We’ve all heard of Netflix – the media streaming service has around 118 million subscribers, and for Q1 of 2018 they posted a 42% increase in revenue from last year. One of the reasons behind these impressive numbers is that Netflix is a multi-channel success story. That is evidenced by the fact that although 70% of sign ups happen on mobile and desktop computer, 70% of total viewing then happens on TVs. In other words, users of Netflix engage with the platform on a variety of devices, so the transitions between these need to be seamless in order to deliver a truly multi-channel experience.

The growth of Netflix suggests there are plenty of lessons to be learned from their app (and I’m not just talking about how many episodes of The Good Place we can watch back-to-back in a single sitting). The App Store rating for the Netflix app is currently 3.9: that’s good, but it’s not perfect. Like any app, there are areas that Netflix can work on – and, for the rest of us, identifying these is a valuable way of seeing how other media apps might also be improved. In the interests of offering some helpful real-life use cases, this post examines the first time user experience of the Netflix app on iOS, from original download to finding and streaming a show.

Boosting conversion at sign up stage

First impressions

The very first thing you see from Netflix is this generic notification permissions request. That’s not a great opening gambit. Like a digital chat up line, this first screen that an app shows is their chance to prove that they are worth this stranger’s time. Also like a chat up line, immediately asking to contact this person day and night, before you’ve shown them why you’re worth hearing from or even learning their name, is unlikely to receive a positive response.

Netflix app permission request push notification

Yes, the screen behind is visible, showing that Netflix are promising to never show adverts and are offering a free month on sign up, but promising to never interrupt users whilst interrupting their attempt to sign up seems a bit ironic. This request could easily have waited until the user had signed up and clicked on a feature that actually requires this permission, or at least been customized to explain why granting it will enhance the experience. We’ve seen opt-in rates double when customers build thoughtful and informative opt-in requests. Netflix may believe their profile guarantees a high opt-in rate (and they may be right). But it would be worth exploring alternatives.

Signing up for an account

For any app that requires payment information up front, the sign up process is likely to be more complex than for any free app. With that said, signing up to Netflix did still take longer than I was expecting. There are quite a few screens and a fair amount of information involved in opening your account, but there are pros and cons to this.

Netflix app sign up stage screen

The advantage is that there’s no confusion over the terms of the trial you’re signing up for. Having previously signed up to a free trial with a cancellation process so complex that I ended up paying for a whole year, I can personally appreciate the value of this. Netflix make it very clear that you have the choice to cancel, and that they’ll be transparent with you about when to do this. To anyone who might be on the fence, that’s reassuring: if potential users feel like they’re going to be cornered into a subscription, many people would get turned off from subscribing at all.

The downside is that a slower, more complex sign up process might also discourage some new subscribers. If a customer is engaging on mobile, chances are that they’re looking to complete an action easily and quickly, so if their first experience with the app doesn’t deliver that, they might not continue with it. One way that Netflix have attempted to combat this is with numbered sections, showing you how far through the process you are and so encouraging completion.

Netflix app trial payment stage screen

Free trial model

Asking users for personal information, payment details and commitment to a contract before they’ve experienced the app can result in lower sign up rates, but that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are two main models for media subscriptions: giving partial access for free, and then requiring sign up and payment for full access, or giving a trial period for free after the user has provisionally signed up to a contract and given payment details.

The former is more common in traditional publishing media, and the latter in streaming. This second model has the advantage of gathering all the information needed to convert a free user to a paying customer early on, avoiding the tricky transition of converting existing user. It also benefits from the inertia of many customers when it comes to cancelling free trials. Whilst this might make original sign ups more difficult, it also means that a higher percentage are likely to end up being paying users, and that’s a metric that really matters.

The Swrve take? Test it. I suspect Netflix have done just that and determined that taking payment details immediately it the right way to go. After having done so, they’ve done a good job of ameliorating the impact of that decision.

Room for improvement in first app use

Information for new users

I managed to sign up for my trial without feeling like I’d signed my life away, and was brought to the main app home screen for the first time. Just as in the sign up process, the first few screens I was shown offered me plenty of reassurance and information on what exactly I’d just signed up for.

Netflix app sign up screens

It’s all very helpful content, but it means that the user’s first experience of the app they’ve just signed up for is a lot of information, with a lot of small writing and a lot of grey. Likewise, the device selection screen is obviously necessary, but perhaps unnecessarily plain. For a service based entirely on visual appeal and maximizing engagement time, it doesn’t send out the best image.

