The Netflix Paradox

Netflix is synonymous with choice. This is important to say at the start because I’m going to reference a concept created by Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice.

You can find links to his excellent book and Ted Talk at the bottom of this article.

What is the paradox of choice?

I’m going to paraphrase Schwartz’ Ted Talk here (and I really do recommend you watch it).

Essentially what Schwartz says is that when you’re given limited choice, you can blame the authority for limiting your choice. You’ll take what’s on offer but you’ll wonder if with more choice you could have made a better decision.

The problem when you’re given too much choice, is that you’re more likely to make a poor decision. You will blame yourself for that choice.

What this looks like in reality

We’ve all been there. Picture the scene.

You need a new pair of trainers.

So you go to your trainer store of your choice.

Whether it’s online or on the high street, you’re greeted with a wall of trainers.

You have a set of loose criteria. Size, style, and maybe brand.

So you manage to narrow your choice down to, say, three.

You finally pick the pair you want to buy.

When you get them home, and try them on. The excitement of something new has disappeared.

They don’t live up to the hype you’ve given them.

And you question, if you’d chosen the other pair would they have been better?

You are blaming yourself for the choice you’ve made.

Limiting TV choice

I’m 45, so I remember a time when you were stuck with what channels you had. At one point that was 3 channels, and trust me, the choice was pretty dire.

You watched TV within the following set of constraints

  • Genre / Category
  • Time (availability)

If there wasn’t something you wanted to watch you could watch a video or a DVD.

It was rare that you would make a choice and feel like you’d made a poor decision. If you did, you’d simply change the channel.

Perhaps you made a weekly visit to Blockbuster (or your local equivalent). You’d finish your week with the latest release or something so random it would bring you joy.

The problem with Netflix

Netflix gives you so much choice, with some very quirky categorisation and a wall of options.

Using Netflix on a daily basis is the equivalent of going to Blockbuster every day of the week.

The cognitive load of effectively staring at wall upon wall of options.

It becomes a sensory overload of having to make that kind of decision every day.

Which plausibly puts people into two possible camps.

Those that spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to find something and giving up.


Those that spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to find something, watching it for a short period of time then repeating the loop, or giving up.

In each scenario, the person is probably asking myself “am I missing out on something better by making this choice”.

Make it simple

I know Netflix has a lot of data that they use to create quirky categories and individualise the images used on their CTAs. This is WAY too late in the journey. You’ve already made me do all the hard work.

Going simple needs to happen from the moment the app is opened. To win people over, and I mean truly win them over, make them feel like you really know them.

So make the decision making process easier, reduce (or at least make the appearance of reduction) the amount of choice.

Here are a couple of ways they could do that.

First, design. Reduce the number of options on the screen. Create a hierarchy of options, like Disney+ or Apple do, and regularly refresh the options. They have more than enough data to be able to do this dynamically.

Second, use behavioural economics and machine learning to reduce the choice. Learn the behavioural points of people who use the platform and make informed recommended choices. I think this is one of the rare occasions people would be happy with machine learning.

The point here is that Netflix are losing subscribers because they don’t appreciate that their customers don’t want to spend all night trying to decide what to watch. They have spent money on generating more content rather than generating a better experience in choice.

Of course I’ll cover more topics on why choice is bad, how to manage it and how to fix it, but those aren’t for today.

As promised at the top, here are some links to other resources that I absolutely love relating to choice.

If you do nothing else, please watch Barry Schwartz’ Ted Talk, it’s one of the early ones and it’s absolutely brilliant.

Ted talks

Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice Ted Talk

Sheena Iyengar – The Art of Choosing Ted Talk


Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice on Amazon |

Sheena Iyengar – The Art of Choosing on Amazon |

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow on Amazon |

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