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This article was published on September 20, 2021

The Netflix app enabling subtitles at low volumes is so damn ‘design’

There's a metaphor in here somewhere

The Netflix app enabling subtitles at low volumes is so damn ‘design’
Callum Booth
Story by

Callum Booth

Editor of Plugged by TNW

Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He w Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He writes about gear, gadgets, and apps — with a particular focus on Apple — and also makes the occasional odd video. Basically, he's halfway between an abrasive gadget nerd and thinky art boy.

It’s easy to forget about details. In fact, it probably helps keep us sane. If we looked at an object and immediately thought about the intricacies of its construction, our minds would be so chaotic we’d struggle to survive.

But just because we don’t live day-to-day existences obsessing over minutiae, doesn’t mean this doesn’t happen. App design is a perfect example of this.

When we use something like Spotify or Uber or Deliveroo, we tend to focus on what it does on the surface. Is it easy to search for a song? Can the taxi find me? Is the restaurant open?

Yet there there are levels of design beyond this. One of the best is when you find a feature you would never have thought of, yet is so elegantly simple, you’re shocked that it never crossed your mind.

And can you guess the level of design beyond this? That’s right: when this feature is only patchily installed across the app for some damn reason.

At this point, you can probably guess something happened to me this weekend. And it happened on Netflix.

The idea is brilliant: if you’re watching the app on your phone and lower the volume, subtitles automatically appear on the screen.

It’s meant to work like this:

Breathtaking, right? Savvy and smart rolled into a single package.

Apart from the fact it doesn’t work in reality. I’m so, so sorry for getting your hopes up.

When I tried it out, the feature worked flawlessly while previewing a show, but it didn’t activate during any regular episodes. I asked other members of the TNW team to try it out and they all had the same experience.

The fact that subtitles appeared when I disabled the volume during previews proves that Netflix has this technology and that the tweet isn’t a scam. My hope is that the company is currently testing it out and it’ll see a wider release at some point in the future.

But I fear it’s darker than that.

Here is an absolutely excellent piece of design that I’ve seen actually work — yet it’s not implemented across the whole app. In fact, it’s only used to effectively advertize to you.

Seemingly, Netflix recognized that people hate the automatic play function and turn down the volume. By showing subtitles when this happens, the public may be hooked.

In a way, that’s the purest form of modern design: teams of people working on an exciting feature that’s then used to manipulate you against your will.

Once — and if — we get automatic subtitles when video volume is disabled, then I’ll be the first to celebrate. Until then… look how they’ve massacred my boy.

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