Netflix has revolutionized the way we watch TV and movies with their online subscription model. I sat down with Andy Law, a product designer on the company’s mobile team, to discuss design inspiration, collaboration, and designing for your audience.
How is the design team set up at Netflix?
We have 4 design teams within the Experience Design (XD) product group:
- A mobile and tablet team
- A team that focuses on things like gaming consoles and smart TVs
- A web team that focuses on the website, responsive web, and the non-member experience
- A cross-functional team that focuses on the the product design for Netflix Original series
What’s the design culture like?
It’s highly iterative and collaborative, with lots of diversity—people with illustration, engineering, and animation backgrounds.
We do weekly “pod crawls” where we walk over to another team, discuss projects they’re working on, and how they might impact the business.
We also have more formal meetings throughout the week to make sure we’re collaborating and sharing our ideas early and often.
Can you tell me what the mix of designers on your team is like?
I don’t know the percentage breakdown of it, but I’ll use the mobile and tablet team to illustrate what I’m talking about. That group has about 9 designers working together—a couple of visual designers, a couple of prototypers, plus a few hybrid visual and UX designers.
We all influence the product, so we’re all called product designers. We don’t have “senior” or “junior” titles—we can evaluate someone’s seniority based on the input they can have into a project or a product. We don’t want to limit people by giving them a ‘junior’ title.
What’s a typical day on your design team like?
No 2 days are alike—that’s my favorite thing about working here. You own different things and push them forward as if you were the only person working on it.
What’s the biggest challenge of your team structure? How do you address it?
All of the designers sit together—there aren’t many engineers sitting with us even though we’re all on the same floor. I think it’s important to collaborate with engineers because they might look at a problem in a different way—and offer great solutions we might not have been thought of.
One of the ways we collaborate is by going to the engineering standups. You get an opportunity to ask questions and get different perspectives from people you don’t see every day.
“It’s important to collaborate with engineers—they might look at a problem in a different way.”
How do you get inspired at work?
Other designers really inspire me. I look at designers who do typography and are much more print-focused.
I also look at a lot of physical product design, like Fitbit. I get inspired by how they approach a product. They don’t just say, “Let’s put something together and release it to the public.” They say, “Let’s fundamentally change the way people think about a certain area of their life and improve upon it.”
Do you have any funny stories about working at Netflix?
The other day, I was with a team that I’m not normally with, and Chelsea Handler walked by. She was just hanging out and talking. It’s one of the more interesting aspects of working for a company that blurs the lines between Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
Let’s fundamentally change the way people think about a certain area of their life and improve upon it.
Are there any design innovations that you’re experimenting with internally?
We’re always pushing the limits of what it means to be a Netflix member. Sometimes those things are subtle, and other times you’ll be in a brainstorming session that’s all about tearing down the product and reinventing it. You’re encouraged to share ideas that’ll help make the member experience measurably better with each sign-on.
How important do you think design is to the success of your product?
Design is important, but I don’t see it as the only way we can be successful. We have amazing people in our consumer insights group, product management (PM) team, data science, and engineering teams who all contribute to our success.
We need them all to be a successful product.
How do you compete with some of the look-a-like products that have popped up in the last few years?
We try to focus on how we can make our member experience the best it can be. If we keep that as our prime directive, then we’ll continue being a leader in the internet TV space.
What’s it like being the incumbent in the space? Do you feel pressure?
Most of the pressure comes from ourselves. We constantly push to innovate and make the product better than it was the previous day.
I think a lot of people here, including myself, still see us as a startup. We’re always trying to move fast and break things.
You guys have nearly 2,000 employees now. How does Netflix foster a startup mentality?
If you’re in a startup, you do whatever it takes to push things forward. Everyone here does just that. It could just be changing out an empty water cooler—whatever needs to get done, you do it.
People here take ownership and pride in the product. All of that contributes to the entrepreneurial spirit felt throughout the company.
A lot of people here, including myself, still see us as a startup. We’re always trying to move fast and break things.
How has your user base changed since you’ve been with Netflix?
During my time here, we hit 50 million members—and now we’re at 62 million. But we have larger goals in mind.
