Just a few weeks after sharing my Netflix account with the girlfriend, things started to get weird.
Random movies began to appear in my personalized recommendations. Documentaries about exceptional people overtook the carefully curated selection of dark crime dramas and indie comedies that dominated Netflix’s suggestions for what to watch next.
That would have been ok, but then the children’s programming began to creep in. I was told that if I liked Spongebob Squarepants, there was a high probability that I would also like Dora the Explorer. But I didn’t like Spongebob Squarepants — hadn’t watched it in years, and then only grudgingly because I had two younger sisters.
Then the Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn movies began to appear. It was almost like I hadn’t seen a movie made in the previous 50 years. That was soon followed by the Masterpiece Theater PBS classics with Colin Firth acting even more stuffy and British than usual in Victorian costume dramas.
And that’s when I decided enough was enough, and I changed my password.
A New, Truly Personalized Experience
Today, it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s because Netflix is rolling out its long-anticipated user profiles, allowing multiple members of a household to create personalized accounts and get personalized recommendations based on their own individual viewing habits, rather than the habits of an entire household.
When a new user signs up, he will be prompted to create user profiles for everyone in the household, and they will be asked to create a taste profile based on genres that they prefer. Subscribers can create up to five user profiles per account, providing some much-needed flexibility for households where tastes vary widely.
When opening the app on any of a number of supported platforms, Netflix subscribers will be prompted to choose their profile. The app will then suggest programming based on what they’ve watched before or what their favorite shows or movies are.
According to Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt, the new profiles will be created as blank slates, wiping out previous data-driven recommendations until it learns what a user likes. For those who have been Netflix subscribers for a while, that might seem like a lot of valuable data to just throw out. But Hunt says that Netflix recommendations are heavily weighted toward recent activity anyway — so it won’t take long before suggestions once again become relevant.
User profiles will begin to roll out to users beginning today, and will become gradually available to existing users over the next couple of weeks. At first, users will only be able to create new profiles on the Netflix website or on the PlayStation 3. But profiles will be accessible across a wide range of devices, including the website, PS3, Xbox 360, iPad, iPhone, AppleTV, as well as most newer smart TVs. More devices will be added over time, making profiles eventually ubiquitous.
Better Recommendations = More Viewing
For Netflix, the new user profiles are a way to provide better recommendations and to get people watching even more video on its service. Approximately three-quarters of all viewing happens as a result of recommendations on the Netflix home page today, but as there are an increasing number of multi-user households, the effectiveness of those recommendations has gone down.
That’s especially true in households with kids, where a huge amount of the suggested content ends up being cartoons or animated features. When the children go to bed, parents are left with recommendations that are unlikely to fit their mood.
“An important component of our service is that we can put something compelling in front of users and capture their interest in just a few seconds,” Hunt told me. Implementing profiles should make Netflix more effective at that.
While subscribers will be prompted to pick a profile at launch to start, Hunt says the company could link individual user profiles to certain devices over time, especially as it becomes smarter about recognizing personal devices. So for instance, a subscriber might not have to pick his user profile on more personal devices — like a phone or tablet — while smart TVs or other living room devices will likely always prompt subscribers to pick the appropriate profile. Even so, that type of feature could be a long way off, according to Hunt.
For now, though, Netflix is focused on getting the experience right before it starts tweaking things too much. For those who have seen their recommendations hijacked by other viewers in their household, that’s good news indeed.