Thumbs up for Flickr’s new design

Constructing Danbo

There’s a lot of hate amongst the user community for Flickr’s bold new design. Some of the complaints are justified, but as a professional web developer I’ve been at the business end of the intractable problem that Yahoo! is up against here: that you can’t please everyone, no matter what you do. For years Flickr has been lambasted as an Internet backwater because Yahoo! was neglecting innovation on the platform in favour of integration. Now that the Flickr development team has made a determined effort to re-imagine the user experience of Flickr, many users are understandably upset that the site they have known and loved for years is changing radically in ways they are not comfortable with. Well, I think the new design is great.

If you used Flickr before spring 2013 you’ll know that it looked very different than it does today. Users could control the look of their photostream page (which made for an inconsistent user experience) and the design was fairly conventional; photos where shown in a grid layout, square cropped (which ruins composition in many cases) and the photo details page showed a relatively small version of the photo surrounded by a massive quantity of text, metadata and user interface elements sitting atop a stream of comments that often contained garish flashing logos or other embedded images. It was functional, but not particularly attractive.

In spring 2013 that all changed when Yahoo! introduced a radical new design that is completely photo-centric – exactly what a photo sharing site should be. All pages that show a series of photographs now show them as a viewport-filing gallery that uses all the available space in the browser window to create an immersive and visually appealing presentation whilst also being highly functional – showing as many large photos on screen as possible without cropping and at the same time showing titles, authors and frequently accessed functions and metadata. Clicking through to view an individual photo now takes you to a lightbox-style view of that photo as large as your browser window allows, presented on a black background with all data and functional buttons neatly organised into a sidebar off to the right of the screen. Gone are the embedded images in the comments, most of which are hidden by default. Rambling captions are truncated to a couple of lines followed by a “more” link to expand.

Some users don’t like it because functionality they use has been removed or placed in a more inconvenient location. Others don’t like the amount of bandwidth the new design consumes, and some simply find the new design less functional or stable than the old one. There’s even a petition to get Yahoo! to revert to their old design or offer users a choice. Whilst I have every sympathy with the frustrations of these members of the Flickr community, I don’t see Yahoo! rolling these changes back any time soon. There will always be some degree of blow-back from a change of this magnitude and the chorus of discontent needs to be very loud indeed for a company of their size to stage a climbdown. Rather than wishing for a complete reversal of the changes it might have been more realistic for the community to organise around an agenda of articulating what specifically it objects to and make positive suggestions for improvement. In my own experience, when a customer tells me a site or application I’ve designed is crap and they want the old version back they don’t get much engagement from me, but if they tell me specifically what I could do to make it more useful for them I may very well end up doing it.

Like it or not, the aesthetic is important in website design and the new Flickr aesthetic is inarguably more modern and sleek looking than the cluttered and dated design it replaces. With the introduction of wall-to-wall photo galleries and the replacement of pagination with auto-loading on scroll, Yahoo! have taken advantage of developments in computing power and browser performance since Flickr was first conceived. It may be fair to say they have pushed the envelope slightly too far in that regard to the chagrin of those users not fortunate enough to have a new and powerful computer, but that is a temporary problem and Yahoo! will undoubtedly have run the numbers about what percentage of users will struggle with site performance and determined the trade-off to be justified.

The new design takes some getting used to, but I’m convinced it’s an important step in keeping Flickr alive and relevant going forward, and personally I’m really glad they’ve done it.

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