Netflix Refines Web Simplicity

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In Netflix – Keeps It Reel, BusinessWeek online takes a look at the usability of the Netflix site as compared to Blockbuster (the company Netflix socked in the mouth). Both site designs (Netflix, Blockbuster) have similar designs at first glance. But after a longer look, you can begin to see the points that BusinessWeek is making.

Netflix has 4 simple categories front and center, “Welcome”, “How it works”, “Browse Selection” and “Start Your Free Trial,” along with a large, graphically rich teaser to get you to start your trial. Note also that the family in the large photo is looking right at the “Start Now” button. Look at that happy family, who wouldn’t start a free trial? Only a bad person who hates children, that’s who.

Contrast that with the Blockbuster site which is borderline plagarism but still manages to fail on several counts. First, they put their logo in a weird graphical button that makes it look a bit like a banner ad. Aside from the logo, there are about 5 visual elements competing for your attention: the tagline, the photo and the free trial text. These are further diluted by the bulleted text underneath the logo. Let’s take a look at these elements in turn. First, the tagline.

Why, why do you need a tagline on a Web site? If you logo doesn’t look like an advertisement it should be obvious where you are, Blockbuster. Why do you need to tell people they’re online as in, “Welcome to Blockbuster Online?” People know they’re online. This isn’t a resturant, you don’t need to welcome them, but you do need to make them FEEL welcome. Next, the photo.

Unlike the Netflix site, this couple (sans children) are peering off the page and at your scrollbar. They aren’t even interested in what’s going on on the page. If you can’t get your models to pay attention to your Web site, you’ve got trouble. Next, the free trial section.

Aside from being subverted by the unnecessary tagline, the free trial button is about the same visual weight as the bullets and the tagline. A visitor to the site doesn’t know what to look at first. This looks to me like it should be the most important element on the entire page. “Get started! Give us your money! It’s easy. Hey! Over heeeeeeeerrre!” Not the case.

So what’s the lesson here? “Mark is overly-critical?” Perhaps, but secondary. The take-away is simplicity. Ask yourself, “what do I really need my site visitors to do?” then make it impossible for them to NOT do it. It is a process that requires discipline, sacrifice and focus on customer behavior. Good design is simplicity. Simple, not easy. When you are done, you may get reactions like “I could’ve done that” or “that’s it?” Ignore these people until you ask them to perform critical tasks on your site. Then listen to them say “that was easy” or just plain “wow.”

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