Product and Motion Designers Alex Bronkie and Michaela Tedore discuss working on the Netflix Product Design team and how they create experiences that help over a hundred million global members discover what to watch.
Product and Motion Designers Alex Bronkie and Michaela Tedore discuss working on the Netflix Product Design team and how they create experiences that help over a hundred million global members discover what to watch.
Lyle: You’re listening to We Are Netflix.
Michael: A discussion between Netflix employees and I’m Michael Paulson.
Lyle: I’m Lyle Troxell. You know, as UI engineers we both deal with a lot of the look and feel of the applications. The question is, who actually creates that look and feel? Today we’re talking to two product designers here at Netflix, Alex Bronkie—
Michael: And Michaela Wagoner.
Lyle: Well, welcome both to We Are Netflix podcast. We’re, you know, talking about the culture here but also talking about how we do what we do here. As designers and motion designers, what’s the difference between a designer and a motion designer?
Michaela: I come from a design background, so I switched into motion design after practicing being a visual and product designer for a while. The hand-off, it’s really collaborative, so a lot of the process is working closely with the product designer, visual designer, UX designer and really thinking through the experience flow and how things could seamlessly transition and move as well as thinking about a holistic motion system throughout a product.
Lyle: So, anytime there’s an animation happening between two screens or scrolling along and having things fade in and or maybe opening something with a zoom or a pop kind of effect, you’re the one that kind of things through that process, designs that flow and process?
Michaela: Yes. And a lot of the times the product designers work on that as well and then I help kind of curate the specifics when it’s going productization or being built by engineers.
Lyle: Why is it a specialty specifically?
Michaela: I think understanding the flow of how an experience can guide a user’s perception of things is important. A lot of product designers do think that way, but specializing in that really means looking at the whole thing as an ecosystem so that, you know, you don’t have something bouncing on the screen in the first one second and then you’re half way through things and it just moves differently.
Lyle: Motion definitely grabs attention, right?
Michaela: Yeah, users pick up on subtleties or my job is hopefully to make them not notice anything but they just like how it feels.
Lyle: Yeah, it’s interesting because I don’t think we have the same kind of language around motion design that we do around color and shape and all these other things. It’s hard to say what that transition looks like unless, of course, you’re developing it in after effects or coding it by hand and you know it’s like a type of curve, is how we talk about motion most of the time.
Lyle: Michaela, how do you take what you’ve designed and pass it off to someone like Michael to have it be implemented in the UI?
Michaela: A lot of the time we loop in the engineers earlier enough so I can kind of gauge, is this even possible or what is the extent of the possibility? I tend to try and go crazy and move as many things as I can and then we pull back from there to figure out what’s the best experience and what’s the best engineering implementation. But I provide specs as far as milliseconds and easing curves and what elements move when. And every motion designer does it really differently.
Lyle: The language of math though is base that you have to do?
Michaela: Yes, had to learn that.
Lyle: And do you actually normally make video loops or something to pass on as well to get the feel for that?
Michaela: Whatever someone needs, it’s different almost every time. GIF’s to videos, prototypes has been really useful in just showing something and then winging it, sitting side-by-side happens too.
Lyle: Okay. Alex, how does your role in product design differ than motion design? Describe what your kind of working on and focusing on.
Alex: Yeah, so as a product designer I’m basically thinking about the entire experience for the user. And sometimes that means I do visual, sometimes that means I do UX, sometimes I’m thinking about the strategy for the business. So, it’s much more high level, I would say. And then there’s times where I do good in the weeds of like the pixels but I feel like as a product designer, moving from my previous role as a visual designer, it’s definitely a lot more thinking about the business.
Lyle: Okay, when you say visual designer versus UX, can you describe—first, define UX? Not everybody’s a designer.
Michael: She said product designer, sorry.
Alex: No, that’s okay.
Michael: Is there a difference?
Alex: Yeah, there is, I know, there’s like 99 terms for any kind of designer. But UX designer is specifically focused on the user experience, that’s what UX stands for. And a designer who focuses solely on UX might just think about the end to end experience for the user in any given feature. And they might only ever execute in wire frames. Where as a visual designer may take those wire frames and actually skin them and, you know, go into Photoshop or Sketch or what have you and actually make it look beautiful and aesthetically pleasing.
Lyle: Choose all the colors, yeah. And is that more the visual design aspect?
