Netflix Reads Your Mind…
In many ways, great technology is just like great art; it’s designed, we experience it and whether we like it or not, we may not always give too much thought to how it was achieved. Netflix is the video streaming service that has taken Ireland by storm since launching in January 2012, achieving over 1 million members in the UK & Ireland to date. It allows users to watch unlimited, high quality movies and television for a flat rate of €6.99 a month. Its system of genre categorisation, recommendations and user specific experiences certainly make for a quality product, but amidst the wonderland of great films and TV shows, it might be easy to let the beauty of the technology pass you by. Meeting for a talk with Carlos Gomez Uribe, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix, I had the opportunity to learn about the workings of the system from the man who knows them best.
In the reception of the Burlington, it’s the usual hustle and bustle of one of the Dublin’s busiest hotels; guests scurrying about with huge bags, crowds of conference attendees discussing where to get lunch, some hopeful contenders for the voice of Ireland (auditions were taking place that day) and in the middle of all that, stood Carlos Gomez Uribe, a completely unassuming fellow who sports a friendliness and humility that you don’t find very often in high-achievers such as himself. A graduate of MIT and an academic’s dream; Carlos is someone who holds a lot of passion for his job. Sitting down for a chat, Carlos was able to explain the work that goes into creating the Netflix experience and the surprising inspiration for much of his thinking in developing the user recommendation experience.
Born in Cambridge but raised in Mexico, Carlos’ education was strongly grounded in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. In explaining the system that he has developed with his team, I found that much of the information that he was able to share with me was quite sophisticated and difficult for me to relay verbatim. Fortunately he managed very well to give me a relatable understanding of his work through a surprising story. After watching a lecture that explained a theory of DNA and behaviour being hugely affected by proteins, Carlos discovered that much of his applied maths interest was weighed towards these kinds of variables. In principle, the process of determining viewing habits and gauging behaviours and preferences is very similar.
When you sit down and begin watching videos on Netflix, the system is learning about your preferences with every move; what type of films you watch, what searches you have made, what films did you stop watching halfway through and why? These are all questions that Carlos’ team look to answer. They work on developing algorithms; formulas that can be used to accurately gauge and respond to viewing trends across the entire user database. Through a constant process of developing these systems, it has proven very effective in providing users with a continually growing, personalised experience. So, when you stumble upon an unknown gem that was just to your tastes, odds are, Carlos and his team put you on the right track to give it a try.
And there is no shortage of upcoming Netflix content. In addition to their ever growing library, Netflix recently announced an agreement that will bring RTE produced content such as The Clinic, Killnaskully, Trivia, Mattie and the hit series Raw to Netflix and having experienced success with exclusive shows such as ‘Lilyhammer’, Netflix are introducing more exclusive content; the new season of (fan favourite) Arrested Development will appear in full next year.
So it’s certainly a great time to be a film & TV fan. I have been sold on Netflix since day one and it’s certainly encouraging to see such a great effort to create the best user experience possible and to bring fresh, exclusive content. Speaking with Carlos opened my eyes to the passion and creativity embodied in his team’s work. Looking at the clean dashboard on your Netflix account, you might not notice the inner workings that provide you with your seamless experience but from now on; whenever I get a recommendation such as ‘Scary Thrillers featuring a Strong Female Lead’, I will crack a smile and think “Guys, you know me too well”.