Revamping Flickr – life after startup

Flickr is going through a difficult adolesence. What does the storm of the last week teach us about life after the startup phase?

In all the current obsession with startups in the tech world, relatively few electrons are being sacrificed in the name of writing about life in the post-startup stage, when sites become established with user bases, hardcore fans and competitive challenges. Part of that’s the reflexive assumption that the new replaces and invalidates the old, but that’s rarely been the case with most online services. The older ones just have to keep reinventing themselves to stay relevant, even as media attention shifts away from them. Right now, Flickr is probably the poster child for this condition.

Flickr was once a startup – but that time is very long gone. It was over a decade ago. These days it’s an established web property, one owned by an established web company. It’s a business under threat. It’s being squeezed by both the mobile app-centric photo services like Instagram, the upmarket sites like 500px, and even Facebook for general photo-sharing. It had to do something – and it had to fight back, if it wanted to survive, and not ended up “sunsetted” like so many Yahoo! acquisitions.

That something was a major redesign, a massive increase in storage to 1Tb, and a fundamental shift in how you pay for the service (with some good reasons for Doublr pricing that looks insane). The net result? well, if you read around the net, it would seem to be users in outcry.

Is that outrage actually justified? If it is, does it matter?

As blogger Rachel Clarke explains, at this point the redesign isn’t actually as profound as many of the people complaining are suggesting. Indeed, some aspects of the change are extremely minimal:

It’s a ‘Minimally Viable BIG redesign’. They’ve changed the home page to be a photostream. They’ve changed your profile page with header image and photo stream.. But everything else they’ve just slapped on a header and left it. it’s as though they were told they HAD to have it ready for yesterday and just get it out there. So it’s not been thought through. Now they have the home page looking the right to attract the new people who are used to more recent photo services, but it’s creaky and slow and seems to fail at times.

And it has failed at times. As TechCrunch reported, it actually went down for some users for a couple of hours last week. While most are taking this as a bad thing, it’s been a long time since Flickr had enough traffic to bring it to its knees…

However, as James Hague points out, this is actually actually step three in the changes to Flickr – and it’s interesting that so many “fans” didn’t really seem to notice the earlier ones.

But here’s something that may not be so obvious: it wasn’t a sudden reworking of Flickr. It’s been evolving through a series of smaller improvements over the course of fifteen months.

In February 2012, photo thumbnails presented as grid of small squares floating in a sea of whitespace were replaced with the justified view: images cropped to varying widths and packed into aesthetically pleasing rows in the browser window. Initially this was only for the favorites page, but a few months later it was applied to the amalgamation of recent photos from your contacts, then to the photos in topic-oriented groups.

Since then we’ve had the new Flickr app, and then this recent redesign building on the earlier work. Most users of newer services are used to rapid changes to their service. Development is fast, and iterates rapidly. This has not been the case for Flickr for most of its life since itsacquisition by Yahoo!. The major changes were things like forcing a Yahoo! login on users, which proved controversial at the time. Since then, users have become accustomed to a pretty much unchanging service – until they logged in one day last week and found nothing to their taste…

Most people dislike change. It’s a fairly natural psychological response. So people’s reaction isn’t surprising. But how overwhelming is the problem? Is this a vocal minority or the majority of the user base?

Thomas Hawk has been analysing the volumes of photos posted to Flickr before and after the change, based the on unique identifier each photo is given. The result are interesting:

So, roughly, as measured in the six days before and the six days after Flickr’s new site design, uploads are up about 71% site wide.

Yup, volumes of uploads have actually increased since this “disastrous” redesign. How about engagement?

Now, number of photos uploaded is only one metric to measure when looking at the effect of this change. As I mentioned earlier, personally my own engagement numbers are up even higher — but to hear it told by a loud, vocal contingent of about 3,000 members in the Flickr Help Forum, 99% of users hate this change. This simply is not true. The vast silent majority of Flickr users are chugging along just like they always have been and I suspect Flickr signups have *far* exceeded deletions since the change has been made.

So, there’s plenty of good news for the service in there, if not necessarily for the “old skool” users. Yahoo! claims to be listening, and with a bit of luck, we’ll actually see Flickr returning to a more startup mentality, with more changes and rapid iteration to come. Hopefully, that iteration will also bring improvement with it.