Lyle: So, you’re saying you do all of those things here?
Alex: As a product designer you can do all of those things, it’s up to you, that’s kind of the interesting part about working at Netflix is that you’re free to choose where to spend your time and in what way, in what capacity. So, sometimes I like to devote a little more time to visual design then some of the other designers here at Netflix because I feel better when something is up to a certain level of polish. But some designers don’t waste time doing that and there are designers that are dedicated purely to visual design on the team.
Lyle: So, you might have someone that does the UX flow, figures out the entire flow process but it’s wire frames, which just means like black and white lines effectively or just boxes?
Lyle: And then, somebody else comes in and makes a beautiful visual design.
Lyle: And so, that partnership kind of works as well?
Alex: Hm-hmm [affirmative].
Lyle: So, I’ve worked with you on design, we worked on a project called Kong a long time ago, I think it was one of maybe your first projects here.
Lyle: And that was, we made a display page that was really based around a character and yes, it had a lot of polish, it was beautiful.
Alex: Thank you.
Lyle: And I got used to having designs that fully baked. Don’t always get them here too because there’s so much freedom and responsibility. What did it feel like to have that thing launch? Like something that you spent a lot of time on, that you and I spent a lot of time on together and have it slowly get turned off and go away, what does that feel like as a designer?
Alex: Yeah, well, so I’ve done a ton of learning in my three years here at Netflix and I really came from a very visual role before this. So, I really hadn’t thought about the business strategy of design before this role. And I think that’s really what’s changed for me is, when I came in and I started to work on Kong, it was such a—I mean, interactive in general is just such a new space for Netflix. And it sort of felt like blue sky, let’s like, you know, innovate here. But now, looking back at it, what we made wasn’t very scalable. It was great for that one show and so, I totally understand why it didn’t work and why it’s, you know, kind of a barnacle on the whole code base.
Lyle: What do you mean scalable?
Alex: So, when you design something for one show, it’s great if it will work for every other show that is like it. So, in that scenario we had done something very custom, specific to the battles in Kong and specific to the Kong character itself and it just wasn’t going to be reusable from a code base perspective.
Michael: So, when you say business, what you really mean is being able to take something and be able to use it a bunch or being able to be most efficient for the business?
Alex: That’s what I mean when I say scalable.
Lyle: You talked about product design and visual design, but you seem to touch a lot more on the business aspect. What other business aspects are you looking at in that app, not just the scalability aspect but other aspects of business?
Alex: Yeah, I mean, there are lots of strategies as a business that we can take and maybe we choose some and don’t choose others.
Lyle: And as a designer you’re part of that process?
Alex: It’s something that we think about, definitely, as product designers. So, to use an example outside of Netflix, if you have a music service where the user is able to create playlists that they can’t take off the service, they’re much more likely to retain, so stay a member longer with that service.
Lyle: So, they’ve invested all this time and energy making sure that this song follows this song and then this song.
Lyle: They did a lot, that investment in time actually makes them more stuck to that service.
Alex: Yeah, they’re not leaving.
Michael: So, how does that work with Netflix, because we don’t really have a lot of that type of customization, nor would it make much sense?
Alex: Right, so, the question is, is it worth it from a business perspective to start brainstorming features where users can do something like that? And we’re thinking about that all time, you know, as far as we prioritize our projects, if we have new ideas some will be more valuable to the business in the long run.
Lyle: Because it might not fit what we want to be able to do?
Lyle: Interesting. Do you both focus on mobile or both platforms?
Alex: I’m mobile and cross platform, multiple platforms but—
Lyle: So, you’re pulled in for other projects.
Alex: … focusing on mobile, yeah.
Lyle: All right, the mobile space, the rules that might be appropriate two years ago are completely different now. So, how do you maintain like kind of contemporary feel on these apps or on these platforms?
Alex: I mean, I would say I feel like just by being on the internet every day I have sort of a tapped in, you know, source to like the current and I’m checking Dribble, I’m checking Designspiration, I’m checking Pinterest and basically, you know, there’s just places you go as a designer to look for inspiration. You know, listening to podcasts with other designers on them, you’re talking to other designers. So, I think just like being a human in the world sort of keeps you in touch with what design should be at that moment in time. I don’t know, I guess, I like—I also like going to like art museums as a way to sort of break out of the Dribble/Internet source, right? Because a lot of that starts to look very similar.
