Flickr flustr: When design doesn’t meet function
It’s not often I write multiple articles involving the same topic, but in this case I’m making an exception. I think it’s important to explore and understand the reasons why I believe this new Flickr interface change is such a failure. As a visual artist, I look at the new Flickr interface and wonder what the designers were thinking? See the image to the left. It’s clear the designers were not aware of the many ways that users use Flickr. Let’s explore.
Original Flickr Interface
The original Flickr design was compelling (if not dated) for many reasons and was also useful for many different purposes. The reason the original interface held up so well and for so long is because the original designer’s vision still held true even today, dated as it may seem. “Why has it held up?”, you ask. Let’s examine.
The images were spaced just far enough apart that the images, colors and shapes didn’t clash with one another. Image thumbnails were generally of the same size whether portrait or landscape. The page was centered leaving white borders on the sides giving well enough space for the eye to rest. There were limited numbers of photos per page keeping down the clutter. There was just enough information below each image to give the necessary details about the image (like a placard in a Gallery). From a management perspective, there was also just enough information to show how popular an image is and whether or not it has comments.
Basically, this original interface, while somewhat antiquated and dated, was still very functional on many levels. Both amateur and professionals alike could use and reference this interface for their own purposes. Amateurs could use it to store their snaps. Professionals could direct paying clients to their portfolio without image clashing or the interface being too busy. It was well designed from the beginning for many purposes and uses.
With this original interface, Flickr even began offering limited customization of the page layout such as images alone or images with sets on the left or other similar layouts. Yes, it was always limited customization and I had always hoped for more customization features to come.
New Flickr Interface
The new ’tile’ interface (which incidentally looks too much like Windows 8 Metro) removes nearly every pixel of white space and fills the entire page (edge to edge) with images. It unfairly penalizes portrait image thumbnail sizes over much larger thumbnails for landscape aspect images. So, you have huge landscape sized thumbnails immediately beside tiny sized portrait thumbnails. More than that, because it removes all white space from the page and fills the entire screen with images, there is no place for the eye to rest. It becomes one big jumbled mess of a screen that’s hard to view and even harder to concentrate on a single image. While the original interface design kept the images spaced far enough apart to let you focus on a single image, the new interface doesn’t. Instead, it forces your eye to constantly jump around to find something else to view. This makes the page too busy and way too cluttered.
Worse, when your eyes get tired of focusing on the images, they begin to focus on the white borders between the images. Because the white borders are of odd shapes and sizes, it begins to take on the motif of a badly copied Mondrian painting. In other words, the entire interface is one big cluttered busy mess. It’s not pleasant to view for any period of time. So, instead of taking time to visit a Flickr site in a relaxing way, many people will likely get eye fatigue fast and browse away from the entire Flickr site. The new site makes you want to look at something less tiring and less stressful. Art should be about the images, not the layout making you queasy.
Worse, in no way does this new interface say ‘professional’.
Polar Opposite Reactions
I hear a lot of people say they like the interface. My first initial reaction was also positive. But, that only lasted for a few moments until I realized the problems. I initially liked it because it was something new and a change, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t ‘better’. I hear many people saying that it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen. That it’s horrible. So, why does this interface generate such polar opposite reactions from so many people? It’s because Flickr went from a general purpose interface appealing to a wide array of people to an interface that appeals to only a small subset of those people.
For a casual photographer who takes photos of their dog or baby or kids, it gives a really great at-a-glance image set to know what you have. This especially works well when the images are mostly the same or a series of similar shots. Also, for those people who like coffee table books of images, this is the next best thing to that. You can bring it up at home on your screen and show people your photo album at a glance. It’s much easier to see all your images at once with this interface. For casual use, these are the people I’d expect to like the new interface. It makes seeing the images easy and they’re accessible. In other words, it’s a little like Facebook’s gallery style. But, that doesn’t make it any less cluttered, busy or stressful to view.
For the professional photographer, the exact opposite is true. You do not want your images crammed up on the same page together like this. It’s busy, cramped, the images don’t flow properly, your eye can’t focus and doesn’t allow your clients to focus on each single image easily. It pits too many images against each other vying for attention. This is bad for a professional. Again, it’s just too busy and cluttered. You would never intentionally build a portfolio that looks this way. Why would you ever expect this from a site like Flickr? So, for professionals, this is the absolute worst interface that could have been built to show off professional photographs in a professional way.
The same above for professional photographers also holds true for visual artists. If Flickr were a gallery, it would now be one wall cluttered with hundreds of images. If I were hanging my art in a gallery, I would want them spaced far enough apart that they don’t clash or create the wrong message. I also would be allowed to place my art in the order of my choosing. Yet, at Flickr, the photostream is still limited to the order in which it was uploaded. This is something that should have been fixed long before rolling out this new interface.
The Interface Mistake
Flickr developers have completely lost touch with why the original interface worked for pretty much every use case. It worked because it offered something for every level of photographer, casual through professional including visual artists. It was by no means a perfect interface. After all, it needed a lot of improvements. But, it worked and it worked well. It was also on its way to becoming something better especially with the latest round of customization features added.
