Wed 03 May
Among social networking applications on the Web, one thing has puzzled me: why is it so difficult to go from friend to friend? Take Flickr, for example: a tremendously successful example of social networking that relies heavily on the idea that it’s your friends who are producing the content (photos) in which you’re most interested. The very latest of your friends’ photos are available in a meta view, which is handy, but there’s no apparent way to simply skip from one friend’s photos to the next without using the browser’s ‘back’ button to return to your list of contacts.
This seemed wrong to me somehow, and, admitting that I’m hardly the world’s foremost expert on constructing interaction models for social software, I thought I’d try and understand better why I was so frustrated. I quickly determined that, when it comes to organizing your network contacts — friends, basically — in a social networking application, there are basically two models.
First, there’s the ‘favorites’ approach, which is in evidence on My Space and Flickr, in which the page (or pages) representing your account features a list of friends alongside your own content. Clicking on a link for one of your network friends takes you out of your account and into ‘communal space’ — a public version of your friend’s page that’s outside of your own account. In essence, your network is represented as a list of links or bookmarks and little more; aside from a preliminary meta view that may be available from within your account, the information your contacts produce isn’t deeply integrated with your own.
The second model is the ‘collection’ approach, perhaps best seen in action at LinkedIn. Network contacts are effectively incorporated into your own account under an explicit section — most commonly expressed in visual language as a tab — that might be called something like “Your Contacts” or “Friends.” When clicked on, a spatial consistency is maintained, a visual indication that though you’re viewing someone else’s information, you are in fact still within your own account. This approach seems best suited for cases in which your friends’ information needs to intermingle with or sit adjacent to your own without too greatly blurring the distinction between the two. Basically, your friends’ information is rendered as just a subset of your own.
What’s curious to me about both of these approaches is that, as the two most prevalent interaction models for accessing network contacts, they both rely so heavily on the browser’s ‘back’ button: viewing a contact’s information usually removes every instance of your list of network contacts from the screen. Aside from the back button, there’s usually no visible navigation at all, so that it’s somewhat cumbersome to do a quick survey of all your contacts’ latest information and updates.
Or maybe “cumbersome” is just a matter of my own personal preference. It could be that the fact that almost all of the social networking sites I’ve looked at rely so heavily on the ‘back’ button is actually an indication of some deeper truth in the way users interact with this information. Maybe clicking on ‘back’ really is the simplest, most straightforward navigation possible. Note: I’m certainly not a critic of the ‘back’ button, either. In fact, I’m a firm believer in its integral role in Web design.
Still, it’s always struck me as odd to me to rely on ‘back’ so exclusively, especially when it seems to preclude a pretty natural interaction model that I think most users would want. Wouldn’t it be handy, for example, to be able to quickly survey the latest photos from a subset of your Flickr contacts? Flickr’s meta view (“Photos from Your Contacts”) offers a combined view from all of your contacts through its Web interface, of course. But let’s say you want to view only about half of them, and they’re scattered amongst the list of all your contacts (i.e., not arranged in the sequence you’d like to view them); wouldn’t it be preferable to click through some sort of on-page, comprehensive navigation, rather than continually hitting the ‘back’ button?
For an example of the kind of contacts navigation I’m talking about, look to the one social networking application where I could find it: Newsvine. That site’s “watchlist” appears persistently in the left-hand navigation, and it makes selectively moving from contact to contact a breeze. It’s possible to use the ‘back’ button, of course, but it’s hardly necessary at all.
In fact, the best way to replicate this model with Flickr would be to grab the RSS feed for each of my contacts and deposit them, one after another, in a folder within my feed reader of choice, NetNewsWire. Which is fine, of course; one of the reasons that Flickr is such a successful user experience is because its support for feeds and external programming via APIs is so malleable. But it’s a sign of a missing interaction element, isn’t it, when Flickr needs to send users outside of its own application to satisfy a user goal that, on its face anyway, seems fairly mainstream?
Again, I could be wrong about this whole thing; the rather conspicuous absence of persistent contact navigation does seem to be indicative of something; perhaps the complexity of a feature like Newsvine’s ‘watchlist’ brings with it too many problems — most likely with scalability — that don’t make it appreciably more desirable than simply asking users to use the ‘back’ button, which is a feature that, admittedly, everyone uses. For me, though, I know I’d like Flickr and other social networking sites much more if I could just go from friend to friend. It’s about people, after all, ain’t it? Why not just keep a list of all your friends on a page when viewing any one of them?