On May 20th, 2013, the Yahoo-owned photo sharing community Flickr stunned its users with a slew of extreme changes to both the user interface and the terms of service. A backlash ensued, with overwhelmingly negative comments being posted to the company’s help forum by the thousands, petitions circulating for reverting to the old format, and an unknown number of users deleting their content and migrating to rival image sharing platforms such as the French Ipernity. Social media blogs and news outlets have been commenting on Yahoo’s apparent disregard for both loyal customers and plain ergonomics, with relatively few voices of counter-protest defending either change in general or this instance of it specifically.
For a thoughtful critique of the business goals behind the metamorphosis, see The new Flickr: Goodbye customers, hello ads by Derek Powazek. For specific criticisms of the new layout and user interface, collected during the week since the new system’s inception, continue reading this post.
I am one such loyal user of Flickr—a member since 2005—now shocked and saddened at the direction imposed upon the structure and appearance of my photostream and upon the quality of the entire image sharing experience by the owners of the company. While I can’t say how the changes will affect my photo-sharing activities in the long run, or whether I’ll even end up keeping my Flickr account, I am certain that the criticisms I share with so many of my Flickr contacts really are valid and founded in basic tenets of information design and workflow efficiency. Unlike, say, the 2008 protest against Yahoo adding video support to the previously image-only Flickr, when the controversial new option wasn’t actually forced upon anyone, and condemning the direction of change was, above all, a matter of principle. And, indeed, unlike most user disapproval of website design updates, particularly when these are easily assimilated and more subtly phased in (preferably with a temporary choice to alternate between old and new formats, as with the changes made to Flickr in 2010 and Pinterest in 2013).
Interestingly enough, the upheaval came right when I should have been most willing to embrace it. Having settled into a very infrequent uploading and browsing routine, I wanted to stop paying for the pro account. After all, I no longer needed detailed statistics, group membership privileges or large file size permissions. The only real challenge was culling down my stream to less than half its modest size—and along comes Flickr’s new “spectaculr” free option with basically no limits on storage. Alas, I am reeling and not exulting. Here’s why:
- Though useful for a quick scan of a user’s photostream, the new justified image feed takes away one’s control over basic image presentation. Many users who favored quality over quantity actually loved that a visitor saw only the single most recent photo, with the option to scroll down for four more. The new style makes sense only for users who upload a lot—or for first time visits to photostreams.
- Another casualty of the justified view is consistency in the relative sizes of one’s images. Currently, photos of the same original shape and size are showing up as smaller or larger on the basis of neighboring images. We strict formalists really don’t want a spotlight on aspect ratio irregularities or the odd portrait format messing with our landscapes or squares.
- The next issue with the new stream format is less aesthetics and more pragmatics: on a great many systems, this many photos take ages to load. Many of the disgruntled users listed this as the worst aspect of the redesign.
- Traditionally, Flickr content was not purely image-based. To some users, in fact, the entire appeal was in the capacity for integrating a photograph or video with its title, description, tags and other metadata. Now there is no way to insist that work be viewed within this textual context, particularly since a photo can be favorited on mouse-over, without a clickthrough to the author’s photostream.
- Yes, I’ll repeat: a photo can be favorited on mouse-over, without a clickthrough to the author’s photostream. Apparently, view counts have also been modified to include loading (as onto an Explore feed, a group pool, or somebody’s favorites). I am stunned to record over three thousand views on a photo that would have had a fifth of that previously; I am also stunned by how few of those who favorited it looked at anything else on my stream. Indeed, this could be one of the most significant game-changers of all: one no longer has to bother to actually visit a person's photostream in the first place.
- Then again, there’s maybe less of a reason to visit. One key piece of metadata is outright missing: the “date uploaded” stamp, as distinguished from “date taken.” Today we find only the latter, but over the years I became accustomed to having both—particularly useful when the photos are archival, or when a stream isn’t updated very often.
- Surprisingly, all favorite counts over ninety-nine have been denoted by the catch-all “99+” designation in all feed-based views. That is, if you click on one such photo, you’ll see the actual number. Beats me why they did it this way—I mean, if I’m going to be interested in whether something has over ninety-nine favorites, I’ll also want to know whether it’s one hundred or three thousand.
- The sets have been triply hit by the changes: One, they no longer appear on the main Flickr page. Two, the cover images have been cropped automatically, without allowing the user to influence the degree or location of cropping. Three, the set descriptions have been truncated to a single line; anybody who put in any time writing a longer form can still access the original in Organizer view, but visitors can no longer be given the option to read it.
- The comments don’t all load anymore. One has to view them in sections, and so people will probably read them less—and leave them less, too. And there’s also the list of folks who added a photo to their favorites. It used to be that this information was palpably separate from the author’s description beneath a photo. Not anymore; it is all one block of glaring text.
- Speaking of glaring, there’s that much-disparaged lack of white space. And the sea of black. And the rival sea of white. That is, there’s an eye-searing contrast between the black behind and image and the white drop-off for the comments and metadata field. I don’t particularly like this, but my eyes can handle it. Other people’s eyes, however, cannot.
After one week’s use, those are the specific features I’m struggling with most. (More so, say, than with the injudicious emphasis on a user’s actual name at the expense of one’s chosen Flickr moniker, or with the sudden resemblance to Google Plus and Facebook.) But my greatest complaint is at the fact of having to relearn so much at all. In this age of workflow habituation, upheaval to a system whose key value to its loyal users lies in the transparency of its interface really is an instance of impractical, inaccessible, thoughtless design.