Because the Flickr developers just didn’t clearly understand the full amount of use cases, they developed this new interface that entices primarily just one use case, casual users. The people who snap their baby, their dog, their house or whatever else they can find around the house. These are those people who want an at-a-glance style interface that’s big, bold, cluttered and in-your-face. A virtual coffee table book, if you will. Or, in other words, the Facebookers.
Professionals and visual artists don’t want this. They don’t need this. It’s not professional. It’s not the way you want your photos represented to a potential client. It’s reminiscent of video game or a mobile device or Facebook. It’s not representative of a gallery exhibit or of a portfolio. This is where the Flickr developers have lost touch.
Flickr is a Gallery
The designers need to firmly understand that Flickr is a gallery. We are creative people supplying creative images to this gallery. It’s not a video game. It’s not a mobile device. It’s not Facebook. It is an image gallery. We want to showcase our images, not show them off like some kind of video game or toy or social network. Treat the images with respect, not as toys.
Because it is a gallery, customization is in order. The tile interface is fine as one theme among many display themes, but not as the sole theme for Flickr. Flickr needs to take a page from the WordPress book and offer multiple themes and styles. Let us choose how our images are showcased to our visitors. Yes, customization could easily become haphazard and random, but that’s the nature of customization. It has to. I don’t necessarily recommend allowing CSS level editing, but I do recommend that gallery themes become available. The time has long come for this Flickr feature. This feature is what Flickr developers should have been working on. The tiles theme, again, should have been one in among many different themes available to choose.
Don’t lock me into one single theme that doesn’t allow for customization. If I don’t like it, there’s nothing I can do except move my images elsewhere. Offer me choice. Let me choose my theme and my presentation to visitors. Flickr could have chosen this theme as the default theme, but then let us go into a theme selector and choose among 10-20 different gallery themes. Choice is the answer, not busy unprofessional Facebooky tiles.
Separate Management Interface
Because I’m the manager over my images, I don’t necessarily want to see the same interface that my visitors do when managing my images. I want a separate management interface that allows me to see and manage my images at a glance. I want easy, fast access to my comments, sets, collections, view stats and everything surrounding my images. I don’t need to fumble through the visitor experience only to expend extra time attempting to manage my images through a cluttered and busy interface. I want a clean concise management interface that users don’t see. It doesn’t really matter how pretty the management interface is as long as it’s functional for image management. Functionality is the key to image management.
There were a number of mistakes made here. The developers did not do enough homework to understand why the original interface worked so well for so many use cases before rolling out the new interface. They refused to see just how narrow of a use case is the new interface. It really only appeals to one of many use cases. Additionally, Yahoo offered no preview. In other words, there was no beta test for users to give feedback before rolling it out site wide. Offering a preview window would have saved Flickr a lot of grief and is probably the single biggest mistake Flickr made in this whole update.
Developmentally, the mistakes they made included not offering customization. Users have been clamoring for such features as rearranging the image order of their stream. I agree, I would love to have this feature and have been waiting for it for a very long time. I would like to see other features regarding things like frames and virtual lighting. I’d like to have seen more Ajax features (easy drag and arrange). Users want more customization, not less. Instead, they locked every single user into a single interface experience that not only alienates most professional use cases, it also offers no customization to change things about the interface. In other words, Flickr has take a huge step backwards. The interface may appear more slick, but the lack of customization takes us back to a time well before Yahoo ever bought Flickr.
Then it comes to bugs. Instead of actually correcting existing bugs and misfeatures, they worked on changing the style of the main page leaving all of the existing bugs and misfeatures out there. Seriously, the most important thing is to make the landing page ‘pretty’? What about all of the features that were not complete or the bugs that were not fixed, or the features that were never added?
The final mistake, the treatment of Pro account holders. With the increase to 1TB of space and upload limits well increased, the need to purchase Pro is really no longer necessary. Those who recently purchased a Pro account this year feel cheated out of their money. And, rightly so. Yahoo didn’t live up to their side of the deal with the money given to Flickr for Pro accounts. Instead, Yahoo basically thumbed its collective noses at the Pro account users not only from the monetary perspective, but also from interface perspective. Basically, Yahoo just completely tromped all over the Professional photographers who bought into the interface for that use, but also those who paid into the Pro accounts that gave bigger limits needed to be a Professional user. Yahoo hasn’t even addressed this issue at all.
Yahoo has a lot of work to do to repair Flickr Pro user relationships. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late. Many Professional photographers are already migrating their imagery away from Flickr to alternative services that are, hopefully, more reliable and offer more professional interfaces and support.
Through this whole ordeal, Flickr support has remained amazingly silent. They asked for comments and have said nothing about it. They did state they were ‘listening’ for whatever that’s worth. But, we all know that listening and doing are two entirely separate things. There should have been a lot more help and support coming from the Flickr staff after such an amazingly huge change. Yet, it appears that the Flickr team has rolled the interface out in a fire-and-forget approach. Basically, with a ‘this is it’ attitude given off by those who have been able to get hold of a support person.
Clearly, if this is the level of support that Yahoo / Flickr is providing to users for this type of service, it’s probably worth moving on to a service where your money will get you real support when you need it. Where the support people actually do care about making a difference and keeping the customer happy.
By the time Flickr realizes the problem and manages to correct it, it will probably be too late. It’s probably already too late.