One of the biggest changes for me is to be cognizant that I’m not designing for me or San Jose or the U.S.—I’m designing for people in France, Iceland, Australia, and the rest of the world.
As our members get increasingly global, you have to understand that it’s less about you and more about trying to realize the situation that they’re going to be presented with when they’re interacting with your service and how you can make that the best.
How do you deal with Netflix haters?
There are people with very strong opinions on what we should do with the experience and what the future of the product should be. I think it’s a mistake to tune those people out altogether.
We have core metrics we’re always trying to improve. We love to test new features first before implementing them more broadly to see if it’s really moving the needle in a positive direction. In other words, we believe actions speak louder than words. If we determine through testing that it’s successful, then it’s likely going to get released—and people will always have their opinions about new features.
But we always look to those metrics. If we were able to improve one of them, then it’s probably going to live in the product.
We have to look at our critics and ask: what are they really trying to say? Sometimes it’s masked. They may say they don’t like something, but there’s a truth underneath that you have to parse to figure out what they’re getting at.
It’s important to be receptive to those things, but they don’t necessarily determine the direction the design will take.
Do you have any insight for other designers working to reimagine industries?
This is something I did early on in my career as an exercise, and it’s something I encourage other designers to do regularly:
Imagine yourself as a member of another design team. Look at what sorts of business metrics they’re after. Then think about how you could change the app’s design, functionality, or user experience to impact one of those metrics.
So if I act like I’m a designer on Spotify’s team, I could ask what Spotify wants to drive. Is it more plays? More conversions from free to paid members? What attributes are they really trying to track and improve as their business metrics?
To be an effective designer, you have to understand how things will affect the business.
How do you think Netflix’s design process differs from other companies’?
We don’t do much wireframing. A lot of design teams start with low-fidelity wireframes, but we’ve realized through user testing that most people can’t really respond to wireframes—they just don’t see them the way designers do.
“To be an effective designer, you have to understand how things will affect the business.”
We like doing things that are higher fidelity so people can imagine them as a living, breathing, working product. That’s one of the reasons I use InVision—I can actually put something on a device in someone’s hand, and they can experience that as if it was living and breathing.
What do you think the most powerful part of your design process is?
The collaboration. No designer here is ever designing inside a silo—they’re always getting feedback early and often from other teams to gain insight from a different perspective.
If you use a collaborative approach and try to get a wide variety of input from a lot of people with different backgrounds and outlooks, it’s going to help influence the direction of your design project.
Could you lay out your design process from idea to launch?
There isn’t any single formula that we follow, but often it goes something like this:
- Discussions with the PM or designer who had the idea
- Brainstorm on MVP versions of the feature, or what it’d be like if we had no limitations
- Pull in stakeholders to evaluate those ideas
- Start designing. We’ll do a bunch of iterations of different directions the feature could take. On the mobile team, depending on where we see it living first, it could be on iOS or Android. No restrictions there.
- Bring in an engineering partner to get a gut check on feasibility. If that goes well, we’ll iterate more before getting another gut check from a higher-level PM.
- Start qualitative testing. We’ll focus on the iterations we think work best and potentially prototype those, depending on what type of qualitative research we want to do. We’ll work with someone in consumer insights to define our approach to presenting that to a user. For the actual testing, we like to get out of the Bay Area.
- After getting the results, we’ll put together a new test that’ll go out to hundreds of thousands of people and run for a while. If we get strong signals that it’s helping the core metrics, it’ll get “productized” and released.
What’s up next for you?
I’m working on a different mobile experience—what Netflix could be if we removed everything that exists now and started over.
What’s important to you during your design process and also to Netflix as a whole?
Great design is simple and stripped back. For us, a lot of it is about promoting the content that we have and getting the UI out of the way whenever possible to really focus on that content.
“We don’t have ‘senior’ or ‘junior’ titles—we don’t want to limit people.”
“Own different things and push them forward as if you were the only person working on it.”
“Collaborate with engineers because they might look at a problem in a different way”
“Let’s fundamentally change the way people think about a certain area of their life.”
“Share ideas that’ll help make the member experience measurably better with each sign-on”
“Take ownership and pride in the product.”
Photography by Peter Prato.