Superior Usability Was the Unexpected Surprise: The Web site I Can’t Live Without

The most recent addition to my (long) list of Web sites I can’t live without is Netflix. I know that an entertainment site is an odd choice for something you can’t live without, but during a recession every penny counts, and Netflix is saving me thousands of pennies each month. What I didn’t expect was how much better my TV watching experience would become. Netflix has found a way to do way more with much less. My great-grandmother, who lived through the Depression, would have been so proud.

After a recent review of the household budget, I decided to make a trial switch: out with cable and in with Netflix. This has definitely put me in the minority, as 84% of American households subscribe to cable television services (in 2005 anyway). An antenna feeds my addiction to PBS and ABC’s Lost, but what about Top Chef and Battlestar Galactica? My solution was Netflix, which allows for DVD rental by mail and instant on-demand access to a substantial portion of their collection.

Given the cost savings, I expected that I would be sacrificing; that there would be a big tradeoff between the easy access of cable and the unwieldy interface of Netflix. But I could not have been more wrong. Not only is it cheaper than cable, the incredible user experience on Netflix makes it an instant favorite. Within the first 60 seconds of creating an account, I had a dozen movies and TV shows queued up and ready to go. All were shows that I had been wanting to see, but that I had forgotten at the video store, or missed on TV when they first aired. Now, every time I log in to Netflix, there are old favorites and new undiscovered gems that are just what I was in the mood for.

How does Netflix do it? They have great algorithms, and they have collected tons of data ever since they started. The system compares my movie ratings against millions of other users, and offers recommendations that are spot on. It even figured out that I am a sucker for football movies, like baseball movies some, and couldn’t care less about soccer movies (Bend it Like Beckam notwithstanding).

But they package all of the back end sophistication into an easy-to-use, personal experience. And the instant view—right on the TV!—means that I have about 10,000 more options on any given night than I did with cable.

All of this and 90% cheaper than cable? That makes Netflix a site I can’t live without.