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.