We Fear Change, Part 2: Netflix’s Interpretive Approach

I consider my well versed at making apologies. If there is anything that I have learned by apologizing, it doesn’t involve changing my name and creating a new identity for myself. Well maybe that’s not such bad idea after all.

Last week when I received an email from Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, I treated it like one of the several hundred emails I get from Paul each day. I scanned it just closely enough to talk to him intelligently about it with him so when he calls five minutes after sending it, I can pretend like I really care. As a Netflix customer, I think that Reed’s email may have been misunderstood. It is my hope through this blog post that I can translate or read between the lines to help you understand the recent changes.

I try not to be one of those people (Paul Caputo) who fear change. The part that really bothered me about the change was the approach. Reed’s letter takes interpretive writing principles and uses them in an evil way. We all know that Jedi Mind Tricks are for the weak minded, so I wasn’t fooled by his red envelopes. Reed didn’t read the postscript in Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage where he unveiled his 7th principle of interpretation: “Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Where he said Jedi, I’m pretty sure that was a typo that should have been interpreter. Who am I to question genius, though?

Here’s the letter and my comments are in parentheses (of course).

Dear Schafer, (Yes, my real name is Schafer. Insert your own jokes in the comments section.)

I messed up. I owe you an explanation. (Nice start, Roger Clemens should have taken this approach. Honesty goes a long way with readers, visitors, and baseball fans.)

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing. (Building a relationship by saying “I have heard from you and I’m sorry.”)

For the past five years, my greatest fear (Anger, fear, aggression…okay we know what Yoda has to say about that, and I agree.) at Netflix has been that we wouldn’t make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great that new things people want. So we moved quickly into streaming, but I should have personally given you a full explanation of why we are splitting the services and thereby increasing prices. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do. (Is he really just angry at the U.S. Postal Service or simply taking out aggression that DVDs are almost a thing of the past and they aren’t bringing in the cash they used to? The take home message here is: Daddy’s gonna get paid.)

So here is what we are doing and why. (Reed is setting the stage for meeting his objectives though this letter.)

Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD. DVD is a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection of movies. (Trying to relate.)

I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolves, without maintaining compatibility with our DVD by mail service. (He wants to play for the Yankees and the Red Sox. Though I’m sure in the future the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox and Netflix will be used one in the same when describing failure.)

So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are really becoming two different businesses, with very different cost structures, that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. (See take home message above. Revelation coming now, please continue reading.)

It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming. (Okay, I’m lost. Wait, I see. Let’s take away any loyalty you have to “Netflix” DVDs because it is easier to kill something you don’t care about then you will come crawling to “Netflix” streaming video, your old red friend.)

Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to qwikster.com to access their DVD queues and choose movies. One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade option, similar to our upgrade option for Blu-ray, for those who want to rent Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Members have been asking for video games for many years, but now that DVD by mail has its own team, we are finally getting it done. Other improvements will follow. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated. (Was he serious about the name Qwikster? I’m pretty sure that handle on Twitter is taken by my brother-in-law.)

There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!). If you subscribe to both services you will have two entries on your credit card statement, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as your current charges. We will let you know in a few weeks when the Qwikster.com website is up and ready.

For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that lovely red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be similar for many of you. (He’s right, we love those red envelopes. I’ve even heard Paul say “My marriage depends on those red envelopes!” I’m pretty sure Paul’s wife has him enduring some sort of post-baseball television sensitivity training that involves the movies Steel Magnolias, Beaches, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Don’t mind trick us here, we know they won’t be Netflix DVDs because of the new complementary color palette.)

I want to acknowledge and thank you for sticking with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly. (Uh, we are not the stickees but the ones being stuck. If he is trying to provoke here, he was successful)

Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions. (This taken from the New York Times bestselling Book of Bad Coaching Cliches in the chapter titled When You Care Enough to Say the Very Least.)

Respectfully yours (Stick it in your ear),

-Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix

p.s. I have a slightly longer explanation along with a video posted on our blog, where you can also post comments. (Doesn’t he know that no one reads blogs anymore? What an idiot.)

Okay so this was more of a rant than a blog post, I’m sorry. I just needed to get this off of my chest. Lessons: realize your patrons are smarter than you, focus on what you are good at, be honest, and don’t use tested interpretive writing techniques for evil.

Accepting Criticism

I’m on vacation this week, and I’m spending some time in a bathing suit, so I figure what better time to write about being criticized?

Being a good designer means understanding the rules of type, color, and composition. But beyond that, it’s just as much about understanding and appreciating the perspective of your audience.

It can be difficult to invite criticism on a design project—especially when you’re happy with it and you’re really only seeking validation. It can be particularly hard to hear feedback from nondesigners on a design project, because when aesthetics are involved, everyone will have an opinion, but not everyone will be able to articulate their thoughts. There’s nothing worse than, “I don’t like it but I can’t say why….”

