Blog Post

Does Netflix need a couch potato mode?

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, which suggests that Netflix (S NFLX) 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 (S GOOG) 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.

11 Responses to “Does Netflix need a couch potato mode?”

  1. arobertson41

    been thinking this for a long time…needs a ‘shuffle’ mode – dump all your favorites into a content playlist or dump a genre (or two) in a playlist and shuffle the shows/movies

  2. couchpoatao

    Janko, This is one of the best thoughts I’ve read yet on the topic of internet tv. It does need a couch potato mode. I can’t make any judgement by looking at a gallery of DVD covers.
    Steve Jobs musings about internet tv seemed to concentrate on getting rid of the jumble of wires and the remote with 70 buttons… right, but he seemed to ignore the mind-state of a couch potato. Watching tv is most often a passive activity… I don’t want something that is an active investigative activity. Let me relax… i’ll surf the dial as it suits me.

    So, jumping into ongoing programming is the current tv experience. I’m doubting that the computer guys can replicate this, given bandwidth considerations, etc. It may still remain the illusive wet dream of the computer carpetbaggers.

  3. Ram Kanda

    Netflix should absolutely make a mode where you can just channel flick. Nothing is more awkward than the silence when finding anything to put on when you just don’t care that much. There’s another way to look at it too – the current way is poor for discovery. When watching cable, I may not have thought I wanted to watch a world war 2 documentary or something about robots in japan, but I’ll just start enjoying it. What we need is a Stumbleupon for TV. Based on my viewing habits or interests, but I can just hit “next”.

  4. One of the biggest problems I had with that story is that he seemed to base all of his statements on his experience using Netflix on a Roku (or other Smart TV device). I really think we’ve moved past discussing Smart TV interfaces and should be focusing on the Chromecast paradigm. Why discuss a better interface for an outdated way of doing things?

    In actuality, the Chromecast opens up a number of possibilities since it separates the interface from the display. So, when you open up the Netflix app it could very easily be set to link to the last Chromecast and start playing whatever Netflix thinks you’re most likely to watch. Meanwhile, the user could simply click cancel on the tablet and choose something else. This would be difficult to do with a Roku since the show playing would have to take up a large part of the interface. The show could shrink down into a corner, but that really is an awkward way of doing things and sort of defeats the purpose of having something play immediately.

    I think the lean back scenario generally works better for a different kind of network. For instance, during the Super Bowl users could open the Fox Sports Go app on an iPad. The iPad automatically started playing the linear stream without user input. Once that app is updated with Chromecast support, it would seem easy to allow the user to set it to automatically load the linear stream on the Chromecast when the app is selected. The user could then continue browsing the app for other linear streams and on demand content while the linear stream is playing. I think that many traditional channels will soon (within a year) offer this kind of functionality on the Chromecast.

    To create an experience similar to a cable box there is going to need to be some sort of linear stream aggregation app, likely from the cable provider. Selecting a linear stream from the channel list would automatically load the network’s app on the Chromecast and start playing, an additional click in the app would bring up the networks own app with all of its on demand content. There would need to be a constantly visible link back to the cable companies aggregation app. I think this is a couple years away, but it seems like a definite possibility to me. The industry would have to settle on standards for calling up a linear stream in a network app and passing the control between them, but that really doesn’t seem like a large technical hurdle. Android already allows apps to talk to each other much more powerfully than iOS.

  5. Rick Grgich

    This sounds like a great idea! If a lot of users want this, Netflix should definitely listen to them and innovate accordingly! You should check out Echo it, Its an online platform that is being built right now for ideas like these (innovative consumer input).
    I hope this idea somehow reaches Netflix and a greater number of other users or we can just wait for Echo it website to be published.

  6. They could run 6 different small windows when something ends ,especially if they get anything live and maybe pushing their own shows while keeping in mind what the user likes. But that would be rather annoying for anyone that doesn’t want the “brain-dead mode”.
    Maybe they could add a jolly joker item in a playlist that just ads random things. That way users can build custom,semi-random and fully random playlists and the feature doesn’t even have to be implemented by Netflix, it can be just a browser add-on.

    • But Netflix shouldn’t implement such a mode, the source article does show that content discovery is not good enough and they need to work harder on that. Once that is good enough and they can be fairly accurate in predicting what the user wants ,they can add an auto mode.

  7. This is an awesome idea. Insights like these should definitely be considered by Netflix if a lot of people agrees! Did you hear about Echo it? its a free platform that is being developed right now, it enables consumers to voice their insights and ideas just like this one, where companies will actually have an opportunity to hear them and innovate from it.

  8. mrbuggly

    Gigaom is a freakin joke. 4 seconds to render the homepage on a desktop PC, 6 seconds at best to render on a windows tablet with all the bells and whistles turned off or blocked. 16 seconds otherwise. That’s absurd.

    Gigaom get with the program. With all that money you’re charging at the ‘research’ end of things, maybe do some actual ‘research’ and deploy a more friendly website. Your customers will thank you. Perhaps you may even gain more of the paying variety.