Netflix’s 3 Secrets to UI Innovation

Netflix is currently testing four different interfaces on the PS3.

Sometimes, success is all about finding new ways to use what you got. Case in point: Netflix (s NFLX) rolled out an API for third-party developers two years ago, hoping that quirky apps would help to kick-start innovation for its DVD subscription service as well as its online streaming service. The initiative was initially dubbed as an effort to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” but springtime never happened.

Sure, a few developers came up with interesting mash-ups, and a bunch of others developed third-party apps for mobile phones, but few of these apps really pushed the envelope. “The top apps weren’t very innovative,” said Netflix Director of Engineering Michael Hart during a webcast titled “Netflix and the Second Coming of the Internet” on Wednesday. To make matters worse, none of the apps and mash-ups developed by third-party developers really made a difference to Netflix’s bottom line.

However, the company’s investment into its public API still turned out to be a gold mine, albeit not in a way that anyone saw coming. Netflix has been rolling out its streaming service on embedded devices like the Roku player for years, but early implementations of the service were kind of clunky, forcing users to manage an Instant Queue instead of enabling them to browse the entire catalog right on their TV screen. Much of this was due to restrictions of the company’s private API for connected devices.

When Netflix engineers started to look at new ways to bring Netflix to Microsoft’s (s MSFT) Xbox, they thought: Why don’t we use our public API, which can do so much more? Just like any third-party developer, they started to take parts of this public API, combined with their own streaming functionality, to bring search and catalog browsing to the Xbox.

“The month the new interface went out for Xbox, streaming went up very noticeably,” said Hart. Encouraged by these results, the company started to quickly revamp other UIs with the help of its public API data. Today, these features are available on the Xbox, Sony’s (s SNE) PS3, the Roku, Nintendo’s Wii, and as of this week, Google (s GOOG) TV devices.

The next step in UI innovation for Netflix was based on combining API data with HTML5. Netflix is using HTML5 for its iOS (s aapl) apps, enabling the company to roll out changes to the interface without being subject to Apple’s approval process. The company is starting to make use of this for connected devices as well. The recently updated PS3 app comes with a customized WebKit build, making it possible to generate the entire UI with HTML5.

Netflix is known for being somewhat anal about its user experience, and Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt recently said the company uses A/B testing for “almost everything.” Of course, that’s much easier when you utilize HTML5, because you can simply download a new interface to a subset of your customers at any given time. In fact, Hart said Netflix is currently testing four different interfaces on the PS3. (Check out the screenshot above for a look at the differences.)

Theoretically, HTML5 could at some point completely replace the use of APIs for connected devices, but the Netflix Director of API Engineering Daniel Jacobson said he doesn’t see this happening anytime soon. In fact, there are still tons of clients out there that make use of the first iteration of the private device API to deliver a simple Instant Queue-based experience. The company is likely “stuck with a 1.0 API version for the next 7 to 10 years,” he said.

Check out the Xbox episode of our weekly Cord Cutters web series for a detailed look at the Netflix UI on the Xbox:


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