My friend Flickr

My Flickr Pro account has returned, along with the vanished photos and sets. Welcome back, photos! I’ve also learned a few things:

  • Flickr emails users before their accounts expire. They therefore emailed me, although the message didn’t reach me. (Using Flickr mail in addition to traditional email would help avoid heartache.)
  • As a Pro account nears its expiration date, Flickr posts warnings on your home page, advising you of the coming purge and suggesting you top off the account before it ends. I didn’t see these warnings because I never log into my home page; I go straight to my photo page. You never know what a user will do.
  • Discreet warnings were also placed on the photo page, I’m told. I didn’t notice them, possibly because their posting coincided with big changes to the Flickr interface. The designer who formatted the warnings may also have erred on the side of understatement. Designing error and warning messages is tough. Make them too big and users gripe; too small, and nobody sees them.

It will be interesting to see if Flickr changes the way it reacts to a lapsed Pro account in the future. Here’s hoping.

Most sites I use (and a few I’ve had a hand in creating) cause frustration because of poorly considered usability and design decisions. A very few sites, products, and applications delight us precisely because their design and usability are so good. Flickr is one of these rare delights. Like Apple, it is a company whose occasional lapses (or seeming ones) bug us, even as we forgive (or barely notice) the screwups and mediocrity of other companies. We hold these companies to a higher standard. But, hey, they’re the ones who set it.

Flick’d Away

Until 22 June I had a Flickr Pro account, through which I posted hundreds of photos (most of which were visible only to friends and family) in carefully crafted and lovingly maintained sets. On the morning of 22 June my Pro account expired without notice, and all but the most recent 200 photos were flushed off the site—like that!

The minute I discovered my “Pro” status had expired, I placed a two-year reorder. That was six days ago, and the upgrade is still pending. See, Flickr likes you to pay with PayPal—there doesn’t seem to be any other way to pay—and PayPal can take a week or more to slowly leech the funds from your bank.

Although it’s not the best of all possible user experiences, I guess I’m okay with the sudden, unannounced bump-down of my account status. And I’m semi-sanguine about waiting a week for PayPal to transfer the funds, although they ought to provide methadone while you wait. But the unceremonious dumping without notice or warning of hundreds of family photos feels rough, and wrong, and if I may say so, unFlickr-like.

For this is a program that nearly always understands how people feel. It knows why we take pictures. It knows how we share with each other. Flickr is the warmest and most human web application I know. Thus it is not only upsetting but also out of brand character for Flickr to trash a member’s family albums without so much as a warning.

I feel like the landlord busted down the door to my apartment and set my family albums on fire (all but the most recent 200 pictures) for nonpayment of rent he didn’t tell me was due. I expect utility and insurance companies to bully and bluster and break my heart. But I and you and we expect more and better of Flickr—and the program almost never lets down. A user experience mistake like this feels quadruply wrong precisely because user experience is what Flickr typically gets so right. (It’s like Apple, that way; and we all know what happens when Apple makes the smallest misstep.)

Of course Flickr is a nice way to stay close to far-away friends and family. But it’s also much more than that. For us, it’s the primary tool we’ve used to save our family’s history during our daughter’s first two years of life. And I’ve got to tell you, it kills me that our trip to Spain (where our kid saw The Simpsons for the first time—in Spanish!), a magical day at a Manhattan flea market, her first experience of an ice arena, and more, are simply gone. Using iPhoto, with about ten hours of work, I can probably recreate fair semblances of some of the discarded photosets. But not the texts and the comments by friends and family.

So to my gifted friends at Flickr, who have given us a product many of us can’t imagine living without, this small request: Please notify members early and often as their Pro accounts near their expiration date, and allow a grace period of at least a few days before removing the fragile and irreplaceable human constructions with which we have entrusted you. Thanks.

