VOD & Movies

Netflix - Why movie or series thumbnails are changing all the time?

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I don't know about you but I have a strong photographic memory. When I watch a new series on Netflix, and almost for every series I've watched, I have the characters and visual aspect in mind. The poster, or thumbnail, is one of the clues I keep in mind to remember visually the series in the infinite list of choices on Netflix.

The issue with Posters on Netflix

The main issue with Netflix posters is that Netflix is changing the jacket on the home screen and everywhere else after a certain amount of time. They do that even when you already “engaged” with a series and started watching it. That’s weird because the only way I tried to explain this design decision by Netflix, is for marketing reasons and debatable KPIs, like the number of times someone "engaged" with the series (read: they made you click and watch the series).

What is really happening and what is the problem with Netflix

Let’s imagine that you are looking for the new Kill Bill series (this doesn't exist, don't be too excited 😁). I take this example because the design of the thumbnail is quite powerful. I mean, you can’t beat a black-on-yellow poster.

A woman in yellow catsuit handling a katana. The background of the poster is yellow with a big black vertical line.
The black and yellow Kill Bill poster

As you can see on the screen below, Kill Bill’s poster is displayed next to the other series’ poster. Your brain keeps somewhere in your memory that Kill Bill is associated with yellow and dark color, while Titans Series is more of a red laser picture.

My TV with a wonderful photoshop montage of the Kill Bill Poster

Now if I show you this same picture with the new Netflix updated thumbnail for Kill Bill, how much time do you need to catch the series’ poster? (yeah ok it’s volume 2 but you get the idea)

The same TV with another montage, but I changed the poster, like Netflix does.

And here, it's easy to find it because I gave you a clue by telling you the series was on the list. But imagine now you are seeking the movie on the infinite top to bottom and left to right scrollable lists, and you can’t find the yellow poster. How frustrating, isn’t it?

Note : yeah I agree, series and movies aren't the same. Movies usually are unique, and series can have several specific events in there lifetime: new episodes every week, a new season, or a end. So I'm going to focus mostly on series, and make a difference between series I've already engaged with, and series I haven't.

Why Netflix is changing the posters all the time?

Well, I don’t know, I don’t have contacts within the company, but if you know someone, share this article with this person, maybe they can reach us to give us some more inputs.

Edit 12 march 2022: aftet the publication, Jean-Baptiste, one of our readers, brought to me this article that I totally missed: Netflix Artwork Personnalisation that gives a lot of context and methods over their work. But I'll keep here the rest of my reflexion an analysis because most of them are still valid.

And for the people who prefers video format (thank you Sebastien for the link)

My guess after some readings (see the resources section at the end) is that the marketing team has a KPI (Key Performance Indicator), for whatever reason, that tells how many times a person interacted with a series. You open it, and boom, they increase their KPI by one. Happy people. 🙄

So basically, you see a new interesting poster, you click to open the series and get more details, and then you see the title and tell yourself “oh I already saw this series, what the **** Netflix”. And you leave. But the marketing team gets its +1 on their KPI.

It’s what I call a shitty KPI, in my UX Design point of view.

Your preferences, or how to create an echo chamber

The why behind that isn't clear. The what is a bit more clear though: Netflix changes your posters depending on what you like and watch. If they can determine that you are a woman, who loves anime, science fiction, and teenage series, you would probably get a half-naked Lucifer thumbnail 😍. Only because that's what works best for the women of this category. (sincerely, I do like it too, but that's not the topic)

But knowing your preferences, doesn't mean that changing it all the time is good for your experience. (personally mine isn't)
Indeed, before knowing exactly what you like, Netflix is doing a lot of tests, and I suppose that's why the thumbnails are changing regularly.

Mariama DIALLO shared an interesting article from 2018 with us on a "diversity" point of view called Film fans see red over Netflix  ‘targeted’ posters for black viewers.

Like father is presented with black actors Leonard Ouzts and Blaire Brooks.

The issue with knowing you and giving you only what you like is that it creates an echo chamber, making it difficult to create more diversity in your little own bubble-world.

Why this changing poster is a bad design pattern?

☝🏻 Before you read the few lines of this section, I must tell you that this is my own analysis, and I couldn’t challenge this idea with proper user research. But the initial issue has been found for several users around us, with different habits, tastes, origins and countries (in Europe).

Netflix AI is creating an echo chamber

Design decision make Netflix a new kind of echo chamber. The best definition of an echo chamber is Facebook: the social network push information and posts to you that you will like and interact with, because it's the best way for Facebook to keep your attention and have people active on the network.

2 different thumbnails for Good Will Hunting depending on what other series you watched

This is an issue, because Facebook, like Netflix, does create a bubble around you where the rest of the world is all blury and not easily reachable to you. Not because you won't like it, but because an Artificial Intelligence decided you won't, and everybody knows AI are better than you. Right?

