Sunday, January 15th, 2006

New design / design philosophy

I’ve done some tweaks to the design. I’ve wanted to do this for some time and never found the time. The nail in the coffin was an email that described the top bar on the old design as “dangerously close to greige.” Ouch.

There’s a lot more I need to tweak, but that’s true of every aspect of the site. I’m worried that tweaks like this make LibraryThing look too corporate and static. But the old design was ugly and corporate and static, so I think it’s an improvement.

Playing with the design got me thinking about large issues of graphic and social design. How “accessible” should LibraryThing be? By accessible I mean what people mean when they call a book accessible—easy for a large group of people to get into. I’m a little afraid of making LibraryThing too accessible, too appealing.

User photos. One way of doing this would be to put user photos front and center. Social sites like Friendster, Tribe or MySpace, even LibraryThing’s (nearly moribund) competitor Mediachest do this. Photos add impact and—let us be frank—sex appeal.

Social software home pages are particular locus of user-photo activity, with the meat-market aspect paramount. I have no proof, but I believe most social software site’s “random pictures” algorithms have a one-hottie minimum. I particularly appreciate Mediachest’s non-rotating homepage hottie, “Becca from Seattle” (at right), who attests that she used Mediachest and “met some cute guys that actually shared my interests.”* As Twain says, I am girding up my loins to doubt this. Not only does the photo not reside in the user photo directory, but Mediachest requires a state and zip code, and allows a geographic lookup—no Becca in Seattle.

I think there’s reason to believe that LibraryThing users don’t want that sort of atmosphere. LibraryThing makes it very easy to add an image. (The preset ones are one of my favorite features. It warms my heart every time someone discovers the software “easter egg” there.) But of even serious users only about half have chosen one. Among the ones who have are the two lasses at right. Their favorite tags are “democratic capitalism” and “almost but not quite a dictionary.” Their favorite books are… okay, that’s from Friendster and appears to be a magazine photo. (Real people don’t wear matching underwear.) As far as I’m concerned, this is the enemy. I think most LibraryThing users will agree.

Friends. There are a lot of other places where LibraryThing could broaden its appeal and play up the social aspect. Another example is “friends.” At present LibraryThing allows you to add users to a “watch list,” not a “buddy list.” The difference is that nobody knows who’s on your watch list—it’s a glorified bookmark. Buddies lists are very public. I did this because I hate the social dynamics of buddies lists. “I’m his buddy but he’s not my buddy.” “She’s got 200 buddies,” etc. Maybe it’s just because I’m old enough to remember Reagan’s first term, but I find this sort of this pretty irritating and pointless. Am I being a stick in the mud?

Incidentally, I will be adding “groups.” I’m not quite sure how they’ll work but the idea will be to allow people to search for books within a set of libraries. The point is more functional than social. Users have been begging for a way for their whole knitting or book club to get on LibraryThing and search a combined library.

Wrap up. So where should LibraryThing’s design go? Would more use of user photos make the site more fun and immediate or do they lead down a slippely slope? Should I turn the “watch list” into a “buddy list.” Should LibraryThing allow users to enter zip codes and search for them, a la Mediachest? In sum, should I bend the design more to the conventions and expectations of other social software, or should LibraryThing try hard NOT to do this?

Comments appreciated. Sorry for the long post.

PS: Holy smokes—21,000 books added yesterday! That’s double the ususal rate. I think LibraryThing will hit 1.5 million books tomorrow, and 2 million tags the day after.

*Note: I am doing criticism, which entitles me to use the photo as fair use.

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