Lyle: How do you—do you find it frustrating that you come up with some ideas, some feelings, something you want to implement in the app and it takes a while for people like us to implement the UI aspect and to change the business model to do it? Do you feel slowed?
Lyle: How so?
Alex: Not at all. I mean, part of it is that as a product designer, especially at Netflix, I don’t know about other companies but you have to think about—sometimes we’ll have these blue-sky ideas and you have to think about okay, what is the minimum signal? What’s the least amount of effort we can invest as a business to get a signal that this whole thing is going to be worthwhile. So, sometimes we’ll even break things down to their smaller parts and Shipt a test for that part. And then it’s sort of building on itself over time. And we even incorporate that methodology into our interview process. So, we’ll have a designer come in and they’ll blue sky concept something like, you know, we’ll brainstorm for something completely different other than Netflix and then they’ll give us a concept.
Lyle: How do you make a really good music playlist or something, right?
Alex: Exactly and so, they’ll present this blue-sky feature and then we’ll ask them, “Okay, if you had to Shipt the most basic part of this to get a signal, what would it be? How could you do that so that the business has the least investment?
Lyle: Why do you find—it seems like your kind of—you like the idea of testing little pieces, trying to get signal out of whether it’s useful or not. How does that stack with your aesthetic and your beauty design and your creativity? How do you mesh those two things?
Alex: It’s my job to make everything beautiful no matter how small. But the reason that I like doing it that way is because we’re a company that serves 100 million people worldwide. You basically can’t be on the cutting edge of, you know, usability or, you know—because nobody’s going to understand how to use your product. So, it's beautiful and simple is basically what we’re aiming for in the Netflix app so that everyone can use it whether they’re in India or in South America or in the US.
Michael: How do you balance—I have to make the assumption that not all apps operate the same across the world. So, how do you balance something that—do you find that some places struggle with designs where as other places don’t?
Alex: I don’t know if struggle with designs is the right term and I think what we’re trying to do is Shipt tests that perform well globally. But there are geolocations where they maybe think a little differently then we do, and not to say that that’s bad, it’s just a different way to think. Right? Japan, for example, thinks a little differently then the US does. So, we have a team there right now that is looking into that culture and going and doing user research and actually trying to understand, is it worth it for the business to customize this experience for this market?
Lyle: People might not understand that we actually have, you know, an iOS app, and Android app, a TV app, a Windows website app and all of those work on all of our languages and even the right to left languages reverse the view of the app. So, in some ways we do change the app but, in most ways, it stays the same. And, sends the catalogues, of course, they’re also different. So, it’s interesting to think that the app that you see is only one slight variant of this thing that is a global product. And we’ve leaned pretty heavily on that concept of a global product. So, that we now are starting to look at, are there places where the way a person thinks and interacts with it is fundamentally so different that we could really improve it by making some investment in that area. And, of course, we have to be really selective on doing that.
I wanting to get kind of back to this thought though, that it’s true—and I totally get, 100 million people and actually more than that because those are paid accounts and so there’s other profiles and family members and stuff. Of course, they’re not doing the same things you’re doing by looking at Dribble and looking at the designers and following people and getting zeitgeist of how design is moving and changing. And therefore, of course, you have to give them something that makes sense. And so, are you saying that the reason we do the testing of the signals is really to translate what will work, what ideas will work?
Alex: Yeah, that’s part of it, for sure.
Lyle: Have either of you created something and launched it and saw it fall flat on its face?
Alex: Not launched, but definitely—
Lyle: Well, I mean tested.
Alex: … yeah, we’ve gone into qualitative research with products that people are like, “What is this?”
Lyle: Okay, let’s talk about qual—what is qualitative research? Or how do we practice it here, I should say?
Alex: Sure, so we have consumer insights partners that we work with and some of them are focused on quantitative and some of them are focused on qualitative. And the qualitative aspect is where it’s more about speaking to real people, focus groups or going to facilities and having people come in and use the product. And that’s really—so, quantitative data and qualitative data have to work hand in hand. And sometimes you can look at quantitative data and sort of try to understand what’s going on but the qualitative data can help you sort of fill in the gaps and understand why people are doing what they’re doing.