Updated 10 am ET, 28 June 2006

Ah. Saith Flickr: “If your Pro account expires, don’t panic! None of your photos have been deleted.” Thank you, Suzanne Carter-Jackson (and over 100 other readers) for locating this hidden piece of reassurance.

I contend that I’ve still stumbled onto a problem—that this is one of the very, very, very few things Flickr gets exactly wrong.

Thought. Instead of apparently deleting all but 200 of a user’s photos, sets, and comments, and then hiding the fact that they aren’t really gone on an obscure Flickr Help page, wouldn’t it be better to simply keep the pictures up?

It’s not a question of storage: Flickr claims to be storing the photos anyway. So why send a user into panic by hiding pictures you have every intention of showing again once a PayPal payment clears?

For that matter, why hide the pictures at all? Even if a user deliberately let their Pro account lapse and had no intention of becoming a “Pro” user again, didn’t the Pro account they paid for the first year ensure them the right to keep the photos they uploaded during their Pro period online?

Shouldn’t the “penalty” for ending a “Pro” account be that you can’t upload boatloads of photos any more? Isn’t that sufficient motivation to make most folks re-up their Pro accounts? It was for me. I re-upgraded long before I knew that Flickr had removed almost all of my photos from the site.

While I’m deeply relieved to know that the family photo treasure trove I spent two years building is still intact somewhere on a Flickr server and will be shown again once Yahoo gets its hands of my small, greasy wad of virtual dough, I’m disappointed at being put through a somewhat user-hostile experience on a site I consider among the smartest and best ever mounted on the web. I will keep this post up to remember that nothing, not even Flickr, is perfect, and in hopes that my colleagues there will rethink this bit of architecture.

It’s really pretty simple:

  • Let people know their Pro account is about to expire. Notify them by email and RSS and do it more than once.
  • If a Pro account lapses, keep the photos online that were posted while the account was active.

Over 100 Flickr users wrote to me (a testament to Flickr’s popularity) and I am grateful to all. Several suggested that Flickr had probably tried contacting me to alert me to the expiration, and that its message had gotten trapped in SPAM filters. This is possible, although I filter for Flickr way ahead of filtering for Trash, and I receive dozens of Flickr messages every day, from people who want to become contacts. Flickr messages always seem to reach me, is my point.

I also checked Flickr’s online message board to see if there was notice there, and found none. So it appears that no automated expiration notices were sent to my account, but who can say for sure?

A Fine Day to Quit Sniffing Glue

Last night, some weird instinct made me post a duplicate Event Apart NYC schedule here, and it’s a good thing I did. For this morning, An Event Apart dot com was gone. In its place was a smiling “coming soon” placeholder, courtesy of domain registrar GoDaddy. I was not notified that the domain was about to elapse. I was not notified that it had elapsed.

Now, GoDaddy is run by smart people, and notifying customers by email that their account is about to expire is undoubtedly something they do. I’m sure they tried to contact me. There at least a dozen ways one or more email messages intended to reach me could have gone astray. Not their fault. And, although I cringed with shame at this technological depantsing, not really my fault, either. Only someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder would log in to a registrar every few days just to be sure one of their domains wasn’t about to expire. The problem isn’t people, it’s email.

A suggestion to GoDaddy and similar businesses: given that email has become extraordinarily unreliable, especially for people who receive vast quantities of it; and given too that many customers change email accounts from time to time, and in so doing, may become unreachable; wouldn’t it make sense (and be kind of cool) to offer your customers RSS feeds in addition to email notification? An RSS feed might send a notice when a customer registers, another when the account is set to expire in 60 days, still another when the expiration date is 30 days away, and so on.

Most people who do what I do don’t see half their mail, but they always check their RSS reader. Is my freely shared thought.

So, back to my briefly elapsed domain (which, thank goodness and American Express, is once again online). Did I mention that I am a walking usability test? I’m sure I’ve told you that, but maybe just not lately. What works fine for the average user almost never works for me. By the way, the average user was recently spotted in Northville, Michigan, purchasing 10 lbs. of potting soil and a garden hose.