But that's not the worst: it doesn't help you discover new things, being a more complete and decent human being. Maybe I'm exagerating a little bit, but you got the idea.

Measuring the wrong thing

In my perception of this changing thumbnail, I shortlisted two types of people (Netflix users):

  • the one who cares (people with a photographic memory, people with low attention span, or people with low vision)
  • the one who doesn’t care (the rest of them)

When you are in this last category, you literally don’t care, or not even noticed before that the series were having a changing thumbnail.

When you do care, you don’t care about marketing KPI, for sure, but you do care about getting back easily to the series you already started, or spotted earlier and want to watch.If the poster is changing every month, Netflix gives you a hard time finding what you are looking for based on your last memory of it. This is an issue.

I mean, the Netflix catalog is huge. Your personal list can grow very fast. So if Netflix adds over that another level of complexity by removing on purpose your ability to remember the series with its thumbnail, this makes no sense.

Yes but the marketing needs to test what is converting best.

Yeah OK, I get that. Read the following section then ;)

What can we do to improve that changing poster behavior?

Like we say in french “sometimes, you need to put some water in your wine”, meaning that you have to accept compromises and, if you are in the UX Design side like I am, deal with the needs of the marketing.

They need to improve engagement on series that might not received the same interest from the watchers. So, when a poster doesn’t perform well, they change it and try another one based on your preferences, but also on more global human behaviors. Or maybe they do A/B testing and push the best one to everybody.Whatever the method they choose, the changing of a poster should never happen if the user already engaged with a poster/series, because their goal for this user has already been reached: the user interacted and even started watching the series.

What they can do is keep testing new posters for the not reached users, and keep in the user profile the preferred poster when the User interacted with it. That’s my opinion and solution to this problem.

Of course, for movies, the behavior could be different, because some people love to watch them again, time to time. So why not, maybe you can exclude movies from this logic.

What are the usability mechanisms behind this?

Consistency and Standards

One of the most obvious and known usability heuristics behind this is the famous:

"Consistency and Standards" by Jakob Nielsen in the 10 usability heuristic.

I quote again: "Failing to maintain consistency may increase the user’s cognitive load by forcing them to learn something new."

In the interpretation of that, changing every time the thumbnail of the series forces me, as a user, to find the thumbnail again on the huge list. It forces me to learn again something I already had in memory. I finally spend more time seeking the stuff than watching it.

Error Prevention

It's also against the "Error Prevention" heuristic: I click on it by mistake thinking that's a new series, but it is not. Deceiving.

Maybe the UX or marketing team should pick a more useful KPI, don’t you think?
I know sometimes tools we use can limit the way we analyze or test stuff. I mean by that: maybe it's not the marketing or UX team, but maybe a limitation due to tool they use, or indicators another team needs, or maybe a director that doesn't understand what their asked for.
In any case, your KPIs should never enter in contradiction with other metrics that would impact your product design.

Another mechanism: the social aspect

Another mechanism I like is the social aspect of the images combine with an anchor bias. When you share information on a social network, on a blog post, or anywhere else, it’s well known that images bring a lot of visibility and it has a lot of power. You give your readers a specific (even official) thumbnail, and Netflix makes sure their clients never find this series because Netflix decided to change it. Grrrrrrr

Another reflection on responsibility and diversity

The other question and reflection I have around that is: does Netflix do this only for images, or does it do that also for title suggestions?

I mean, let's take an archetype example that would talk the people: Imagine a white guy blocked into a loop of movies and series with mostly white people represented. Would it be entirely wrong if at some point, Netflix pushes Black Lightning, or Dear White People (series with mostly black people represented) with a thumbnail with white people on it, just to show you that good series aren't all white? I know my example is kind of deceiving, but as I said it's an archetype example.

To me, Netflix has a responsibility as a company to push and bring diversity more than closed bubbles, to create empathy, to motivate diversity and to make us discover things that would make us more complete and fulfilled.

Some takeaways

So, to sum up, what we’ve learned today:

  • When you ask your users to learn an image or a pattern, don’t force them to learn it again by changing it.
  • Consistency reduces cognitive load, it’s good in general to reduce it, it’s even better for people with a low attention span.
  • When you choose a KPI for your team, try to ask yourself what you are really measuring, and don’t pick a KPI that’s against user experience. (best thing is to ask UX Designer about that)
  • Always challenge your first idea by telling yourself: what kind of people could be annoyed by this? Workshops like "Devil UX Method" or the "6 thinking hats" can help put yourself in the shoes of different types of users, or at least help challenge yourself.

Resources to go further

I leave you with some more reading on this topic :

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About this suggestion

The suggestions we make are not made thanks to a full and proper user research. At best we did a guerilla study about user behavior. Most of the time, these are suggestions based on our own experience and needs, which don't represent necessarily all end users needs.

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