Lyle: So, we might see that in quantitative analysis, meaning the launching a feature that has a new blue button on the right-hand side that opens your, I don’t know, your wish list or something. And we find that nobody uses it in quantitative, like it's not being used very much at all. And the people that do use it actually cancel from the service, like something weird like that. If we were to do that without any knowledge about how a person thinks and interacts with our app, we can make up lots of reasons.
Lyle: Oh, the color is wrong or the placement is wrong or the actual think wasn’t what they expected. All these different ideas. So, instead you’re saying that in qualitative analysis you actually go and talk to people and say, “What do you think about that blue button?”
Michael: How many people do you have to interview to really make sure you actually get what the feel is? Like is there some minimum number you have to do?
Alex: So, for qualitative research it depends, usually for like a full-scale qual session, which that’s what we call it here, it’s two days with about six to eight participants each day. We find that it’s enough, usually the second day we start to hear a lot of repetitive things that we heard on the first day but we do it just to make sure. And then, we also have things called tiny quals, which we host on-site. And those are, it's one day and it’s about six participants for 15 minutes each. So, it’s a much shorter, condensed way to get real human feedback.
Lyle: And we do them here at the office.
Alex: We do.
Lyle: So, we have like a qualitative analysis room where it’s space people can sit and we talk with them. Michaela, you’ve done qualitative analysis as well in these tiny quals. What kinds of things are you learning from people that you are surprised about?
Michaela: I think really subtle changes always come up. Sometimes we go into larger quals or even tiny quals and we see a behavior within the first couple of people that we are usually surprised about and then with a small little tweak, like a close, and X for a close versus a down arrow to close can totally throw off the experience in what someone will actually move through. We’ve also found—
Lyle: Wait, so you’ve found a difference between an upside-down chevron to close and an X to close?
Lyle: Having different meanings for a person?
Michaela: Yes, completely.
Lyle: Which one is better?
Michaela: It depends on the type of person, it depends on the experience and so, certain experiences you just have to stay away from that chevron because people will translate it to mean some other action then what we actually intend. And then, even subtle things like animating a button to come in or animating the screen upwards will change how they think they can close it. So, they’ll—
Lyle: So, if you had a drawer from bottom that slid up, then maybe that chevron down actually makes sense?
Lyle: Close button doesn’t.
Michael: By the way, a chevron is a down arrow for anyone that’s wondering, right? Or an up arrow or an arrow pointing, effectively.
Michaela: A carrot.
Michael: Yeah, a carrot. I didn’t know what a chevron was until just recently.
Lyle: On your keyboard, the shift six is a chevron pointing up.
Michael: Or a carrot.
Lyle: That sounds like you might be actually modifying things as you’re going through qual?
Michaela: Yes. Usually I work really closely with a prototyper or the engineer and we can make changes on the fly to kind of say like, “Okay, we’ve seen this a couple times. Should we change it? How much? We’ll just make a quick edit.” Sometimes the prototypers will actually do multiple versions so that you can switch between different, I would call them maybe recipes of the layout of the page or what could be shown on it to see, so we can really tease out those fine details and figure out what’s actually causing a behavior or a certain perception of the feature experience.
Lyle: Michaela, are you looking at the business aspect as well, analysis?
Michaela: Yes, hm-hmm [affirmative].
Lyle: So, this is pervasive?
Michaela: Yeah. I think a bit example of that was when I first started mobile it was such a smaller class citizen in the platforms. And since going global it’s become so massive that the mobile team really does try and focus on these aspects of the business. They can just drive discovery and use of the mobile app. So, we are looking through it through that business lens of not only, what does it really mean to the user, to make them love the Netflix experience? But how does that actually help us as well? Because it’s our jobs to make the experience better and that kind of leans on the Netflix brand, to speak to that, which is our business.
Michael: Can you be a designer without considering the business decisions? Or does everybody kind of have this as like the baseline?
Michaela: So, like I was saying, at my visual role before I don’t know if I was so aware of the business considerations. I maybe was just doing it without really knowing. But honestly, I think being aware of it does make you a better designer.
Michael: Is this more of like a—because we talk a lot about context vs control and so, since everybody’s kind of given more the context of what we’re attempting to create or win, therefore you think about the business more just naturally. Does that—
Michaela: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think as we look at the experience and we look at data that we get back, it can inspire an idea. Alex does this a lot with different designs, where she’ll get a piece of data that, you know, users are having an issue finding this but they go and they search for it. So, finding ways that we can design experiences that elevate those things is an easy way for us to test into something that benefits us, because, you know, more people are finding things to watch. But it benefits them because they’re not wasting their time digging through things.