If you’re a surgeon and some guy on the street says he thinks you ought to practice your craft differently, you can say, “Well, I went to school for this, so I think I’ll do it my way.” Graphic designers, on the other hand, can’t really say (as much as we’d like to), “Well, I went to school for this, so you have to like my work.” On the other other hand, if you’re a guy on the beach in a bathing suit and some guy says to maybe lay off the cheese steaks and ice cream, you are free to punch him in the face.

Many of you may be familiar with the website Interpretation By Design. (I’ve included a screen capture for reference.) As we’ve done several times over the last couple years, we recently changed the look of this website. This time, when we unveiled the new theme, we posted a link on Facebook and asked for feedback.

I was looking forward to comments because I liked the new look, and hoped everyone else would, too. We received a handful of comments on Facebook, a few more in the comments section of the current post at the time, one more (oddly) in the comments section of a post from September of 2009, and a handful of text messages (all from Shea, who is just so happy to have an iPhone). I really wanted everyone just to say that they loved the site and how handsome and witty and charming IBD is exactly half the time (on Mondays), but that was not entirely how it worked out.

Some people liked the new look and said so. Some constructive comments led to changes that I consider improvements (the original bright white background was hard on the eyes, so now it’s a warm neutral), while other comments offered food for thought but did not lead to changes (some people are distracted by the rotating header image; others like it). In this case, asking for and receiving constructive criticism did not only lead to immediate changes on this site, but it helped broaden my perspective as I undertake future projects.

Oddly, I am much more apt to solicit feedback on projects that I am not happy with (in design circumstances, that is; I do not intend to solicit feedback on how I look in a bathing suit this week). If I am happy with how a project is going, I worry that constructive criticism is going to derail me. Nevertheless, I always do ask for comments (again, not on the bathing suit). Sometimes criticism leads to small changes that make big improvements, sometimes I do actually receive the validation I sought, and every now and again, I consider changing careers.

Ultimately, seeking feedback on design projects is not just some part of the process to be checked off a list. Take the time to really listen to comments, look for patterns in the feedback, consider new ideas, and make open-minded decisions about whether to make changes.

And maybe consider skipping that second cheese steak of the day after all.

Scratched IBD Cover

I have heard that a person that is considered a genius is one step away from being off their rocker. Some time ago Paul and I wrote a book titled Interpretation By Design, along with our mysterious and reclusive third author Lisa Brochu. It is not often that one of the co-authors of a book happens to be the art director for the association publishing the book. It wasn’t only Paul’s responsibility to remove all of the y’alls and fixin’ tos from my writing (not that I have an accent); he was responsible for the layout, overall design, and cover for the book.

For some time I have made fun of one of the book covers that Paul designed and submitted to Lisa and me for review and comments. Needless to say, it wasn’t accepted. To this day, Paul claims that we should have approved it (because of the creative genius behind it) and that our oversight is gross negligence. I claim that for people to buy a book they must pick it up and look at it and if their eyes are bleeding, that won’t happen. Lisa and I simply wanted something that didn’t look like gummy bears had melted on the cover of an excellent book or a manual to hosting baby showers. Oh yeah, Lisa is also Paul’s supervisor.

I need your help today. Let me know what you think of the cover in the comments section. There are two versions above (one I call melted gummy bears and the one I call Design Your Baby Shower). You are more than welcome to review both.

I do have to give Paul some credit. There is a clever element, I just wonder if anyone can figure it out. Paul, you can’t play. After some comments have been posted, if no one picks up on the one possibly redeeming element to the design, I will follow up with further discussion in the comment section. We may even let Paul defend his decisions and explain what pushed him off the rocker.

Blogging Blog

I should have thought about this long before I went to Paul and said, “Hey, we should start an IBD blog.” Knowing that Paul would be looking for anything to do (in an attempt to take away the pain of being a redhead and a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies), I should have known that he would have taken the idea and run with it. Of course we put some thought into it (and by some I mean some), but really what is the purpose of this blog and blogging in general? Really, I’m asking you. What is the purpose of this blog and blogging in general? Again I need your help.

This post is a continued thought process, path of self-discovery, and evaluation that began in my post last week (Relevance for the Irrelevant), in which I challenged our readers to tell us what it is about IBD that keeps us relevant in your lives. As always, we both appreciated the comments and constructive criticism that was left in the comments section (Jen, for your benefit there will be no “stabs at humor” in this post, only critical lunges).

