information overload, consumer confusion, or simply abandoning the purchase. I have, in the past, been disappointed in the progress that I have seen in the Amazon.com UX.

In former conversations, I frequently described Amazon as the “most successful worst experience on the Internet.” It is clear they at Amazon are now beginning to move in the right direction, but still have many challenges to tackle with a great deal of room for improvement and innovation throughout the online shopping experience.

Better experience = more purchases = win-win.

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy