Bridging the design and engineering divide with Netflix
Bridging the design and engineering divide with Netflix
What it's like to work for the crown jewel of the streaming world? For Fonz Morris, Netflix's Lead Product Designer, Global Conversion, it's the confluence of everything he's passionate about: Design. Engineering. Finding out what makes customers tick (and click). In this episode, we sit down with Fonz to discuss his career, the Netflix culture and approach to streaming competition, harnessing the power of your own voice, and more.
Heather: Today, I’m speaking with Fonz Morris, lead product designer and global conversion at Netflix. This Brooklyn-born, San Jose-based, self-taught designer is a jack of multiple trades: engineer, entrepreneur, DEI advocate, globetrotter, mentor and so much more. Fonz is a strong believer in the importance of self-driven education and has worked in tech and design on both coasts, including as a design team lead at Coursera. While Fonz certainly keeps himself busy, there’s nothing he likes more than mentoring young designers, paying it forward and inspiring others to pursue their dreams. Welcome Fonz, thank you so much for being here today.
Fonz: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Heather.
Heather: Well, of course. Having you here and working at Netflix, I have to ask: What are you watching these days?
Fonz: There’s this show about little kids that get sent to the store. It’s the cutest show. It’s based out of Asia, and these parents give their little young children a shopping list to go to the store. And the show follows them to the store, and they get distracted. It just shows you just how innocent children are. Check it out.
Heather: All right, I’ll have to look that up. So, let’s go back. You were born and bred in Brooklyn. How did your upbringing influence who you are today and how you approach your work?
Fonz: I think what I realized this while I was growing up in New York, but really made sense once I became a design professional, was that by growing up in a city like Brooklyn, you are exposed to so much culture all the time. It’s such a melting pot for the world. And then, when you think of how much art is in the city, we used to go on field trips to MoMA and to the Natural History Museum. And I would take walks across the Brooklyn Bridge. I could see the New York skyline, and we have Fashion Avenue. So, I was constantly bombarded with design. I wasn’t even really realizing it until I got a little older and started to develop my own style. And I was, like, where am I getting this from? And I’m, like, I’m getting this from where I was born and raised, having exposure to so much design like that. So that’s how I got started, the roots of New York just being such a design and culture and art melting pot. I just absorbed it all as a kid and then decided to go into it as a profession when I got older.
Heather: And not to mention music, too. And I know that you’re a big fan of music.
Fonz: Oh, my goodness. I’m glad you brought that up. The music had a ton of influence on me. I’m actually more of a music person than I am a watch TV or watch video person. I always have music playing in the background; so yes, let’s definitely add the music.
Heather: Okay. And we’ll have to make a custom playlist for this episode. I think.
Fonz: Please let me make a playlist, please.
Heather: I would love that. So, tell me, you know this idea of being a double threat. You mentioned engineering and now design. How did those two things come together? And how would you describe your superpower in terms of those two things coming together and what you do every day?
Fonz: Sure. I have a degree in computer science. I was going to become a hardware engineer. So, to get my degree, I had to fully understand and think like a developer, like an engineer does. But then, what I ended up doing was, in my senior year of college, they opened up a multimedia lab in my university. And that allowed me to start to really learn about design as an industry. They had all the multimedia equipment you could need—new PCs, new Macs, all the new software, camera, equipment…everything you could possibly need to really take a dive into multimedia. I was in that lab every single day because it was free. Honestly, I was a broke college student. If they would’ve charged, I might not have been able to go as much. But because it was included in my tuition, I went every single day. I taught myself everything I needed to start doing graphic design and taking the step into web design. And then, what I realized was, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t know if I really want to do the engineering side as much anymore. I think I want to do the design side,’ because there was such an empty gap for design. So, I was testing the market and learning the market at the same time. Then I realized, once I moved over into web design, just how important the engineering side was—because you may design a website, but somebody has to build it. So that’s why I ended up nurturing both of those skills. I’m a designer to the core, but I think like an engineer. That really helps; because when you think of how product design is set up, engineering and design are partners. We sit right next to each other at the table. And because of that, I sometimes work with more engineers than I do designers. By having this engineering background, it allows me to understand how engineers think, what’s important to engineers, as opposed to just coming from the design side. I can represent design, but I can also think about it from the engineering perspective. When I share my designs or my ideas, the engineers are a lot more receptive. I understand how to communicate with them. I think all of these things are a mixture of how it has been able to help me still be successful today.
Heather: Absolutely. And so much of it is the way you see the world as a designer but the way, as you said, you think as an engineer and being able to break down any silos and come up with the best possible product and experience. That’s pretty amazing that you have both of those things. So, in 2020, you joined Netflix. Tell me about that time and what attracted you to the brand and what you do, day to day, in global conversion.
Fonz: Sure, sure. I love streaming and content. So, Netflix was always a brand that I wouldn’t have minded working at. But part of the reason that I came out to the Bay Area in the first place was to be involved in the design, the startup culture. I wanted to be around like-minded people. It’s not that they weren’t on the East Coast, but there’s a concentration of them out here in the Bay Area. It’s almost like everybody you meet is either in product or works at some kind of startup. And because you have that community, there were a lot of events out here. So, I always told myself, once I come out to California, I’m going to be going to events all the time. I was always an events type of person because I like to network, and I like to learn. So, I would go to events almost every day before the pandemic. I went to one event that was actually titled, “How to level up your design career.” And at the end of the event, I was making my way across the room to talk to a VP from Meta. I ended up bumping into this gentleman; and instead of me just saying, ‘Excuse me,’ I actually struck up a conversation with him.
He was an engineering manager at Netflix. And he took my information and said he was going to connect with me the next day and connect me with some people. And he did that exact thing. The next day, he reached out to me and connected me with some designers that were already working at Netflix. I had some peers over there, as well. So, by the time my name got to the recruiters, I was so excited, and I applied, and I was able to get in. I actually joined the company as soon as the coronavirus started locking things down. I started in May of 2020, so my whole interview process was remote.
Heather: Well, first, it was Meta’s loss, right?
Fonz: [Laughs] Super, super.
Heather: Second, stay on the networking for a moment. We talk so much about that being such an important part of one’s career: never turn down a conversation; always try to put yourself out there. Obviously, it’s been a little harder as things have been more remote, but where do you get the courage to just go into these spaces? And what’s going through your mind? Any tips for people who are themselves trying to think about growing their own personal and professional networks?
Fonz: Honestly, I feel I have more to lose if I don’t speak up in a situation. If I don’t say anything, nobody gets to know how amazing, dedicated, focused I am. I don’t get to learn how dedicated, amazing, focused they are. I don’t get to share opportunities. I don’t get to share stories. I don’t get to be social. I’ve just always been able to quickly find a common bond between me and somebody and just be able to build on top of that, because I think ultimately people are nice. They want to be friendly. They want to meet other people, but it doesn’t come easy for some. If it does come easy to you, then you should really multiply and double down on it. And I do that. I’ve spoken to a ton of people, and the conversation didn’t go anywhere. And that is completely fine with me. But then there are also times where you think of the story I just told, I had a conversation with somebody, and it changed my life. So, I’m always thinking to myself: Well, look what happens if I say something to somebody; it can lead to a new job somewhere. But if I don’t say anything, then I’m going to leave exactly how I came here. And I believe communication’s extremely important, even as a designer. I need to be able to communicate my solutions through my work. I need to be able to talk to our users to learn about what problems I’m solving for them. I need to be able to present my work to other designers at the companies where I’m working and things like that. So, communication is a major part of being a designer that I’ve always worked on. But as I got older, I realized just how important networking is.
Heather: Absolutely. And just flipping it on its head, it’s not about what you’ll lose but what you’ll gain. So, back to Netflix. When you joined, was it in the role that you’re in now, which is product designer and global conversion?
Fonz: Yes, yes.
Heather: And tell me about what that role entails, what you do day to day.
Fonz: My role has grown since I’ve been there. When I first started, I was focused on flow, which is our signup flow, making sure that we were optimizing and were iterating on our flow to make that experience as best as possible for users when they’re coming to the platform. Marketing gets the people to the platform, but it’s my team’s job to convert you when you come to the platform. Is the signup flow as smooth as possible? Is it accessible? Are there any content edits that we can make to make the process easier? Can we shorten the experience? What is the experience like when a user comes from television versus coming from phone versus coming from web? And are we doing everything to allow them to give us their credit-card number and become paid subscribers as easy and fast as possible? That’s where conversion, the term “conversion,” comes into play. And the reason that I use the term global conversion is, I don’t only focus on the United States. I don’t only focus on one region. I focus on conversion all across planet Earth. We have a ton of different initiatives that are targeted for certain areas. I’m not limited to just USCAN or Asia. I get to work in the products that I work on, as well as the ones that I ship. They end up being global releases. My second focus was on multi-household usage, which is how do we get more people to stop sharing their passwords. And now I’m transitioning into a new team that’s just going to focus on how do we continue to make Netflix the best streaming platform out there? And how do we keep improving the features and services that we offer so that everybody wants to continue to stay subscribed?
Heather: It really is all about the user experience. Tell me the ways in which you really can understand user pain points, how you’re observing behavior, the way you’re using data to inform decisions.
Fonz: I promote user research all the time. You would think I actually work on our consumer insights team. That’s what the UX research team at Netflix is. It’s called consumer insights—shout out to consumer insights. I think they might be some of the most interesting parts of my job. Working at Netflix, we have a ton of resources; and that allows us to be able to really take advantage of certain things. We do huge-scale user research. I just got finished doing some user calls with users in Brazil, United States, Sweden and Korea. That was just for one stage of the project. In 2021, my team did research in over 15 different countries. So, we’re always getting access to literally hear our customers tell us their pain points. We don’t have to guess. That’s one thing I don’t do at this stage of my career. I don’t like to guess. I don’t like to assume, either. And that’s where the data comes into play. The data doesn’t dictate the design, but it definitely helps support and give direction to the design. So, instead of me having to guess why people in Korea are not signing up for Netflix or why people are canceling in Korea faster than any other place, I can actually look at the data and see if people really are canceling in Korea faster than anywhere else—and, if they are, present a test to our user research team to be able to actually talk to some customers who may have canceled or are about to cancel and actually hear from them firsthand what their issues are. So, when we’re solving a problem, I feel we’re coming out the gateway more set up for success—because we know what we should be working on. Then, we use that information as our starting point. That’s where we get our hypothesis from. And then we come up with some iteration, some ideas; and then we can get back in front of those users again. Now, this time, maybe we’ll have some designs to show and we can see how they interact. We can see if they’re comprehending the content. We can see how they feel about this. We can go through all these rounds of user research before we even get to engineering, let alone release it to the public where the users actually get to interact with it. So, the user research, I think, is the way we’re really able to stay in tune with and have empathy for our users. Last year, we had this idea for a project. We had worked on it for months. And after the user research call, it was going to engineering. We already had the designs. Then the user calls went terribly. Nobody liked the idea. They all were just like, ‘Nope, we don’t like this. We don’t get it. We don’t understand this. This just doesn’t work for us.’ So, as the company and as the team, we had no choice but to respect that feedback—but we were also excited about it. If we were to skip the research, jump straight to development and roll this out, we would’ve caught so much backlash. And when you’re at a company that’s as popular and as big as Netflix, you don’t want to have to roll things back or undo anything. By having the research to be able to put stuff in front of customers, get their feedback and either scrap some stuff or make some changes, that is what really leads to us having such a successful product.
Heather: When you have to kill a project or start from scratch, it can be devastating. But to see it from the big picture perspective…. Netflix is known to have a really unique culture. And I know Reed Hastings is quoted all the time about his philosophy on entrepreneurship and risk taking. Tell me about the culture as you experience at Netflix. How do you see it being different from others, and what do you find most exciting about the environment that you’re working in?
Fonz: The culture at Netflix is amazing. There’s so much I could say about it, but the one thing I like to lead with is that it’s very supportive. And that’s the thing. I feel like I have all the support I need to be the best Alfonso I can be. Whether it’s, ‘Oh, I’m burnt out. I need time off,’ and they’re like, ‘Cool, take as much time as you need.’ Or ‘Oh, I want to do some type of philanthropy, giving back,’ and they have a matching program. Or ‘Oh, I want to eat better,’ and I can go into our campuses, have salads all day and have places to work. The offices are all amazing. My team is just great. I’ve never worked with smarter people who always, continuously, push me to be better—because I see them being the best that they can be. I think all of those things are part of the Netflix culture. Also, there’s a lot of transparency at the company. There are a lot of things set up to allow us, as employees, to feel heard and to voice our opinions. There’s an ongoing company Q&A, where we can leave questions and get a response from somebody in the C-suite. I think just having that access, that exposure to them, and the ability to express whether you have an idea or you have some feedback that you want to give—to be able to have those avenues set up—is amazing. The concept of freedom and responsibility is so critical to the success of Netflix and of my employees. What the concept of freedom and responsibility means is: We trust you to do whatever you think is best, as long as you’re doing this for the betterment of Netflix. We’re not going to micromanage you. There aren’t a bunch of rules in place to stop you from being able to be the best that you can be. As long as you understand your responsibilities, you have the freedom to do what you need to do. So, the culture is amazing, I think it’s very supportive. I just feel very fortunate to work there. And I am still as excited and passionate to go to work every day as when I started.
Heather: Well, that’s a testament to, you know, not just the passion that you have for the work but, as you said, for the culture that you’re working within—which I think is so important. Netflix is such a beloved brand, but it is such a saturated place. Obviously, there has been talk about loss of subscribers. And, certainly, the company has said, ‘We’ve been down this road before, and we’ve come back.’ How does that kind of news impact your day to day, if at all?
Fonz: To be honest, I’m always going to pay attention to my surroundings and what’s going on, but I’m not going to let that cloud my vision. It’s interesting that you said that; because with some previous conversations that I’ve had with some of my teammates, I said that I feel now that the company, to some, has hit a rough patch. I think now is the time for us to really stand up and show what we’re really made of as far as employees. The company needs us, so now’s the time to be a rock star if you ever wanted to be a rock star. They tell us—and this is straight from the leadership down—to not focus on the competition because, don’t forget, we’re the leaders in this space. We’re still number one. Even though there are competitors, they’re vying for our position; we’re not vying for their position. Then, also, you don’t work at Disney. You don’t work at HBO Max. You work at Netflix, so you should only be paying so much attention to them anyway. From another perspective, I think competition makes products better. It makes things better. So, if we’re seeing all these other streaming platforms gaining on us, that means it’s time for us to go back to the lab and come up with even better ideas and show why we’re the number- one platform. But you do have to tune out the noise.
Heather: So, you’re a busy guy, as we said earlier. In addition to your role at Netflix, you’re writing a book. And you’re a mentor to many designers. There was a juicy profile of you in the New York Post that said you had five different income sources and 20 opportunities in motion at any time. Have you always been this curious, this energetic, this open to new ways of being? And tell me about some of the things that you’ve got going on right now that you’re really excited about.
Fonz: Yes. I’ve always been like that. I didn’t come from the wealthiest of families. I paid for college on my own. When I got to college, it was either I find a way to make money or, to be honest, I just don’t eat. Because of that, I’ve always worked. It didn’t matter what I was doing. But as I got older, I started to realize that my skills were in such demand that I didn’t have to have one income stream. It wasn’t that ‘Oh, I’m just money hungry, I’m chasing the money,’ it was that people value my skills, and they want to pay me for it. And the more popular I get, the more people hear about my brand and more opportunities come my way. And I can decide which ones I think I want to put some time into and which ones I don’t. All of them aren’t always financially motivated, as well. I’m also a family man, so I need time for them. And then I just need time for me, so I don’t burn out. But I am extremely ambitious. I am extremely driven. And I’m still really humbled. I feel very fortunate to be in the position that I’m in. The second part of the question, what am I working on, I do a ton of mentoring, like you said. I just think when I was growing up and getting my design career started, there weren’t any mentors for me to really talk to. I think a lot of people just need psychological and emotional support, whether transitioning a career or trying to do stuff on your own, because sometimes it could get lonely. And we’re humans. We just need support. So, I’m always going to be in that space. I also have a passion for venture capitalism because I had a startup years ago. That also exposed me to understanding what an investor does. Then I started to say to myself, ‘Well, hey, I think I would want to be an investor from two perspectives: I would want to share my advice and expertise as being in product; but, also, this is how people make fortunes in this space if you get into the right company early and that company ends up taking off.’ So, there was an interest there from being a founder and then wanting to be an investor. So that’s one area I’m into.
I’m back in school right now for a design thinking course at Stanford Graduate School of Business, focusing on how to make sure that I never forget how to build a great product. And after that course is over, if I can come up with a good enough product at the end, I might launch that. I can keep going, Heather.
Heather: I love it. I love it. What’s something through the course that you’re taking on design thinking that was either a reminder or something that was a bit of an unlock that you’ve taken forward in either what you’re doing now or as you think about launching this new product?
Fonz: In this course right now, they do not want us to come up with a solution. We don’t have solutions for the problem that we’re solving. They want us to spend time thinking about, just observing, the world. Are there any problems that you want to solve? Then, if you find one, the next thing is to really understand people who are having that problem, interview those people or observe those people and gain a true understanding of the problem before you try to come up with a solution. That’s exactly what we do at Netflix, as well. That ties into what I said with the user research. I just had to do almost 10 interviews, and the interviews were so important—because why would I want to come up with a solution before I really heard from the people that I’m supposedly coming up with the solution for? So, the fact that they told us not to jump to coming up with a solution and spend more time really understanding the users, understanding the space and understanding the problems before you come up with a solution, I think it’s just super critical for building any product.
Heather: So much generosity that you have in the way that you share your ideas and your thoughts…I like to end each conversation with the question that I will ask you, which is: Who is your icon?
Fonz: That’s interesting. I’m going to say my family. And this is no shot at Steve Jobs or any other fancy names you hear, like Elon Musk. It’s just that they’re not really relatable to me to a certain extent. My icon would need to be somebody that I’m relatable to. And when I look back at my life and see how much my sister’s been through and how much she’s been there for me, and how now I’m able to be successful because of her support, I would say something more like my sister is my icon. Or my father, who taught me at a young age to focus on my education and to be a stand-up, honorable man and to always keep a job and to try to always have a roof over your head. Those are life lessons that have really changed my life and molded my life. So, I would have to say my whole family.
Heather: Well, shout out to the Morris family. It sounds like you guys support each other. And, as you said, I do think there’s something about that relatability and the people that are around us that have had such influence in who we are. So, with that, thank you so much for spending time with us today. You were wonderful.
Fonz: Thank you, you’re so welcome.
When you think of how product design is set up, engineering and design are partners. We sit right next to each other at the table.