From the beginning of IBD we have stated that the purpose of the blog is to make the world a better place one post and typeface at a time. Which is a fancy way of saying we have such a big and lofty goal that it cannot be accomplished and therefore we can write about any topic we want and it applies to our mission. Since we put very little (uh, I mean some) thought into why we blog, I decided to research why it is that others blog. I was hoping that through this process it would improve our end product for you but realized many of the conclusions I was drawing may apply to your interpretive site, consulting business, or design firm.

For the longest time I have operated under the concept “If others are doing it, I should do it too.” That, along with the statement, “Come on, I’ll be your best friend,” have gotten me in a lot of trouble. Now that I’m a parent (eh, blogger) I understand the statement, “If others are jumping off a bridge, are you going to as well?”

Why should we blog? The Graphic Design Blender blog (yes, this is reference to a blog about blogging on a blog about blogging, and if you look closely at the image above it is a picture of this blog, with a picture of this blog, embedded with a picture of this blog) list the following as most common reasons for designers to blog: establish yourself as an authority with the design community, create good relationships with other designers, become “popular” and generate a large following, or make money.

Wow, those are great reasons for having a design blog and sure this is a design-ish-type blog. But let’s face it, no one respects our authority, our relationships are nothing short of artificial, becoming popular would be awesome but it hasn’t happened in our combined 74 years of life, and no one is making money. Okay, I’m not sure if I answered my own question about why we should blog.  So, let’s move on.

Why should you blog? (I like that question, since it takes the heat off of us and puts it on you. Paul, maybe we shouldn’t be blogging.) For the two years I have been writing on this blog, I have learned more than I have shared. I’m not holding back, but the practice of blogging teaches discipline in writing and makes you look at world in a different way in order to share your voice. If you are considering a blog for your interpretive site, you will become immersed in your resources in an attempt to have something to share.

After spending 16 years working at interpretive sites, I know how easy it is to begin to take where you work for granted. Blogging can cause you to find details, try new things, and explore in a way that may or may not have done in a while. You might just remember what it was that drew you to that location in the first place before the emails and evaluations took you away.

I have a short attention span in general and blogging has taught me dedication. What was I saying here? I don’t know really but I’ve got to finish this post because I know four people will read it. Oh, maybe that’s what I was saying. When you have an audience that cares about your subject or resource, you place more effort in being the expert and leaving no stone unturned (literally or figuratively). I joked above about our relationships being nothing short of artificial, which is totally untrue. It wasn’t necessarily a planned objective but lifelong friendships and relationships (I predict the first IBD marriage will be in 2013 where Paul and I will have to draw straws to see who will be the best man and who gets to design the invitations) have been developed through IBD. Relationships to your site, story, or products can be developed in the same way.

Blogging can drive your creative prowess for you and your audiences. For us it has led us to research the history of typefaces (okay, Paul already did that on weekends), visiting unusual places, carrying our cameras everywhere (even bathrooms), and visiting new baseball stadiums (okay that has nothing to do with what it can do for you). If you blog about your site, you will become a better interpreter of that resource for your audiences (who it is all about). In blogging though, you should know who you want your audience to be. This is difficult for interpreters who are used to meeting the needs of various audiences and mixed audiences. As a blogger you can build your own audience but you have to know who that is to do it right and be successful.

Design Blender states that designers who want to attract clients should blog about basic design principles, how to find a good designer, and what to expect when working with a designer. If you are interested in attracting designers you should blog about inspiration, interviews, and advanced design tutorials. For interpretive sites who want to attract support, you should blog about mission, core values, staff, offer interviews, and discuss current topics. If you are interested in attracting visitors you should blog about topics that may create discussion, discuss events, post images that will attract, offer something behind the scenes, list possibilities, and share experiences.

Paul, we should talk. After all, you promised to be my best friend.

Completely Flush, Please

Friends of IBD continue to keep funny signs coming our way. Over the last few years and many presentations later our collection of funny signs and/or interesting approaches to design continues to grow. I have a few to share.

The first two come from Sarah Keating who included the following message with the pictures. Her email says it all.

Shea:

My little sister is quite a world traveler these days and she just got back from a trip to Switzerland.  She posted a bunch of photos on Kodak Gallery and most of them were mountains and snow and other Swiss things.  But these 2 signs were just too good to not forward on to you – “The seeker of interesting signs”.  There are many interesting things about these signs.  The most obvious being that the cow seems very upset about the little pile of poo left by the dog but I have been around cows a lot and their poo is much more significant than a dog so I don’t think the cow has a lot of room to talk!!  I guess I wish I knew what the cow was saying – maybe it explains it all?

I can on the other hand make a pretty educated guess about what NON! means.  I think it is great that the stick man is caught in the act of littering, not just standing near a pile of litter – It is better for us visual/kinesthetic  learners I guess.

Well, I hope you enjoy them.  She is in Hong Kong for the next 2 weeks so maybe she will have more interesting signs to share from there.

Hope you are having a great summer so far.

