30-Jun-2008 Update: Today Netflix announced that they will not remove the profiles feature. This is excellent news. Now Netflix needs to revisit the internal process that allowed the initial decision to be made, managed, and announced in the way that it was.

Netflix have a really cool feature called Profiles. This lets you setup more than one queue for a single account. We use it so our kids can manage their own movie queue, separate from the parent queue. When the profile returns a movie to Netflix, the next movie in the profile queue is sent out. You can set the maximum number of movies allowed out at a time per profile. So the kids-profile gets one movie; the parent profile gets two :)

Plenty of reasons why this is a good system:

  • No-one gets to hog the queue by front-loading all their movies.
  • No-one gets to hold-up the queue by not watching the movie for two-weeks.
  • Aside from maintaining family bliss, the other neat thing about profiles is that recommendations are based on profile. So my kids movie ratings don't get mixed in with the parents movie ratings. Similarly movie recommendations are separate as well.
  • Did I mention family bliss?

The only minor downside from a user perspective is that you need to specify which profile you're using when you manage your queue -- a simple set-it-and-forget-it pull-down list.

Well recently Netflix announced, that this feature will be removed in September. This appears to be a very popular feature across a very small but vocal cross-section of the Netflix user-base. So much so that there's a petition asking Netflix to reconsider. (Yes, I signed it.)

A partial quote attempts to describe the reasoning:
Please know that the motivation is solely driven by keeping our service as simple and as easy to use as possible. Too many members found the feature difficult to understand and cumbersome, having to consistently log in and out of the website.

Well what to say. If it's too cumbersome for those users, then either make the login process easier, or find a way to circumvent the issue altogether.

Continuing to maintain the profiles feature for the passionate few who use it (including myself) distracts us from the mission of presenting to all our members the easiest way to find the best titles...

Here's the odd part. They must have been receiving a *huge* number of questions and complaints about the logging in process to have it distract from the 'mission'. That's odd because apparently only 2% of the Netflix user-base made use of the feature. And why do only 2% of users make use of the feature...? Perhaps because it is so poorly advertised? And really how hard is it -- it's right off of the Account tab:

The other odd part is, since when did Netflix have a sole mission of being able to search for movies? User satisfaction and retention would be calculated across a range of features, not least of which ensuring a full queue. Fundamentally, you don't improve their customer's experience by eliminating a useful feature, with no usable replacement ready in the wings.

The user downside

The result of this to users is likely to be several-fold:

  • A usability down-side. Users will have to closely manage their queues to ensure a balanced flow of movies to different constituent movie viewers within a single account. Alternating kids movies with parent movies for example.
  • A potential financial down-side. The alternate way to achieve the profile queues, is to open a separate Netflix account. Which is more expensive than a single account. Suprise.
  • Ratings baby. In order to avoid destroying the rating system, profile rating histories may be lost. That means all rating made by profiles are gone. So much for "Movies You'll Love" to half the family.
  • Wasted time. What about all those movie rating. Gone. What a waste of our time.

The Netflix downside

The downside to Netflix appears to be larger though:

  • Combining profiles will damage the rating prediction system. I don't think combining my kids 5-star movie rating of "Peter Pan" is likely to positively influence my 5-star rating of "Blade Runner". In fact it's not likely to help the rating prediction at all.
  • Differentiating features. This narrows the gap between Blockbuster and Netflix. One more tick that netflix doesn't have.
  • Of course most of those 'account termination' threats will never materialize -- never underestimate the apathy of the vitrious users -- but many will. Regardless the ampunt of negative publicity will, at the very least, provide competitors with a gap to fill.
  • Is this an indication of how Netflix plans on treating customers in the future? Not only do you no longer provide a solution to having two queues, which is invaluable to households with more than one movie watcher, but your lackadaisical method in removing the valuable feature is likely to be seen as an indication of how you feel about your customers.

Now, longer term Netflix plans are to eliminate all DVD shipments entirely in favor of their streaming technology. Clearly in that environment different profiles is irrelevant. But long term here is likely at least 3-5 years out, just to let basic network infrastructure spread to a broad user population.

Okay, so if you read the comments there is a lot of vitriol flying around (and some very humorous comments as well, despite a vague suggestion that sometime in the future "new ways will be found to share accounts".

The result?

Ignoring the loss of a highly desired feature by a minority of the user-base, the real problem here is the merging of separate profile rental histories. If Netflix is truly deleting the profile histories, that's a loss of rating data. Why throw that away? Perhaps it's just too small to worry about.

On the surface this looks like corporate thinking at it's peak: a simple way to force users to upgrade accounts. Let's hope it's not. It's pretty difficult to understand how a company that manages sophisticated technical algorithms (recommendation engine, supply/demand algorithms, etc.) finds allowing me to set up separate queues for myself, and kids an insurmountable programming challenge. In the meantime, we're left to print out profile queue, and re-enter them under the main queue. That's the official recommendation. After all it's a feature only 2% of Netflix users use.