Lyle: I want to talk about something concrete, something real that we can all chat a little bit about in a design sense. And something that I know is public knowledge and I think because we’ve launched it is the Previews interface in the mobile app, either of you work on Previews at all.
Michaela: We both did.
Alex: Yeah, we both did.
Lyle: Oh, great, okay, describe what previews is.
Alex: Yeah, so Previews is a feature in the Netflix app that let’s you watch back to back trailers in the style of Instagram stories.
Lyle: Okay, and so, it shows up as little circles kind of below your big billboard canvas at the top of the mobile app. When we’re talking about mobile, we’re talking about phone for Android and iOS. And it’s a very different, like first off, it’s not a rectangle, normally we do rectangles, so it’s colored. But what are the things like—sorry, it also has a color around it that kind of brings in some tonal stuff. So, why did we do this? How did we test it? How do you develop it? What do you do to qual? Just describe the process a bit.
Alex: So, the way that the project started, maybe we can start there. We have these big brain storms with our engineers, with designers, with PM’s and we happened to have one about a year and a half ago and it’s one of our Post-It note brainstorms, where everyone gets into a room, we have some ideas. We say, maybe, how might we do this and this for Netflix? And people have a minute to write down all of their ideas on Post-It notes.
So, something happened in that meeting where I was like, “What if Netflix was Instagram? What if Netflix was Pinterest? What if—” You know, I was trying to run through all of the most popular apps that people know how to use and love and trying to sort of figure out, “Okay, if Netflix were to be like those apps, what would we be like?” And really, I was just spit balling, I didn’t think anything would come from it. And I think even when we like talked about it there were giggles in the room of like, “Yeah, okay, we’re not really going to do that.”
But then when I said, “What if Netflix was Instagram?” Our PM, Cameron Johnson, was like, “Wait a minute, what about stories?” And so, then we were like, “Oh, yeah. What about stories? If we did stories at Netflix, what would that be like?” And at that time too there was kind of a meme of like everyone’s doing stories. But we were still kind of interested in it and so, I just took it back to my desk and started to make designs and prototype what it might be like. My manager saw it and was kind of like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Let’s explore some different design variations.”
Lyle: Wait, so that’s a different pattern then you’d normally have at a company, right? Because what happened is you started investigating something you thought was interesting and then your manager found out about it and went, “Oh, cool.” And kind of supported your idea.
Lyle: I don’t think that happens in most businesses.
Alex: No, yeah. That was actually a big shift for me too. It took me about a year to realize that no one was going to give me my projects or assignments and I sort of had to decide what was the best for the business using the context and the knowledge that I have.
Lyle: Oh, that’s cool.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, it’s great.
Lyle: Okay, so you’re playing with this thing—yeah.
Alex: But it also is a little challenging because coming from the different roles that I’ve been in before; I had a manager who was handing me down projects and I had goals and expectations that were very clear. And so, I knew how to meet them and exceed them and here, because I didn’t have projects, I didn’t have any like line to try to cross.
Lyle: Right, “Am I doing right?”
Alex: Right, exactly. So then, at some point I was just like, “Well, you know what? I’m just going to work on like what I think is best for the business and what gets me really excited and if I go down, at least I went down having a ton of fun.”
Lyle: Well, it didn’t go down with the Previews because obviously it kept on moving. So, at one point—so, I mean, in general, it is trailers in a little circle, you launch it, it opens a new view, you see a trailer, as you swipe back and forth you can watch more and more trailers.
Lyle: Really fun way to kind of explore new trailer content. And we hadn’t had an interface for our trailer ideas except for kind of deep in the app. You’d have to step through one show and play it and then step to another show and play it. So, this really gained an affordance to kind of explore the catalogue through video. How did you take this to people, you know, qual to individuals and say, “Do you like it?” Or do you just go, “You know what? It’s going to work because it’s working on all these other social media platforms.”
Alex: Yeah. So, after some initial brainstorms and actually it was right before I left for my wedding that the video team was like, “Hey, we have all these trailers.” Because we weren’t thinking about trailers, we were thinking about different parts like, you know, Stranger Things has an 80’s theme to it and a monster theme to it and a, you know, Winona Rider theme to it. And maybe we could like parch these all up together and merch is—basically, what’s merch to a normal person. It’s like sell you on a show based on like the different parts that would excite you the most. And so, we were trying to—we were in that realm.
