Netflix: operations trumps usability

I love Netflix. I’ve been using it less than a month and I don’t think I’ll ever set foot in a video store again. Netflix is so good at what it does that it is able to overcome the lousiness of its Web site.

It’s a better way to rent movies. You tell them what movies you want to see. For $20 a month, you can have three movies checked out at any time, and they send you new DVD’s as you return the ones you’re viewing.

This has a lot of advantages, starting with the elimination of multi-day rental charges and late fees. Then there’s elimination of trips to the video store to rent and return DVD’s. Finally it helps me avoid seizing up when I can’t find the one or two movies I came to the store to rent. Oh, and it helps to have more information about the film than the blurbs on the box.

Their operations are brilliant. Their custom mailer doubles as a paid return envelope. They email you when they receive your returns and when they ship a DVD to you, so you know what’s coming. The whole thing is designed to be fast and inexpensive.

But their web site is awful. I’ve rated 40 films on the site, but Netflix’s Recommendations link returns an empty page. You can’t search for films by director. Their “Critics’ Picks” are awkward to browse. Their links to related films are unimaginative. The cumulative effect is that it’s really difficult to find films to add to your rental queue.

This is surprising because this is not a difficult design problem and it has been solved at least twice. I have no idea why Netflix hasn’t learned from IMDB or how to design a movie Web site.

I don’t doubt that a better site would improve their bottom line, but Netflix’s grassroot success is a lesson for us all. Even when the Web is your only presence in the market, getting the operations right is absolutely critical.

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