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04th May 2016

There’s actually a science behind what you pick to watch on Netflix

Pictures have the power

Matt Tate

You know the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Turns out it’s very applicable to what you choose to watch on TV.

Given that the Netflix homepage is literally an enormous gallery of colourful thumbnail images, it’s not surprising that they’re the main attention-grabber.

In fact, browsing images constitutes 82 per cent of user focus on the streaming service.

In a blog post, Netflix’s Global Manager of Creative Services, Nick Nelson, said that they only really have 90 seconds to engage a user before they move on to something else. Given that the human brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds, it’s clear that pictures hold the power.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Research by the company shows that people respond to what’s actually in the image, too. If the show’s character featured in the image is pulling a face expression of “complex emotions” , then people will be more compelled to watch it.

The example Nelson uses Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as an example, which is probably suitable seeing as Kimmy has some of the most gloriously goofy facial expressions in the history of TV. Their graphic highlighted that the thumbnail that drove the most engagement was the most expressive one.


Another important factor is how many people are in the image. Images with three or less characters tend to perform best, whereas anything over three is seen as overkill – especially when people are browsing on a smaller screen.

Netflix used that logic when redesigning the thumbnail for Orange Is The New Black, which was a bigger hit when it had less of the ensemble cast in the image.


Finally, the study also found that people are often more drawn to “polarising” characters, i.e. baddies and villains. This is especially relevant in kids and action movies, and they used the example of Dragons: Race To The Edge (a spinoff of the film series How To Train Your Dragon) to indicate that the bad guys pulled in the biggest audience.


So there you have it. Now you know the psychology behind Netflix’s imagery, you should never be duped by a rubbish Noughties Adam Sandler movie again.