Lyle: Of like editing other—making new content for this purpose.
Alex: Yeah, yeah and—
Lyle: Which does sound neat, I mean, yeah.
Alex: It does. And that’s part of what—I think it eventually it would be interesting to sort of try something like that again. But trailers were sitting there with our video team in LA and they were like, “These are already ready, let’s just try these.” And they happened to work extremely well. And at that point I actually stepped off the project and Michaela and Glenn took it over.
Lyle: All right, so you continue the process?
Michaela: Yeah, so she handed over the baton with some designs and prototypes, had started talking with prototypers about it. So, I made like a vision video of how it could work and flow.
Lyle: What did you make that in?
Michaela: After Affects. And so, we started—our manager and PM were getting excited about this idea and wanted to try and socialize it a bit more. And the more they showed it around people showed a lot of excitement about it. I think it was this idea of how does social work in the world of Netflix. And this was a toe in the water to kind of see, “How can we show someone a show in a short amount of time, in a new feature and get them excited about the show and really like explain in an immersive way what it would feel like to watch it?” Which are trailers. So, once the prototype and the demo were shopped around, I started working with engineering to kind of figure out, okay, we set this bar pretty high with this cool design and cool animation.
Lyle: Right, you’re basically—I mean, After Affects—I know with After Affects you can do anything in that, right?
Lyle: So, you had no rules about downloading or playing or all that stuff. You just were like, “Let’s make a video.”
Michaela: Yeah, and so, started to speak with the engineers, they realized, okay, we need to be able to run multiple videos and load multiple videos in a row, you know? The idea of swiping through, they have to load really fast or else it’s not going to be a good experience for anybody.
Lyle: And interestingly, from an engineering perspective, we had worked on this problem space of being able to jump right on multiple videos or across one video a lot for a branching narrative titles, where that also was a requirement. So, there’s already been some work done in the back end to support this kind of feature.
Michaela: Yeah, they knew this was going to be a big move and a big shift. So, I think they were ready for it and this gave them the opportunity to say, “Now it’s time, let’s go.”
Lyle: Did you take it to qual at any point?
Michaela: We did tiny qual here within the office and had a bunch of different people come in just to kind of figure out like, okay, if you’re—do you go in and out of the row? Do you stay in it? Because we had maybe hoped that there would be serendipitous discovery. So, if you click on something that you know you want to see the preview for, would your role into another and another and learn about new shows that you never would have thought you would have watched? But maybe the trailer caught you enough that you would actually turn on something that you normally wouldn’t.
Lyle: So, what kind of things from the tiny qual or from just sharing it around the office did you go, “Oh, that’s not something I would have expected.” What led you to something new?
Michaela: I think we were okay with what we learned because I think maybe we thought this could happen. But people like to hunt and peck, so they like to scroll the row and they like to see a broad range of things before they’re willing to really enter in and commit. Because the immersive video does feel like, “Now I’m in it.” And they like to see multiple things. So, that balancing act, we had to kind of consider like, “Do we keep these short? Could we go longer with video?” Making it easy to close, like swiping down instead of having to reach up and tap the X. Especially on holding a mobile phone, we have to consider where your hand naturally lays.
Lyle: Especially these new phones, these big phones, yeah.
Lyle: And I noticed that also in that design you kind of had this—a logo and the logo kind of hints to which ones are coming up next. So, you have a bit of a hint about what shows are left and right, or at least to the right as you’re swiping through. And is that the kind of thing that was added because you saw people—the way they were interacting with it?
Michaela: Yeah, I think that was actually designed in the early rounds, to have the logo for the following two or three there. Just so that people—we know that people love to see more than one option. So, I think we went into it knowing that. And it definitely helped people understand like, “Okay, if I don’t like this, I’m not locked in, I can just tap over and it’s okay.” And people do what they naturally love to do anyway, so people will still close it, scroll over a few and tap back in. But—
Lyle: Which you can also do, yeah.
Michaela: … people still had fun with it, so it did really well.
Lyle: I assume this test has been running for some time now, did you see any like behavioral change? Like at first people are hesitant to jump into one of these stories and they want to find the one that sounds good for them. And then they learn there’s a bunch coming up and then, soon they’re just hitting the first one and just scrolling through. Did like you see a usage of Netflix change because now they’ve discovered this new feature?
