Browsing Without Impediment

A few weeks ago, there was some discussion among the Flock staff about missions or general goals for Flock. It wasn’t anything official. It was just casual discussion about what some of us thought might be good things for us to keep in mind as we move forward. A few of the stated goals follow, and they’re pretty similar, which means we’ve got some birds of a feather in our Flock, which makes sense.

  • to build a publishing platform for the web that subverts hierarchy and puts control back in the hands of the individuals on and offline.
  • to help make open source software so appealing and easy that people choose it over the products pushed by the robber barons.
  • to build the next great web browser the browser that’s not just about finding information, consuming it, and transacting, but puts talking back to the web and sharing information on an equal footing.

Last night, Bart sent a note to the flock-dev list that helped me to think a bit about what I’d like to see Flock become. I had avoided the earlier lofty mission statement discussion because I tend to be more of a trenches guy than a big vision guy. But Bart’s email prompted me to think about my wishes for Flock in very concrete, pragmatic terms. He proposed that Flock should be fun to use, and I objected on the grounds that such talk was marketspeak barren of any real meaning. Producers of 79-ladders-in-one ladders and the Flowbee and similar “As Seen on TV” products pitch their merchandise as fun to use, when there’s really nothing terribly fun about what the products do. It’s empty marketing filler that advertisers figure will seep into middle-of-the-night viewers’ consciousnesses because it’s a pretty harmless and forgettable statement. I argued that there was nothing implicitly fun about using a browser, and I don’t think there should be or that we have concrete plans to implement any such thing. It’s the content accessed through a browser and not the browser itself that stands to be fun. Bart explained that what he was really trying to get at was that we should provide a polished experience, that our product should be a joy to use, much as (many contend) Apple products tend to offer polish and elegance. And that seems on the surface to be pretty reasonable.

But I’m not sure I actually agree completely. I think Flock should strive to be invisible rather than actively enjoyable. We can best enhance users’ experience of the web by not intruding on the experience of using the web.

I constantly find myself trying to wrestle software into submission rather than using it to achieve the goals for which it was reportedly designed. In Firefox, for example, if I want to bookmark something, I have to invoke a dialog box that I then have to interact with in order to save a link. I have to perform a minimum of two actions in order to save a link, and I have to face this ugly little chrome window in order to do so. Flock has improved on this by allowing one-click saving of links. If I like a link, I just click the star and move on. My experience of the site in question has not been interrupted by the user interface and I’m a happy user. Another success (in its early stages with room for improvement) is our Flickr integration. I can now treat my photos as objects that can be almost tangibly manipulated rather than as URLs or <img> tags, and I can browse them in a topbar rather than having to navigate to a separate site in a separate tab and copy and paste URLs across tabs.

There are other areas in which Flock to date has been a little less successful. For example, the blog editor started out in a tab, which I found preferable to its being in a separate window as it is in current builds. The Performancing blog editor extension beats both of these options, as it offers a split screen that lets me blog without obscuring my view of the web site I’m blogging about. Rather than having to juggle blog windows or tabs, I can stay on the page I’m reading, invoke the little blog editor, browse elsewhere while blogging if I want to, and minimize the interruption to my browsing. Similarly, the shelf is at present a window that can disappear behind other windows. I find it to be of limited use because I have to dig around behind other windows to find it. I expend time and frustration thinking about how to use the software that I’d rather spend reading or writing the web.

So what I’d like to see Flock become is software that you don’t notice. I want to browse without impediment. I think it’s kind of a fun paradox to try to build a browser that provides a great experience by not being experienced very much itself. This is I think one of the principles behind the original development of Firefox. Its creators sought a browser stripped of all the distracting cruft found in other browsers, and they simplified. The challenge for Flock in my view should be to build a browser that packs the browsing experience extremely full of read/write functionality without becoming an experience in and of itself.

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7 thoughts on “Browsing Without Impediment

  1. Daryl — I would agree with you. I think the biggest issue (to get specific) with the tabbed editor and floating shelf is that they were designed on a Mac and therefore work better in its windowing environment. On the PC, this paradigm fails.

