flock, ui

Down (err, Up?) with Bottom Bars

Flock’s usability guru, Will Tschumy, posted the other day about topbars and how useful they are. Just last week, I was thinking about the usefulness of topbars and was going to do a blog post, but other priorities slid in front of it, and I put the post aside. Since one of Will’s proposals is to use bottombars instead of topbars and I’m wildly, passionately opposed to that, I thought I should go ahead and post my feedback.

First, let me take a moment to revel in the past. Once upon a time, we had a thing called the shelf that lived in a happy little sidebar. This was way before Flock was even Flock. (Disclosure: I wrote that version of the shelf and so may have an overzealous fondness for it, though I’ll say right now that many of the things in the current version of the shelf are hands-down better than in the first version; it’s just the user interaction that I find unpalatable.) We later moved the shelf into a popup window, and then into a topbar and ultimately into the bottombar that it currently occupies. Although I like the core functionality of the shelf (seriously, I gushed here about how it helped me to blog more and be more productive), I find it unusable because it’s a bottombar. There are two key issues that make its being a bottombar a big problem for me.

  1. It doesn’t display horizontal content in a useful way. Only a few items can fit in the bottombar, and it’s difficult for me to differentiate among them if they’re mostly text. As my habit had been to use the shelf (web snippets, whatever) primarily as a scratchpad for blog post ideas, it became unwieldy for me to stick blurbs — even short ones — down in the bottombar with any hope of being able to see at a glance what they were about (I talk about this in more detail here). Earlier versions of the shelf allowed me to preview more of the text at a glance (two or three lines), which made for a more efficient workflow. A vertical orientation of items (as in a sidebar) with the potential for horizontal display of text makes more sense for anything into which text can be dragged.
  2. I use a laptop, and bottombars are physically painful to use. My hand and wrist muscles are accustomed to the motions associated with darting upward on my trackpad to press application buttons and menus. I do this casually thousands of times a day with no pain. Tracking downward to a small area at the bottom of the screen seems to require different muscles, a greater rigidity of my fingers. It’s difficult for me, and it sort of hurts me to do it. It makes my wrist ache. So moving many of the things I like about Flock into a bottombar will cumulatively cause me enough pain to disincline me to use the browser. Which is a real shame, because I’ve decided I like our photo functionality enough that I’ve started taking more pictures and have signed up for a Flickr pro account. (Also, as an employee, I sort of have to use the browser, so Flock’ll have to invest in some wrist braces for me if we switch to a bottombar-exclusive UI.)

Add to these things the fact that moving topbars to the bottom doesn’t solve the problems Will enumerated with topbars:

  1. Notifications of new photos
  2.  Being able to see a group of photos (and not just public photos on Flickr or Photobucket)

and I’m dead-set against the move.

So, now we know that bottombars don’t appeal to me, and in the post I never finished the other day, I was going to propose that even topbars weren’t terribly useful. When Flock was starting out, one of our goals was to mix up the browsing experience a bit, and that meant experimenting with things like topbars. They seemed neat at first, but we found some cases (e.g. the shelf) for which they weren’t ideal (well, that’s my opinion, at least), and I’ve begun to wonder if the topbar (and the bottombar) isn’t something we’ve hung onto for the sake of its invention rather than for its actual usefulness in real life.

I’ll admit that for photo viewing, the topbar works pretty nicely because with photos, there tends to be a sense of graphical chronology. The topbar shows photos in what amounts to a timeline, and it’s really a good fit. Arguably, showing avatars of people in a topbar can make sense if you’re showing them either in order of recently-added content or of addition to your people list. And showing thumbnails of videos or saved locations for a mapping program might work fairly well in a horizontal view.

On the other hand, chronology display isn’t limited to the X-axis. Blogs display their most recent content at the top of the page, and nobody’s confused by that. So a sidebar listing your people in descending order of content produced or of addition to your queue stands to work as well as a topbar or bottombar listing. Further, with a sidebar, there’s room for a thumbnail and a narrow column of meta information or for meta information in a couple of lines underneath the thumbnail. Or, if your gripe is that a sidebar can’t show as many photo thumbnails as a horizontal one, there’s always the option of allowing a two-column view within the sidebar (an option we already allow to be toggled in the news reader). Further, sidebars are a user interaction paradigm that everybody understands. If you read email, you’re comfortable using sidebars.

In reading feedback to Will’s post, I see that opinions are pretty mixed. Some love the idea of moving topbars to the bottom. Others think it’d be awful. Still others want photos on the bottom and snippets on the side so that both are accessible at once. I’m leaning toward a sidebar view of everything with optional horizontal displays of some types of info.

Flock, we’ve often said, is about choice. We let you choose Flickr or Photobucket, Shadows or Delicious, whatever blog platform you want that uses one of several standards. It can be bad to offer too much choice (you know the old sketch comedy gag wherein the waiter unfolds tiered set of choices upon tiered set of choices for the diner who simply wants a glass of water or a cup of coffee). Providing too many ways to access your people-centric content stands to make it very hard to create discoverable features and to support them. Applications like Photoshop and The Gimp can be confusing with all
their palettes, and we should avoid that sort of experience for simple
web browsing and basic people management.

Still, I wish there were a way to let users define their experience to a degree, perhaps with sensible default placements of content views but with the option to move them around and dock/pin them as you see fit. I think I would keep photos anchored at the top (toggleable with an access key, of course) and snippets on the side (where I’d actually start using them again to jot down quick notes). A view of people I would probably also keep on the side because I’m accustomed to my vertical GAIM listing of people.

What kind of workspace would you set up? Will, is anything akin to what I’ve proposed even remotely possible if it seems to appeal to people?


8 thoughts on “Down (err, Up?) with Bottom Bars

  1. I’ll bring up my suggestion of looking at the news reader, and tossing aside the notion it’s only for rss feeds. For viewing, listening, watching someone else’s content it makes perfect sense to be in the “content” reader. For content creation / tracking via the shelf, make it a dockalle window so i can float it (when I have two montiors) or dockit to the bottom (when I have a mouse) and dockt it to the left or right (when I’m on the touchpad in my underware sitting on the couch). TMI?

  2. As usual I find your comments relevant and on target. You know I am a strong proponent of user choice, even at the risk of giving a patron who only wants a cup of coffee more options than he can shake a stick at. Therefore, I’d very much appreciate the option of determining where *I* want these “bars.” Sure, it may present a problem in discoverability, but a sensible set of defaults would satisfy most users, while those of us who are brave enough to explore what the options are would be able to set up a working environment that met our own specific needs. Give ’em hell, Daryl! Or as Harry Truman said, “I just tell the truth and they think it is hell.”

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