Michaela: I don’t think that we ended up seeing a huge usage change. I think, on average, a lot of users entered and would at least watch one. Sometimes it was more than one, there are certain people that just plow through and love watching as many as possible. So, it benefited people discovering things that they normally wouldn’t have which was what our primary goal was. So, in achieving that, it was a success and we have rolled it out on iOS phones and it’s soon to be hopefully rolled out on Android.
Lyle: I wasn’t sure of the case on Android.
Michaela: Yeah, it’s in tests, almost done so it’s looking great.
Lyle: Oh, that’s great. Alex was talking about the different way that, you know, we work here and the kind of freedom aspect and having to find your own path. Do you find the same kind of things happen for you?
Michaela: Yes. When I started, I felt like—I had this fear of not knowing what to do right out of the gate because it was so different from everywhere, I came prior to this. That you would just have this huge room for impact and choosing what you feel is going to be the best for your team, for the future design of the experience. And, like Alex said, our manager does not say, “You need to do this by this date, you need to attack this.” Or, “Hey, look at this thing and give it a go.” You’re kind of left up to your own devices and your own passions, to really define that and run with it.
And yeah, sometimes you have a million ideas and maybe one is the one that impacts the business, that is at one of those goal points for the team or the business. And they say, “This is actually a good time for this idea, go with it.” But finding that took me a while without being scared of, you know, the bar is so high, you’re surrounded by this excellence of everyone here. And it takes some time to realize that you were brought onto this team because you fit into that bar of excellence and you all work together and have trust. Because no one’s slacking, like everyone is going 100 miles an hour but they’re doing it towards their passions, which is really different.
Lyle: As you discovered that, about why you were there, did that fear go away?
Michaela: Yes, yeah.
Michael: Did you have your manager come along side you? Co-workers kind of give you feedback to help you understand like, “Oh, I’m not taking these initiatives just because I’m simply afraid to do so. Even thought I’m producing the right work or the quality of work that’s actually expected.”
Michaela: Yeah, I think it was one of my first meetings where I did some rough motion design comps for design experience. And so, I brought like, I don’t know, 15 ideas. I was like, “Which one do you guys lean towards?” And they’re like, “You tell us. Like you are the pro at this, you pick, you run with it.” And that was my first kind of aha moment. And then, I would go ask for feedback and say, “Hey, so if I come to a meeting is it best to come with what I believe is the number one? Is that how this works?” And just having one on ones, the candor here is just amazing and being able to have those raw conversations with anyone on your team, managers, leadership, different teams that you may not even be on or talk to very often. They can give your insight onto how you can be better at your job all the time, which is just outstanding.
Lyle: Roughly how big is the design groups? Are we talking like ten people? Are we talking about 100? Somewhere in between that, I’m assuming. Do you know?
Michaela: The experience design team in Los Gatos is around 50 people.
Lyle: There’s designers also down in Los Angeles, what are they doing? They’re not product design? What kind of design are they doing? Marketing, things of that nature, yeah?
Michaela: Yeah. So, they’re also working on visual design. So, when you come into the Netflix experience, the art that sort of gives you an idea of what a title is about, that’s what they’re working on as well down there.
Lyle: Do you work a lot with them?
Michaela: Yes. So, we specifically have a designer based in LA for the mobile team and he’s fantastic and he does focus more on visuals and we’re collaborating on lots of projects at this time.
Lyle: And that’s really to have someone down there closer to the content, so they can like get what they need from the shows. It’s like, for example, you were talking about the Previews idea initially was different bits of video from the show, that, of course, has to be created and cultivated from the creative teams down there.
Michaela: Right. Not only that but we are not just a tech company, we’re a Hollywood company and so that’s why we do have our main offices in LG and LA. And so, I think as a rule we’re trying to get much closer to the LA team and really build those strong relationships that, you know, ideas can flow from both places.
Lyle: Yeah, that’s cool. And do you guys travel down there at all?
Michaela: Yes, all the time.
Lyle: What do you do when you travel down there?
Michaela: We meet with designers, with anyone down there, we have project managers, you know, video, our video partners down there as well, all kinds of things.
Lyle: What other parts of like the freedom and responsibility culture affect how you do your job? What else works or doesn’t work for you?
