Flickr: Just looking, thanks

Some time ago I created a Flickr account, and joined the Swinburne group (though I haven’t gotten around to posting any photos yet). More recently I joined the ‘Usability and Accessibility’ group, and I hope to bring you a post about a funny usability photo from there sometime next week.

Flickr is a site that has two kinds of users: Those who are just looking, and those who upload photos (and maybe engage in all the social-networking things that Flickr has on offer). Of course there can be some overlap (like the just-looker who has an account and tags things occasionally, or the uploader who does no social networking, but instead has private albums to keep up-to-date with their family). Of all visits to Flickr, though, only 0.2% involve photo uploads (which certainly doesn’t mean that only 0.2% of people upload, the number will be somewhat higher than that because even the most prolific uploaders aren’t likely to upload every time).

As a just-looker, I really enjoy Flickr. There are photos of everything I have ever tried to find (well, okay, everything not-too-specific), and the tags mean that it is pretty likely that someone will probably have described something in the same way I would, meaning my search terms will usually return useful results. I also like the Creative Commons integration into Flickr, which means that many of the photos have reduced restrictions on them so I can use them for my own purposes (for example in the slideshows that accompany the talks I give). And I really enjoy looking at people’s photos, partly to see different views of places I have been and people I know, but also because there are a lot of amazing arty photos there.

Having said all those things, the search feature on Flickr is disorienting — the big search box across the centre top of the page doesn’t always search the same things, and the indication that it is searching something other than ‘all photos’ is relatively unobtrusive. The search results are also disappointing, the options for looking seem to be either a slideshow, or ten-results-per-page lists which can mean looking through loads of pages (clearly at least one person agrees with me that this is not good enough).

As a potential uploader, though, I don’t like Flickr at all. Partly this is because I am not their target user group — I only want to share my photos with friends and family, not the whole world, so the high exposure of Flickr photos and tagging capabilities are wasted, and I certainly don’t want to talk with strangers about my photos, so the social functions are also not useful for me. Partly, though, my aversion to uploading Flickr is because it simply isn’t nice to use. There’s no one thing grossly wrong with it, but there are many small things that make the experience unpleasant:

  • Requiring a Yahoo account to log in: I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have enough accounts to last several lifetimes, and being forced to bump up Yahoo’s numbers so they can sell me as a statistic to their advertisers didn’t please me at all — why should I have to remember another username and password? This is not a technical limitation, it is a marketing one, and it makes the experience worse for most users.
  • The words: What I would call an album, Flickr calls a set (sets can be built into collections, which is a nice hierarchical arrangement, but when you have to explain the word ‘set’ in your FAQ, something is wrong). What I would simply refer to as ‘my photos’, Flickr calls my ‘photostream’, and they have to explain that term in their FAQ too. Speaking the user’s language is basic good usability, and using cutesy in-house names is a waste of users’ time.
  • Miserly limitations on free accounts: Not so long ago my partner and I decided we would set up a Flickr account to share photos with our families in New Zealand. We abandoned it when we discovered that we could only create three albums in a free account, and that we could upload only a small number of photos per month. I don’t mind paying for storage space, but charging for services that are fundamental to photo sharing (such as photo albums) severely limits my interest in using Flickr.
  • Ham-fisted privacy limitations: As I stated above, I actually don’t want to share my photos with the world — photos of my partner and I are for friends and family only, and I am not confident enough in my photography skills to share my ‘arty’ photos. However, the privacy controls in Flickr are very broad-grained, and often dependent on the people you want to see your photos being members of Flickr — and I don’t know about the rest of you, but trying to get my mother to remember another user name and password just isn’t going to happen (and nor should she have to).

There are some good things about Flickr for uploaders, for example the ability to easily apply Creative Commons licenses to photos, and (if you want it) the wide exposure. However, for sharing with family PhotoBucket seems to be the tool of public choice, though not having used it I can’t comment (though their search result presentation is much nicer than Flickr’s).

I personally use a Google tool called Picasa, which is an offline photo organiser that connects with web albums. The offline organiser is very usable (and useful) ; it has an option to autofind photos and, it lets you do simple photo editing (including red-eye correction) without a degree in graphic design. Using Picasa it is easy to select and upload photos to the picasaweb space. The web space comes with 1GB of free storage (with the option to buy more relatively cheaply), and lets you set up albums, associate them with maps, and caption photos relatively easily. The privacy settings do allow you to block search engines, but use ‘privacy by obscurity’ to a certain extent (private albums are open to the web–though not search engines–and have weird URLs so that people can’t find them by accident). It isn’t perfect, but I infinitely prefer it to Flickr, because it lets me do what I want to do.

The moral of the story is check out any photo sharing tool before committing to it, and choose one that lets you do te things that are important to you–and if sharing your photos with the world is important, Flickr is probably a good choice. Me? I think I’ll stick to just looking.

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4 Responses to “Flickr: Just looking, thanks”


  1. 1 spod3 Friday, September 28, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    Well, yes. That is to say I basically agree with all of your comments. I think picasa runs rings around Flickr as far as useability; and I have always wondered why people would not care who sees their photos when in general people are careful to safeguard their identity online, of which a photo is part of in my opinion.
    The conspiracy theorist in my always wonders about the apparent altruism in Yahoo hosting Flickr, (or Google blogger, or Amazon IMDB, or M$ Hotmail etc etc) as I reckon they are marketing front-ends for their other Web services. In fact the whole Web 2.0 edifice is basically proprietary, not open source anymore.

  2. 2 Sara Jervis Monday, October 1, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Flickr will be enjoying a miniscule upsurge of new accounts to add to their data base with our 23 things. I have started to note a pattern on entering the new on line programs. They are dead easy to enter, but very confusing to navigate yourself about. I keep dropping out or going where I do not want to go. So I complete my task and leave the harder part to those who love the journey. I can see that the experts are one customer base and the “day tourists” who enter for free, are probably listed as commercial gain without pain for the Ya===oo and Go==le like monoliths.
    (I have seen that some external websites seem to abbreviate names like this to avoid having them listed as hits. I think that is the reason,. Then again the search engines probably note them anyway.)

  3. 3 Casey Benton Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 5:34 am

    “I only want to share my photos with friends and family, not the whole world, so the high exposure of Flickr photos and tagging capabilities are wasted, and I certainly don’t want to talk with strangers about my photos, so the social functions are also no useful for me.”

    You took the words out of my mouth! Especially with this Flickr lawsuit thing in the news recently, I feel like everyone will see my photos if I put them on there. I searched on Google and found out about a new photo site called Pixamo- you can control who sees every single photo and everyone has to log in to see the photos- unlike Flickr- therefore the website always knows who the user is and who is looking at the photo- It has been great in that matter in sharing my baby photos with my family.

  4. 4 Rebecca Friday, October 12, 2007 at 10:23 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the problems in Flickr. I was terribly disappointed (as a prolific organiser) to find that I only had a three album (‘set’) capacity; it meant that I had to move three very different sets of holiday snaps into a generic set called (unimaginatively enough) ‘holiday’.

    Thanks for the link to the Usability and Accessibility Flickr group. I particularly loved this one!


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