For Netflix’s Future, Look to Canada


Netflix is a company famous for its A/B testing. It constantly tries new features and interface tweaks in the wild, serving them to a small subset of users. However, in recent months, Netflix added a special C test to its repertoire: New features are regularly rolled out in Canada first before reaching the U.S.

Case in point: When we wrote about its plans to ditch the Instant Queue earlier this week, a Canadian reader informed us that he never even had the queue to begin with. Instead, he’s presented with a catalog-centric user interface that offers access to genres, newly arrived titles and a “Taste Profile,” which offers access to personalized recommendations. The “Add to instant Queue” button is also missing from individual release pages. (Check out the screenshots below for a detailed look at the Canadian Netflix interface.)

We asked about the lack of an Instant Queue in Canada, and Netflix VP of Corporate Communications Steve Swasey acknowledged via email that it doesn’t exist up north. “The Queue was created for DVD rentals and is not necessary for instant watching,” he wrote, adding: “Netflix members on a pure streaming plan in the U.S. still have a Queue as it was grandfathered in.”

This isn’t the first time Canada has become a testbed for Netflix. The company first offered its streaming-only subscription for the Canadian market, and in fact, doesn’t offer any DVD rentals north of the border. Two months after the Canadian launch, Netflix proceeded to also offer streaming-only subscriptions in the U.S..

Another feature first introduced in Canada was the new streaming interface for the Nintendo Wii. Upon launch of the service in September, Canadians were able to search and browse the entire Netflix catalog on the Wii. Netflix ended up rolling out a similar interface, combined with disc-free streaming, a month later in the U.S.

Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt went on the record about the company’s extensive A/B testing last week. Asked on Quora what kind of features Netflix evaluates this way, he said:

“Short answer — almost everything. The most visible test at present is between three quite different user-interfaces on the PS3 streaming application. We also tested some variations on UI for iPhone, and there are some interesting website UI variations in the pipeline.”

Hunt went on to say that Netflix is also using A/B testing for a lot of its under-the-hood magic, like the algorithms used for movie discovery, page load time and video encoding quality. He also hinted at plans to introduce a more TV-like experience by presenting users with video previews.

Check out the pictures below to see how Netflix looks like in Canada (click to enlarge):

Canada-themed photo courtesy (CC-BY-SA) of Flickr user ?ick Harris.

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