A Parable About User Experience

My step-mother is an avid painter, quilter and traveller, and she’s got lots of photos she wants to share with friends and family. “Friends and family”–remember those words.

For a Normal Human, she’s got decent aptitude with her PC. She worked with them in the latter part of her career, and she’s pretty skillful with the usual set of desktop apps. I got her set up with a Flickr account, and as you can see, she’s been uploading photos, adding descriptions, organizing them into groups and so forth. She mostly figured all that out on her own–she and Flickr can share the credit for that, I think.

Last week, my step-mother sent me an email saying that when she sent her photos to her friends, they could never see them. She wondered if she was maybe sending her friends the wrong URL or something.

After a little investigation, I figured out what the issue was. When she uploaded the photos, she was quite naturally selecting the ‘Private: Visible to Friends’ and ‘Visible to Family’ check boxes. This is total rational behaviour. After all, that’s her audience for the photographs.

Of course, in Flickr land, users need to have accounts and my step-mother needs to identify them as ‘friends’ or ‘family’ before they can view such photos. That’s pretty obvious to those of us who work with Web apps on a daily basis, but we’re only, like, 5% of the general population. Notably, in the pop-up help related to privacy, Flickr doesn’t indicate any of this.

I’m not trying to impugn Flickr or my step-mother here (she gave me her permission to blog about this little use case). I guess this is a little lesson in assumptions, and how web developers need to take care not to make too many.

More and more non-geeks are using these sophisticated sharing and collaboration online tools, which feature a whole schwack of new paradigms for people to understand. The web app needs to be many things to many people. It has to get out of the way of the expert user who’s ready to run, and it has to offer a hand to those taking their first tentative steps.


  1. Flickr has awesome help forums as opposed to comprehensive FAQs or menus. i think that’s because the absolute best part of Flickr is the community aspect of it. if you’re lost about something in Flickrland, just ask somebody! i guarantee you’ll get lots of help.

    i took a look at BarefootMum’s site and she has some lovely photos posted and quite nice artwork as well. you might want to teach her about tags and tell her to be adventurous and add some more contacts! i’m impressed though – don’t think i could get my mum even half as far as you got yours.

  2. I think Flickr and others (YouTube) have failed to address part of the real-world paradigm: non-public content for non-subsribers (you know, like mailing a second set of prints to your family). In other words, people want their family pictures reasonably private, and they don’t want to force Grandma to register, login, etc.

    I’ve noticed the same thing with YouTube: if I want to put my baby’s videos on my blog, I have to make them public. Sure the blog is not password protected or anything (grandmas again), but lack of linking keeps it out of the public’s eye.

    What is needed is for these hosting services to not index and display said content to the browsing public. Sure the URL can get into the wrong hands, but then it’s the user’s problem. Not tagging is one way to keep the content as invisible as possible.

    One could argue that such hidden content defeats the purpose of “community,” but I think there is demand for both public and private posting. I suppose it could be a service upgrade for paid accounts, but if it is, it hasn’t been advertized to me.

  3. I finally joined Flickr this weekend and needed to do the same thing: share some wedding pics with certain folks who aren’t necessarily members. It took me a while but I found that there is an option to create a ‘guest pass’ for a set of photos. I think it was a link to ‘share this set’ or something like that.

    One thing I was surprised by was how difficult it is to find the link to upload photos. To my brain it seems quite misplaced under the “You” tab.

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