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September, 2011:

Netflix and Libraries: You Are What “Your Users” Think You Are, Not What You Think You Are

By now, probably almost everyone has read about the Netflix’s decision about separating their DVD delivery service from the streaming service.  I am not going to argue about how bad the decision is since that should be pretty clear to almost all Netflix users. The only ones who don’t get that seem to be those folks who actually run Netflix.

The greatest mistake about this decision is that Netflix is trying to force what “they” see as what their business is to users rather than going the other way around. As mentioned here, to Netflix users, Netflix is a place to go in order to get movies. Yes, there is a way to get movies by mail as DVDs, and there is another way to get movies by streaming online. You say Tomato, I say Tomahto. It is one vegetable to one who eats it.

Of course, things are not quite so simple if you look at the matter as one who runs the business itself. “Streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently,” says the CEO of Netflix in his explanation. I do not doubt the truth of it.

The problem is whether it is wise to base a business decision upon what those who run the business see what their business is. The answer is that it is NOT.

I surmise the Netflix CEO thought that this would streamline their operation and raise the efficiency of the company, now that they are separating already two quite distinct businesses in terms of operation and logistics.

But the result is more likely to be a large number of their so-far-have-been-happy-and-content users becoming confused and upset over changes that do not make sense to them. Instead of going to one place where I manage movies that I want to watch, now I have to think about what movies I want to watch as DVD and what I want to watch instantly. I have to manage two different queues, maintain separate accounts for each, and pay for them separately.

Why do you want to suddenly make your users re-think about your service that they are already happily using and paying for it? Why would you force a decision to your users when they were happy without unless there is some great benefit added to users? If there is any benefit from this decision, it doesn’t seem to go to Netflix users.

Now, let’s talk about how this applies to libraries, particularly the e-resources with which all of us, librarians and users alike, have alove-hate relationship. E-resources are kind of like streaming movies. They are convenient and fast. But they require additional set-up unlike print books. They require more trouble-shooting and tend to be more scarce in selection and may lack a certain feature (closed caption or copy-and-paste/print/page number/diagrams and pictures in articles).

It was hard to find e-resources when they were buried in online public access catalog without a discovery layer in particular in the past. So the libraries started to create a place for e-resources only. Now there is a library web page that lists databases, e-book vendors, e-journals separately. You search for print books and journals at one place; you find e-books and e-journals at another place. Often, the same title appears as separate records depending on the format in the online public access catalog (OPAC). Sometimes you only want e-books downloadable to your e-reader. For that information, you may need to go to a completely separate web page for instructions and find out what titles are available for that service. Searching an OPAC and jumping between an OPAC and an e-journal portal/a database list page/e-reader information page are not very pleasant or reassuring experience to library users.

We separated print resources and e-resources because ‘clearly’ they are completely different beasts. Are they so separate and distinct to users’ mind? Not so much. But we separate them for the efficiency of ‘our’ operation. Users pay by being forced to take an additional step. Probably a decision as bad as Netflix and Qwikster.

Academic libraries also like to think of themselves as teaching partners. Sadly, library users – both faculty and students alike – tend to have a very different perception on that matter. Many library users also think of libraries as a warehouse of books while most libraries do not think their mission is simply purchasing and keeping books in a library building. Librarians constantly make efforts to change these prevalent but incorrect perceptions of users. But in order to address them more successfully, we need to think from users’ point of view, not libarians’ point of view.

On the other hand, both libraries and library users think of libraries as a place to go for study either as an individual or as a group. There, libraries ARE what their users think they are. For a long time, libraries have been banning food and drinks inside the library. For librarians, books and food/drinks were not compatible. For users, they were the same kind of activity. You eat and drink while studying. So libraries eventually came to change the policies. That was a good decision for both libraries and users.

So, as a librarian, it is not so easy for me to simply criticize Netflix’s bad business decision. It is hard to make a good business decision when you think as someone who runs the business rather than as someone who uses the service the business offers. Librarians will need to remember Netflix and Qwickster for example, every time we are tempted to organize information on the library website by departments rather than services.

And yes, of course, whenever we are tempted to make a design decision by a committee through an agreement, we will have to remember how bad the name ‘Qwickster’ is.