What's Wrong with UIs Like Flickr

I’ve been talking with Julie about how immature user interface still is online.

The conversation started with WordPress themes and blogs.

I theorized that the reason I hated blogs for so long was that all they did at first was make it easier for non-webmonkeys to post content in a way that was automated for them and also that was organized very basically. But for those who have had frequently-updated web sites since the mid-90’s, user interface has been a consistent problem that still has yet to be unsolved, but could at least be customized and tackled specifically for each site. That these blog packages came along but neglected the organizing of data was a step back. It flooded the web with text that had no context.

Posting content online is pretty easy. As the web has grown exponentially bigger, massive amounts of data have just been dumped online. It did not take long before the search engine became the biggest project online. Yahoo! at first had a directory with URLs that were sorted by people. Under the volume of all that data being digitized and publicized, Yahoo!’s model could no longer work.

What made Google so impressive was that it was the first company to really start giving meaning to all the data on the web. Also, it had the resources to grab all that data. Google started ranking pages, which allowed it to give you the results you were looking for faster. Simple algorithms would no longer be acceptable to users.

Consider personal web sites and blogs as a microcosm of that flooding and chaos of the web in general. You could have 500 pages of content on your site, but how do you enable users to find what they’re most interested in on your site? How do you get them to be interested in the other stuff on your site?

And for me, the biggest annoyance about a blog is not being able to wrap my head around it. Blog packages typically skimp out on identifying details.

When I go to the front page of most blogs, I see a title. I might see a tag phrase. And perhaps if I’m lucky I’ll see a big header image that expresses usually very little. I will then see the very latest post. I will have to scroll down to see posts, listed in reverse chronological order. I may see links on the side to other sections of the site but more commonly to other peoples’ web sites that the owner is affiliated with.

But that is so useless to me. Blogs should not look like RSS feeds, which are intended to show you the most recent posts so that you can keep up with updates.

Blogs should at first give you the big picture, the grand scheme, the overview. You should see a photo of the author. You should see a good bio about them and what their qualifications are. You should see their hobbies.

You should see how many posts they have on their web site. Using tag clouds would be a good way to show something else that’s important: the most common topics on that blog. You should be able to get a snapshot of what a blog is about just on the first screen you see. Without scrolling.

Regular users can use RSS feeds or bookmark a different page.

I am the type of person who needs an overview before they learn details. I can’t do it the reverse way. Details do not make sense to me unless they’re put into context.

Reading someone’s opinion on some political matter will mean more to me if it comes from someone who works in a related field. I might also look at someone’s diversity of interests as a qualifier. Ideally I would be able to see how other bloggers or search engines rank that site. That’s how my mind works and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that way.

Now take Flickr. Flickr just did a redesign. Now it uses menus at the top as navigation, with fancy javascript/ajax scripting for pull-downs. In my Firefox, clicking on the arrows to open the menus actually takes me to the pages themselves, which is annoying because that means the UI is broken.

As a side note, I hate white backgrounds. They’re like having white walls in houses. Why? Why why why? You have all this opportunity to express a mood and tone quickly and easily.

Anyway…if you view someone’s photostream, what you see is predominantly the most recent photos. That’s the same problem I have with blogs. On the side is a column of sets, or photos organized into a group based on similar topics. That’s about all you see besides your own navigation options.

How do I get a sense of who this person is? Shouldn’t I be able to see a full-screen page of thumbnails of photos in that person’s account? The thumbs could be really small in order to save bandwidth, but still allow for easy recognition. I want to see what sorts of photos this person has taken overall and within the context of each other. I want to be able to find the photos that will be most interesting to me without going through all the rest of the crap. With photos especially, there’s a poor signal-to-noise ratio. Most shit I don’t want to look at. How about rankings of photos, Flickr? Then we could sort by ranking so the most interesting ones would come up first.

Again, most people I find on Flickr, I have no idea who they are. If I’m lucky they’ll have a link to their web site.

It’s just so disappointing. I’ve been on the net since 1994 or so and web sites still aren’t designed to give you easy access to the information you want most, which is how things like Google and Wikipedia thrive.

The organization of information becomes as important or even more important than the information itself at some point.

Flickr’s UI, lauded for its Ajaxing of editable photo titles and descriptions, and its in-line notes, still lacks a lot in providing relevant information to its info-devouring users.

You can’t just search Flickr and find some really fascinating photos randomly. You have to do a tag search for “interesting” instead. What Flickr is is a vast database of junk. It’s the World Wide Web before Google came along.

Getting back to WordPress, blogs still have yet to mature. They can’t even do themes right. If you want a theme that helps your readers find useful and interesting information, you would have to design that theme yourself. Because most of the public themes consist of a stupid header image and a list of links along one side. Perhaps some of the blame falls on the WordPress team for not enabling functions and templates to encourage better organization.

Tags right now are pretty useless. Even on del.icio.us. Okay, maybe you’re bored and click on “Wii” to see all the links that are tagged “Wii”. So, you get a list of links that aren’t sorted or ranked in any way except by the number of other people who del.icio.us’d that site also. But that doesn’t say much either. Maybe all those people just keep seeing what site is popular and go there and assume it’s the best just because everyone else is linking to it. Herd theory.

It really bothers me that even in 2006, we don’t have sites with ranking systems or even good commenting systems. It bothers me that blog themes are useless and that you might as well build your own in order to get what you want. It bothers me that people don’t see why Google was so successful so that they could incorporate its successes into other sites.

It bothers me because I see it and I want to get something out there that changes everything. Right now I just have to wait.