Again – the mantra here would be to test these types of process. By serving screens like these dynamically they can be edited on the fly and A/B tested against alternative approaches in order to find out what delivers when it comes to the metrics you care about.

New feature screen Netflix app

Feature discovery

Once I passed these screens, I was greeted by a full screen overlay letting me know about a new feature, Download & Go. The message is simple, it’s clear, and it makes it much more likely that people will actually use the feature. It’s a small change to the app, but it highlights a feature that probably took a while to develop but might otherwise be underused, simply because no one would know it was there.

Oddly, however, this is the only feature introduction message that I was shown during my first app sessions. Without any other onboarding, I was left to click around and discover everything else for myself. Netflix is not a particularly complex app, but nurturing new users is key to keeping them engaged and equipping them to make the most of an app.

User settings Netflix app

User settings

Next I did what any sensible person would do once they were released into an app full of amazing things to watch: I went straight to the Settings tab. This is easily accessible from the bottom nav bar – one of several recent changes that started to appear at the beginning of 2018.

It’s a short menu, but it covers a lot of the points that could otherwise be a cause for concern for new users. ‘It was using too much data’, ‘it was filling up my storage’ and ‘the video quality wasn’t good enough’ are all reasons that might be given by users who decide to delete a media app, and the Netflix settings allow you to address all of these.

Here, users can choose to only download content when connected to wifi, select their video quality, see how much space the app is taking up, and quickly delete all downloads if they’re dominating their storage. Rather than hiding these options away, Netflix understand that users want to feel in control of their experiences, and that this can make the difference between churn and retention.

Delivering a seamless streaming experience

Finally, let’s take a look at the main purpose of the app: streaming. I’ve been informed that binge watching an entire series in order to check the user experience probably can’t be considered research, which is a shame. Instead, I decided to search for a new program. With such a massive selection of titles (reports indicate that there are over 5,500 available in 2018), searching through Netflix can seem intimidating, especially to a new user like me, which makes the suggested categories a helpful place to start.

Netflix categories search screen

This is another one of the recent additions, and one that I think could make a real difference to first time experiences, as well as encouraging established users to continue exploring and therefore continue engaging.

Looking through ‘Netflix Originals’, I chose The Crown. Since the purpose of this app is to maximize engagement, therefore encouraging trial users and existing users alike to stay and continue paying, the simplicity of finding and starting a program is key. Lots of time spent watching content is great; lots of time spent wandering around the app trying to find content is not great: in fact it’s the kind of experience that will make users close the app and cancel their contract.

Again – this is a classic aspect of any app that is ripe for testing and rapid iteration and optimization. The nature of the UI has a huge impact on how successful users are in deriving value from the product, and the decisions any business makes in this area should always be informed as much as possible by real user data.

Netflix programme selection screen The Crown

The recommendation engine is one of the elements of Netflix that is most appealing. The only flaw is that for new users it has nothing to work on and thus it’s hard to know where to jump in. One solution to this could be linking the content users are first shown to ads they engaged with. If, for example, I came to download the app through clicking on a Netflix advert on Facebook for Altered Carbon, Netflix could ensure that this particular show was prominent on the home screen and that related content is also shown.

Netflix app sharing screen

A first-time user’s verdict on the Netflix app

Unsurprisingly for such a popular app, Netflix delivers a pretty great first time user experience. It walks you through the sign up process, reassures you that you’re not going to be trapped into this deal forever, and lets you monitor and change several of the things that could worry some people whilst you’re in the app. Searching, watching and sharing shows is very straightforward, as it needs to be in a streaming app. There’s room to have some more exciting features, perhaps introducing emerging technologies such as AR or chatbots, but this could risk overcomplicating the platform and reducing usability.

The only real snagging points that I noticed in using this app for the first time are in the onboarding process: some might be turned away by the large amounts of information, multiple stages, and lack of demonstration of why you should join up. The lack of onboarding screens and feature discovery is also something that could disappoint some users – or more accurately that might stop Netflix getting the most out of them.

With the app as it is, Netflix appears to be relying on its reputation to ensure that new users are invested enough to complete the process and start watching to see the app’s value for themselves. For such a major brand, this might well work, but for most other apps, these stages of the first time user experience demand more development – no one wants users getting part way through sign up, or even opening the app for the first time, and then churning.

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