    We have decided to make it optional to use the editor as a tab or a floating window in the next release. We thought about moving it into a topbar, but then using your Flickr photos becomes cumbersome.

    With improvements to the dockability of the shelf in the future, I think having the editor in a tab or floating window will suffice. While I like the Performancing design on the surface, I don’t think that you can just drop it into Flock and have it make sense in the context of all of our other features… I mean… viewing a bottombar with a topbar makes for a very narrow viewing area. So we need something better.

    I do think that we have a better idea in general for blogging — and so while the Feb release will make incremental improvements to the current situation what comes after will significantly improve the “conversationality” between blogs.

  2. I’ve been checking out flock for blogging though a few versions now (nightly builds); blogger issues aside here are some things I’ve noticed:

    Performancing is much eaiser to use in terms of window placement. It can easily be shown and hidden, so I don’t feel the screen is cramped – and I can have all the sites open in tabs I want to blog about and switch between them. It’s lack of drag and drop is one thing that keeps me looking to flock.

    The floating shelf makes it useless on Windows; once I select something it falls to the back so I must hover on the taskbar to get it to repop before I can drop it on the shelf. Going from the shelf to the editor has the same issues.

    The flickr bar at the top is great, and I know it’s probably just a temp thing but right now changing top bars with a select box is really efficient. Why isn’t shelf there as well? It seems like the perfect spot for it.

    Last annoyance is no view of the html source in my blog… i can’t tell if the quote will get a div, blockquote, or some other tag until i post it. Also, since there are several ways of aligning images it would be nice to be albe to edit the source.

    I agree with the “fun” thing… iTunes is great because it stays out of my way when I want to play music. VI is a great editor for the same reasons… neither would I say is fun to use or even a great experience… just they don’t piss me off, having to work around little quirks.

  3. Not to be antagonistic, but I think by “it should be fun,” he actually meant: It should be fun.

    That is, flock should be designed such that the experience of using flock should produce emotions of involvement, joy, engagement, happiness.

    It’s comparable to the results of, say, playing a great game, or something like that. We have a word for this, we usually slap “fun” on there.

    It is true that you want the end result to be a background tool, that people don’t think about at all, in the slightest.

    But see, the only way to do that, really, is to give users EXACTLY what they are 100% accustomed to. If you want to do anything even slightly different, you’re going to be provoking a change in their world.

    This change can be taken happily, or it can be taken bitterly. It’s usually a bitter pill. No spoonful of sugar, to help you out. But the goal, I believe, is for the change to be embraced, and to be…. …wait for it!… … “fun.” 🙂

  4. Hi, Lion. Thanks for the feedback.

    Bart may have meant the things you suggest, but I respectfully disagree with him if so. Saying that the browser itself should be fun is like saying that a game console controller itself should be fun (ie, if you unplug it from the game console and just fiddle around with the buttons and joysticks, you should have a rousing good time). Both the browser and the controller should, in my view, be simply means to an end of enjoyment. It’s the experience and not the conduit that’s fun. Another example: I played Trivial Pursuit with some of my extended family this weekend. I had a fun time, but it wasn’t the game tokens or board or pie pieces or cards that were fun. It was the experience. So the game play was fun but the physical game itself only facilitates fun. Similarly, we should help make browsing be more fun, but the browser itself isn’t fun on its own. To suggest that the browser itself is fun is to make an essentially meaningless statement. To suggest that we’ll make browsing more fun is more in line with our mission, but I think even that is so dull and cliche a stated ambition that we’d do well to consider other bullet points in our marketing.

    As far as giving somebody what they’re accustomed to, that’s actually what we’re trying not to do. We are very much trying to provoke a change in our users’ world because they’ve been browsing for the same way for 10 years. The bet we’re making is that we can make the change worthwhile by ensuring that we pack any substantial changes with lots of value.

    I don’t take your comments to be antagonistic at all, and I appreciate your sharing your viewpoint.

  5. Mike, one thing I’d like to mention, since I’ve had to answer this question a lot, is that you can edit the source in the blog editor. At the bottom of the editor screen, there’s a little grippy you can pull up to show a split-screen view of source and output. I believe there are plans to make this more discoverable.

    The other things you mention we seem more or less to agree on.

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