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How Netflix decides what you want to watch

Choice paralysis is a term most people weren’t familiar with until they sat in front of a streaming service with thousands of movies and TV shows. How do you choose the right one to watch? The truth is, the service may be doing a lot of work behind the scenes to help you make up your mind.

“The beauty of having a virtual library is you have control and choice, but with a lot of choice, you can be overwhelmed,” says Todd Yellin, vice president of product at Netflix.

"The average consumer is going to look at 40 to 50 titles to make their choice, so we have to put the right 40 to 50 titles in front of them without falling into the filter bubble. We have to make sure there’s diversity and serendipity in those, and we have to use the signals of what they’ve told us before, and what we know globally about those kinds of watchers and what they watch.

"The Netflix algorithm that suggests content you might be interested in is legendary, built using tonnes of user data collected to better show each person what they want to watch. But the algorithm goes deeper than just knowing that you might like Black Lightning. It also determines how shows are presented to you for maximum appeal.

“We have more and more originals on the service as a composition of the overall content, and a lot of that is IP that [viewers] have never heard of before," Yellin says. "So how do we leverage video? How do we leverage text? How do we leverage the imagery? We're investing a lot there, so you have a clearer idea of what this thing is."

During a recent Netflix Labs Day in LA, Netflix's Elizabeth Goldstein demonstrated how different image tiles were used to entice different users.

“We break down a show into multiple themes, and then we create artwork to fall into all of those themes,” she says, meaning that each show has a number of potential tile images each user may be shown.

At the launch of a series, all users will have the tiles distributed evenly among them. But as people start to watch the content, Netflix's massive trove of data kicks in to inform who sees what.

“We’ll start to see that members engage with the show and certain images have caught their attention. So, what we’ll do from there is we’ll find other members who have similar viewing habits as that member, and we’ll share that image with them as well", Goldstein says.

This is why, for example, a show might appear on your profile with the romantic plot highlighted in the presentation, while your partner's profile has the same show with zombies on the tile. Or maybe all the tiles on your account will be of the female characters in a show, while theirs flits between images of food and key props.

One bugbear for a lot of users is the autoplaying videos that jump straight into the show if you linger too long, which could have the effect of keeping users browsing instead of settling. But Yellin says the feature is here to stay.

“The number one way to get rid of paralysis is just to start playing something, but people don't want [to do that],” he says. “But then again they do, because that's been since the invention of TV, where things have just turned on and it plays.

"So, we're trying to navigate within that tension of making it easy and showing them the right information so they can understand what they want to watch, but not be overly invasive. We're constantly experimenting. Not everyone's going to love every single aspect of every service, but we do the best we can.”