Does Netflix need a couch potato mode?

Netflix Screenshot

Is the best user interface for a TV the one that’s been in place for the last 50 or so years? That’s what Kyle Vanhemert argued in a story published on Wired.com, which suggests that Netflix should adopt a couch potato-friendly leanback mode that just starts playing things, as opposed to forcing you to make a choice.

“Netflix is great when you want to watch something, but it’s terrible when you want to watch anything,” Vanhemert wrote. He went on to say that Netflix could keep the ability to scour through its catalog and browse personalized recommendations, but also offer a mode that simply serves up a continuous stream of pre-selected programming as soon as you fire up the app.

It’s an interesting thought, and one that’s not lost on the folks designing these kinds of apps. In fact, Netflix, YouTube and others have been gradually moving towards a more TV-like experience over the last few years. YouTube first introduced a continuous stream of videos with its Leanback UI in 2010, and has since refined the experience to allow users to choose categories, or flip through content channels they subscribe to (you can check it out yourself in your browser here).

Netflix also has been moving towards a more interruption-free experience with its autoplay feature that fires up the next episode of a show as soon as you’re done with one of them. The company also recently relaunched its TV app UI to make it more visual, and move away from a box-cover grid.

I had a chance to chat with folks involved in these efforts when Netflix unveiled them last November, and had the very same question as Vanhemert: Why not just play content as soon as the app launches? The answer I got was that the company has considered this, but ultimately decided against it because consumers expect a different experience from Netflix.

This may be the key problem with Vanhemert’s take: Sure, there may be room for just sitting on your couch, and watching whatever is on. But that’s already well-served by traditional TV, and there is no need for Netflix to emulate it. Instead, Netflix is about what TV is lacking, and that proposition has served the company pretty well so far.

By the way, if you want to read more about smart TV design and the challenges designers are facing when creating new experiences for connected TVs, make sure to check out my series on making TVs smart.

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