Bill Scott: The Want Magazine Interview

Interview conducted for the April 2010 issue of Want Magazine

Yessir, there’s nothing like working for a quarterly publication in today’s fast-and-loose online media environment. The best part? Interviewing someone like Bill Scott about his company, Netflix, and then finding out three weeks before press time that he doesn’t work for Netflix anymore. Bill Scott. Yep.

Fortunately, Scott’s career and influence doesn’t start and stop with Netflix, nor even with his current position at Meebo. He’s a published author, an in-demand UX lecturer, and a heck of a nice guy. He sat down with us at the end of a busy day to talk about the evolution of UX, bidding adieu to the scroll bar, and why happy employees make better products. And yes, he did give us a look under Netflix’s big red hood. Want Magazine: So, Bill. What’s your definition of User Experience?

Bill Scott: I’ll cop out and give a couple. Because if you’re doing something that’s much more entertainment–an engaging game–then it’s much more about fun, defined in a sense of thrill and fear, and all those emotions, and you’re always climbing that ladder of challenge and success and challenge and success.

“But there’s another kind of fun—[as applied to] productivity apps…if you can get the flow, and the tool becomes transparent and visible to you and there’s a transparency to it and you get your stuff done and you feel smarter, then that’s a good user experience.

And then, in [Netflix’s] situation a good user experience is, you found a movie that you enjoyed that you didn’t know that you were going to enjoy. So…games: more directly fun. And then productivity apps are all the way out here, where it’s more like “I’m very invisible.” And [the Netflix UX] is a little bit more in-between.

Let’s talk a bit about your job at Netflix. I was surprised to hear that there are in fact two UX departments in Netflix. One is User Interface Engineering (of which you’re the director), but there’s also a UX department, where you have a director of User Experience.

Yes. Rochelle King is my counterpart. Wonderful person to work with. And [her] team is the actual UX design team. And my team is what a lot of people call the front-end engineers, the engineers that are actually putting the website together. So their skills range from, usually HTML, XML, CSS and Java script. Although I like to have people in the team that also have design sensibilities.

So why is the author of Designing Web Interfaces heading up an Engineering department?

It’s actually an interesting role, because User Experience is valued here highly at Netflix, and they like to hire people who bring a hybrid of skills. So while someone like myself could do the User Experience side, I do the User Engineering, that’s where I put my focus, but I can easily brainstorm with Rochelle. I don’t try to run the design team. She does a great job of that.

When I was at Yahoo!, I was [the Ajax Evangelist], and so it involved both the design side and the engineering side. At first I was in the core design team, and then when I launched the Yahoo! pattern library, that was design assets. But then I went over and became engineering manager for a while for a product called Yahoo! for Teachers. So I’m kind of one of those odd birds that jump back and forth between engineering and design. And I like that. I enjoy the back and forth.

We Don’t Own Red, But…” The Psychology of Creating “Want”

Can one manufacture “want” into a product or service? I think you can…One can have the right motive in doing that…persuasive experience is what we would call it.

If you understand human psychology…you can persuade a little bit better. For example, people want a big set of choices, [but] if the Paradox of Choice theory is correct, people are actually happier with fewer choices.

If you know that generally things you put up first, people are going to have a higher take on, you can manufacture a little bit of want and desire there. You can say that something’s free—and that creates this good feeling. People are drawn to that. So there are certainly things you can do.

A good book I would recommend to people is Susan Weinschenk’s book, Neuro Web Design, a very good book. She’s got some YouTube web videos also. And she talks about these things like fear of loss and other things like the paradox of choice and some experiments with that.

I think it’s like most things in life, though. If you try too hard to do something, say, superficial like that, then it becomes too apparent and it falls apart…You could really try to manipulate people with the fear and scarcity and the last minute deal, [but] it goes overboard. Because you’re just focused on that. You’re a one-trick pony.

How much importance do you think marketing and advertising have towards creating this kind of want and desire for a product? I think a lot. A lot of the success we have had [at Netflix] is because we have a great marketing group that’s got the Netflix brand out. The red envelope has been huge. It’s like this symbol of happiness people have when they get it. It’s huge for us now.

Of course, you have to envision some day in the future, [Netflix will focus more on] streaming. And…we won’t have red envelopes, which will be a sad day.

But yeah, it creates a tone. Our brand team, we don’t own red. Obviously. Nobody owns red. But we do have a red color that people do recognize as us, and we try to bring that forward.

The Responsibilities Of the Interaction Designer

What is the Interaction Designer’s job: to influence conversion or extended use? What is the interaction designer’s job, whether it’s an engineer, whether it’s a designer? Is it to make a product desirable for adoption–to influence purchaser adoption? Or is it to make it consistently enjoyable over use?

There’s kind of a tension between pure design, aesthetics, and business concerns it seems like you’re kind of getting at there. Really, at the end of the day, you can blend the two together. What we try to find is the intersection point between what’s a good user experience and also what helps the business.

Between conversions and reuse. There’s some things you can [do], surface certain things in the site…People tend to enjoy it more if you can find hidden gems and things that are more of a treasure. We don’t have hard data on that, but we have a pretty good hunch based on some data.

Then it’s a good experience–and it’s not bad for business either.

Designing Constraints

BS: From a designer, the challenge you know in hiring a design team at pretty much any web company that’s going to be successful, they can’t just be about design. The team as a whole has to be thinking about the business.