-Sarah

The second batch comes for Kelly Farrell who doesn’t leave home or enter a bathroom without her camera.

KF: But how will the next person flush?

KF: I know everything is supposed to be bigger in Texas, but I did not know their eagles had hybridized with alligators.

For the naturalists out there, I guess the supporting image supports the “‘N Such” part and not so much the “Daisies” part. If you have a funny sign photo send it our way and we can put it up on IBD for all to see. Thoughts about these pics are welcome in the comments section. It is always interesting to see what others take from the images.

Get A Grip: Interpreting Baseball

This is a big week for Paul and me. We are celebrating the return of baseball! (I seldom use exclamation points, but in this case it is worthy.) I love new beginnings. For me, a New York Yankees fan, the start of this season comes off a World Championship, in an awesome new stadium, setting the stage for years to come. For Paul, a Philadelphia Phillies fan, the season marks an opportunity to meet the Yankees in the World Series and fall short yet again. So, how can I write about baseball for a second time in one week without ostracizing our audience with another baseball-related post? I should have asked this same question prior to posts on Star Wars, NASCAR, and Walmart but I didn’t.

Baseball is in my blood. My grandfather was a huge New York Yankees fan, which led to my love of the Yankees despite the distance from Yankee Stadium to my house (1144.26 miles to be exact, just to save Paul the trouble of researching it for the comments section). With satellite television, he never missed a game. As I grew up, keeping up with the Yankees was an important part of staying close with my grandfather. I kept up with the smallest details of players, statistics, and games to converse with him and hopefully add something insightful to the conversation. I never got one up on him.

He was a talented athlete as a child, adult, and even later in life. I never have been. I remember the disappointment in his eyes when he took me to purchase my first real baseball glove and I wanted the pink one. I also remember seeing the disappointment after he attended one of my peewee baseball games and realized that I was going to be better suited for playing Super Mario Brothers. I played in the catcher position not because of my throwing or catching ability but because I served as the best backstop. My husky disposition was effective at stopping balls especially when I closed my eyes after each pitch.

One of the greatest memories that I have of me and my grandfather came years after peewee baseball when he taught me how to throw a knuckle ball. Again I was playing catcher. The knuckle ball is a remarkable combination of skill and physics. Much like the great New York Yankee manager Joe Torre said, “You don’t catch a knuckle ball, you defend against it.” I still couldn’t catch; at least I could blame the knuckle ball this time around. He never let these details get in the way of our personal relationship or our relationship with the game. The great thing about baseball is that anyone can be a spectator and I’ve got that position covered.

The more you learn about baseball, the more you want to know. I was excited to see an exhibit in the Museum of Westward Expansion, a part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, more commonly known as The Arch. St. Louis is a great baseball town and the exhibit “Baseball’s Gateway to the West” was a welcoming sight to me. The exhibit immediately caught my attention. A portion of the exhibit that I had a hard time walking away from reminded me of my grandfather teaching me to throw a knuckle ball. The simple exhibit was a creative tactile approach for explaining the various grips of types of pitches. St. Louis entrepreneur Ted Kennedy created a mail-order correspondence-type course for learning various baseball techniques. Taking on the topic in some other way would have otherwise been too complicated to explain in text and graphics wouldn’t have provided this type of experience.

As you can see, baseballs are attached to self retracting lanyards that are embossed with a “T” for your thumb and two other spots for index and middle fingers. I’ve seen explanations of various pitching techniques written and on television, but this approach brought it home. This is the next best thing from having Ted Kennedy or your grandfather teaching you. As with most interpretive experiences, personal interpretation is preferred for effectiveness and non-personal approaches run a close second.

The other portion of the exhibit that I found interesting was about the St. Louis invention of the Knot Hole Gang. The Knot Hole Gang got its name from not having tickets to the games and watching what could be seen through knot holes in the fence. The Cardinals created, as a bonus to their stockholders, the first Knot Hole Gang where tickets were handed down to children to attend games.

The designers of this portion of the exhibit took an interesting approach to interpreting the story. Instead of just graphically re-creating a fence in the compressed laminate, actual fence boards were used to make a fence complete with knot holes. When you peer through the hole you see a historic picture of a game in progress.

For a moment, I relived parts of the 1928 World Series where Babe Ruth went 10 for 16 and the Yankees swept the Cardinals. I could have relived the 1926 World Series, where the Cardinals beat the Yankees in an effort to develop empathy for Paul and the 2009 World Series, but I decided that it would be too painful.

Both of these concepts remind me that the thought, design, and innovation to interpret the story doesn’t always require a high-tech, sophisticated approach to be effective. Oh yeah, one doesn’t have to live near New York to be fan of the Yankees, a pink glove is okay for a boy, and you don’t have to be athletic to be a spectator.