Anyway, An Event Apart is back.

An Event Apart Seattle

It’s de-lightful, it’s de-lovely, it’s the city on Puget Sound. Join Eric Meyer, Jason Santa Maria, and Jeffrey Zeldman on Monday 18 September 2006 at Bell Harbor International Conference Center for An Event Apart Seattle, a concentrated, creative learning session that could change the way you approach web design. Save $50 when you register by August 18th, 2006.

Wrapping Chicago

An Event Apart Chicago has wrapped. It felt like the best one yet. Everything clicked.

There were as many designers as coders in attendance, as many Chicagoans as out-of-towners, as many agency people and freelancers as in-house folks, and nearly as many women as men. They engaged at “good morning” and stayed involved all day, asking shrewdly penetrating questions and sharing their own insights and experiences. Energy flowed not only between the floor and the seats but also from one seat to another. It felt like community.

This was the third time out for Eric, Jason, and me. Our talks were sharper and shorter — looser and more relaxed, yet also more focused than before. The rhythm was better. The balance between technical and aesthetic subjects, how much time was alloted to each, the way one theme flowed into another — the music of the day — felt tighter and truer than at events past.

Thanks to our sponsors at Adobe, AIGA, New Riders, and Media Temple, we were able to give away thousands of dollars worth of software, books, and services. (We’ll be doing the same at An Event Apart NYC next month.)

Guest speaker Jim Coudal‘s leisurely stories were like little grenades of inspiration. He tossed them out casually; moments later, they detonated.

The day formally ended with lively critiques of sites submitted by attendees. We tried this once before, at An Event Apart Philadelphia, with mixed results. This time it felt like it really worked. The day informally ended at Timothy O’Toole’s pub, with a mixer sponsored by Jewelboxing.

Time, and the blog posts of those who attended, will tell if the event was as good for you as it was for us. Sincere thanks to all who attended. Thanks also to Dawson, John Gruber, Amy Redell, Michael Nolan, and Orrin Fink.

And a reminder: the Early Bird Rate for An Event Apart NYC ends June 9th. That’s a week from today! On June 10th, the price will increase by $100. So if you’re thinking of attending An Event Apart NYC — two days of design and code — please register soon.

A List Apart adds Job Board

I have always wanted A List Apart to connect web designers with web design jobs and never gotten around to making it happen. Now, thanks to 37signals, it’s on.

Starting today, the sidebar of A List Apart displays one random job from the 37signals Job Board — a new job on every page. It’s a great match for ALA readers seeking work and web-smart businesses with jobs to offer.

Companies including The New York Times, CNET, Facebook, Adobe, and American Express already use the Job Board to find today’s brightest web minds. Now they will find more of them. The best designers, developers, and information architects in the world read A List Apart, to the tune of 14 million page views a month.

14 million a month! I don’t know of another web publication that reaches so many clued-in professionals. ALA readers are uniquely concerned with accessibility, web standards, and crafting exceptional user experience through deeply considered design, writing, and structure.

Over the years, ALA readers have written to tell us that they owed their careers to skills our magazine helped them hone, and concepts our magazine laid before them. Adding the 37signals Job Board to our sidebar is a logical next step.

I am delighted to think that one day soon, we’ll get email from readers who found great jobs through A List Apart. And I’m even more thrilled to think about all those web standards fans taking their accessibility concerns and user experience chops to great companies like Crate and Barrel, TBWA, and American Express.

Today, the 37signals Job Board comes to A List Apart. Tomorrow, standardistas go to work at leading companies. The revolution will be salaried.

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not interezted…

Of writing and rosters

Events called me away, but I return, bringing news.