Alex: One aspect that I would say is, with freedom and responsibility, it’s up to you to kind of collaborate with different teams and work cross platform. We try as hard as we can to never work in silo’s even though we have a mobile design team and TV design team. Motion design naturally falls a little bit more cross platform. But really understanding your partners, you’re never told to go learn who the engineers are that will be working on the product, to create a close relationship with them so you know how to work best with each other.
So, I’ve taken the responsibility on myself to go out and make sure I bond with different partners throughout the teams so that we just have a more seamless workflow. Or if I have an idea, going and socializing it to other teams that may not hear about it right away just to kind of see, “Do you also have this idea?” And if they do and they’re further along, like it’s their freedom to go ahead with it too and it’s also on me to say, “You know, why don’t you take this whole thing and just go with it?” And work together or inform each other, it’s a very much like a handing the baton but it’s up to you to figure out how you do that, with whom and for what project. Like what’s the best way to do that?
Lyle: In the early .com era for me, I was kind of webmaster, you know, engineer designer, kind of all in the one person. And I recall sitting in meetings where a lot of people had opinions of the color blue we should be using for border of some box. And I just remember leaving that meeting going, “This is sucking the life out of me.” And I think I left creative design from a professional perspective at that point and just never looked back. Just always engineering and art and creative stuff on the side. How do you maintain that core of passion and of design and beauty and all that with the pressures of needing to, you know, satisfy 100 million people?
Alex: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I think we’re working on that every day, with every project. To make sure that we have balance between designers who are some of the best that are in the area and the engineers that are also the best. So, that we have, you know, the ability to be the best in our field and collaborate with each other, to reach the higher bar of things. Because I think it can fall short sometimes when you have a battle over button color. But if it really does move metrics and it has an impact on the user then, yes, it should be considered. But I think it’s balancing all those different aspects of data, design, product, leadership and really making a best decision for the product overall. Not willy-nilly rainbow colors everywhere, all the time. So, yeah, it’s a per case situation.
Lyle: So, what about the pressure aspect? Is there a lot of pressure to produce more and more and more? Like if you got all this freedom to do the things that make sense to you and you make the wrong decision on what makes sense. Like let’s say that we find out that the Previews experience doesn’t work at all and all of a sudden you guys have spent all this time on something that we throw away, is there a lot of pressure to, next project, hit it out of the park and be more successful or be more creative or whatever the thing that’s necessary to be better at your job?
Alex: No, I mean I think we’re always trying to learn and even tests that fail, fail for a reason. And it’s only wasted time if you don’t learn anything from it. So, there definitely will be tests in your tenure here at Netflix that just completely fall flat and that’s okay as long as you take those learnings and you move onto the next project with that new information in mind.
Lyle: How do you share those learnings with other people so that we grow and all of us learn the same errors?
Alex: Yeah, we have a meeting called Design Show that allows all of those 50 designers under Steve Johnson to get together and talk about those things. So, we’re encouraged to share early and often with the team and say, “Hey, here’s this brand-new idea I’m thinking of.” Or, “Hey, we’re going to go to test with this.” Or, “Hey, this Shipt.” Or, “Hey, it’s a test and it failed and here’s why.” So, in that meeting we’re sort of encouraged to share our learnings from both successful and unsuccessful tests.
Lyle: What would change here to make you want to leave? Like what could change that would make you want to leave the company?
Alex: I think losing the freedom and responsibility.
Michaela: Yeah, I agree.
Alex: Yeah, going back to a structure where my manager tells me what to work on, I think now would be almost a nightmare, yeah.
Michaela: Yeah, I would say the same thing.
Michael: It’s my biggest fear of changing companies, is that exact same principle.
Michaela: Yeah, or if you have a brilliant idea and you know that it speaks to data and you know that it would be a great move for the company and not being heard, I think would be really, really excruciating.
Lyle: Yeah, got you.
Michaela: Because anyone from anywhere in the company can have a brilliant idea and if it is actually going to be a great experience, it’s given a chance here.
Lyle: Yeah, that’s pretty neat. All right, thank you both for joining us.
Alex: Yeah, thank you.
Lyle: This has been the We Are Netflix podcast. You can follow us and give us feedback via social media at We Are Netflix. My co-host is on twitter at _Michael Paulson and you can find me on Twitter at Lyle, that’s just L-Y-L-E, thanks for listening, I’m Lyle Troxell.