But I think [this is] one of the challenges in the design team, and I work with Rochelle on this. When she hires, I interview the designers too and I’m part of her process.

You have to find designers and engineers who enjoy living in constraints. Some designers want all the freedom, and they want to be artists really and not designers. Designers have to design for solutions. And so you have to mentally prepare people in a team to say, this is actually fun. This is a challenge. Here are the constraints that you have. Yeah, you want to fill this experience, but to win at this game, these business metrics need to move. And it’s an objective. It can be read wrong. It can be misused. But it’s an objective measure, and you can go against that.

“Happy People Design Happy Products”

But how does that affect the quality of the product and/or service that we’re talking about here? It affects it because happy people design happy products.

I heard this one company recently where they were telling me the product managers were cussing out the designers and just lambasting the engineers. This is in the valley here. What a bunch of nonsense. We all have to go home, and we have families, and live civilly. It affects our work. But if you have teams that, if the reward structure of the whole organization is around moving the business forward, everybody gets the value of that.

People that enjoy their work are going to be more creative. I just believe that. That book Driven that just came out recently talks about motivation of creatives. It’s not about the stick-and-carrot approach. It’s really about being driven by the desire to create. Now, we temper that because we have the numbers that drive the business.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that having a cohesive team or teams is the best way to create a product that people want. I think it’s a strong ingredient. I think without that ingredient, you can fall apart pretty quickly. It certainly wouldn’t stand on its own if we didn’t have the [shared] passion towards simplicity, to not just add a bunch of features. No feature is actually sacred. It can be taken away if it’s not something that’s valuable. A resource that’s not really helping our members. The objective is of the measures, business measures…web analytics is a really important part of it. Well, it’s only one piece of the puzzle, I should say, but very important.

The Future of UX

Do you see the field of UX evolving past the point we’re at now? Yeah. I really do. We’re definitely at a change point. For the last 26 years, we’ve had the mouse, we’ve had a lot of things that go with that.

It’s interesting. I was thinking about this the other day. My first introduction to the mouse and the scroll bar was a Mac in 1984…and I was ecstatic that I could actually scroll back and forth and see my Mac Basic program and not just roll off the window. I could actually scroll back and forth.

And I thought it was quite appropriate that if anybody took the scroll bar away from me, it would be Apple because they gave it to me to begin with. I guess 26 years seemed kind of poetic.

They giveth, and finally they taketh away. [Now], you just flick with your finger.

We’re at kind of one of those watershed moments. Just like the iPhone ushered in a lot of stuff, I think the iPad will too. If it’s not the iPad itself that just takes off and sells zillions of units, it will definitely be devices like that. And I think because it changes the game around the input device.

I’m not saying touch takes over everything. But certainly as we move that way, it begins to change a lot of the way we think about things. And if you design an interface, you would never design an interface with a lot of scrolled areas, because the scrollbar can get to be really ugly. Visually dense. But you can actually have lots of sliding panels in a touch space. And, so, it just changes a bunch of things around. The physicality. The iPad’s going to [change things] a lot.

Whenever you change the assumptions like that, it’s great for all of us, because we rethink things. And even if we don’t end up where we thought we would end up by doing that, even if it’s not the iPad, the thing that changes the world, it certainly starts changing the direction.

So these are really interesting times. Because we’re getting interfaces into lots of places they haven’t been. Mobile space, even phones.

Are you talking strictly about gestural interfaces? I’m talking about gestural, the natural user interfaces, but I’m also talking about even on the TV–it’s left-right-up-down, so that’s not a great interface yet.

Netflix’s “Secret Sauce” (Ingredients: 2)

BS: It’s interesting. The secret sauce to the user experience here is two things that people don’t think of. Well, one of them they probably do. One of them that most people don’t think of [is that] the goodness of the user experience has more to do with the service than the site. Because if you become a member of Netflix, and you get a movie that you enjoy, you have love in your heart for Netflix.

And it’s true! When I first came to Netflix…and I started going out and speaking, I got a lot more love. I got love [when I would speak] for Yahoo!…but I got a lot more gushing [with Netflix].

And it was like, okay, wait a minute. I know the warts of our site, so I’m like, “It’s not perfect or anything. There’s things that can be better.” But because the service is good, the whole experience is good, then it transfers some goodness to the site, even if it may not be there. So that’s one.

The other is, the devotion to the analytical side of usability. I come from the Alan Cooper kind of world, not quite as extreme as Alan. I don’t believe that. “Good design is self-evident,” he would say.

One of the things that drew me to Netflix was because I was always a design-by-hunch kind of guy, I had a knack for design. I wanted to bring [numbers] into it.

Around here, our metrics’ are simply around acquisition—membership. getting people in. But, thinking of the member side, how do you measure retention? You can’t, until it’s too late. So you measure it by leading indicators.

Those leading indicators can be things like consumption. You can know if somebody added something. And now you can [measure] plays [of streaming media]. And so we’ve got metrics around that. And then there’s also “taste input”—star rating. If you rate something, that’s an important metric. And those things all tie together.

Because when you get into the consumer world, most people out there are not like us. I don’t know if you’ve seen that Google video, “What is a browser?” If you haven’t, check it out. The Google Chrome team goes out and surveys people in Times Square, and I think it’s 8% of the people surveyed that day could articulate what a browser is. “Oh, it’s Google, it’s search, it’s whatever.” And that’s who we’re building websites for.