Tantek Çelik joins An Event Apart NYC roster
Tantek Çelik has joined the roster of An Event Apart NYC, where he will bring unparalleled insights on microformats and web standards to Code Day, July 11. Tantek is chief technologist at Technorati, co-founder of the microformats movement, creator of the Tasman rendering engine and the Box Model Hack, a contributor to the CSS and XHTML specs, and more. Come meet and learn from the man Meyer and Zeldman call “Master.”
A List Apart 216: Making Time, Sharpening Skills
Issue 216 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, features great articles from Derek Powazek and Ryan Carson. Mr Powazek’s Calling All Designers: Learn to Write! explains why it’s important for user-interface designers to sharpen up their writing skills. And Mr Carson’s Four-Day Week Challenge offers an approach to getting more done in less time. It’s a treat to publish Powazek again and a delight to welcome Carson.

A List Apart 215: triple issue

In a big triple issue of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

A More Accessible Map
by Seth Duffey
Nifty web maps powered by Google and Yahoo! APIs are all the rage. And rage is what a visually impaired user may feel when trying to use them. Is there a way to make beautiful web maps accessible? In a word, yes. Techy designers, you won’t want to miss this step-by-step guide.
Community Creators, Secure Your Code!
by Niklas Bivald
Don’t be like MySpace. Well, okay, be like MySpace in attracting millions of users. But don’t be like them in exposing your site and your users to virtual vandals. Protect your community site from malicious cross-site scripting attacks. Part one of a two-part series.
Everyware: Always Crashing in the Same Car
by Adam Greenfield
Ubiquitous computing is coming. In some ways, it’s already here. Shouldn’t we think about what we want it to be? In our last issue, we published the introduction to Adam Greenfield’s Everyware. In this issue, we run the book’s conclusion.

It’s spring in this part of the world, and this issue’s color scheme by art director Jason Santa Maria reflects that pleasing circumstance. (ALA’s color scheme changes every issue, but you knew that.) Production editor Aaron Gustafson contributed significantly to the issue’s editorial content. Watercolor illustration by Kevin Cornell. Editorial assistance by Erin Lynch. Behind-the-scenes system improvements by Dan Benjamin. Erin Kissane edits the magazine. Published by Happy Cog.

Kottke Joins The Deck

As many who follow the blogosphere know, Jason Kottke recently celebrated a joyous event. That’s right, he was added to The Deck, our targeted ad network for creative, web, and design professionals. Kottke.org will begin running Deck ads in May.

I knew Jason Kottke before he was Jason Kottke. I knew him way back when he was doing nifty web stuff like creating a fake “pick your color” page to let buyers of the then-new, first generation iMac choose a color other than Bondi blue for their hot new fashion computer. At the time, the iMac was only available in one color. Maybe Steve Jobs was an early Kottke fan.

Then Kottke turned all his web attention to blogging. It’s safe to say that most of us who blog have learned from him, and none of us is as good as he is. If there had been no blogging, it would have been necessary for Kottke to invent it.

When we started our new ad network, we all thought Kottke would be a great addition. And now he is.

There are several ways to fund high quality publishing on the web. One way is to charge a subscription fee for for some content. If you’re The New York Times or Advertising Age, you can make paid content work, although it will take trial and error to achieve the right mix of paid and free features at the right price.

Another way is to cover your site in paid advertising. Boing-boing does that, and I am fairly confident that they make money. There is an aesthetic cost and a user experience cost to doing it that way, but if you publish content many people want to read, as Boing-Boing does, you can make the multi-ad approach work, like they do.

With The Deck, we are trying something different. We are not charging for content and we are not plastering our pages with ad after ad after ad. Instead, we place just one ad on every page of a Deck site. The ad is drawn from a shallow pool of advertisers whose products we know to be of the highest quality and relevance to our readers. User experience is not diminished, and the reader knows that the product being advertised is deemed trustworthy by publishers the reader trusts.

A List Apart, 37signals, Daring Fireball, Waxy.org, The Morning News, Kottke.org and Coudal Partners make up The Deck. Limited advertising opportunites are currently available May through July.