Notes on Picture Manager

One of the first new patterns in Designing Interfaces, Second Edition is Picture Manager. You’ll find it in the second chapter, which is about the information architecture of apps and sites. The chapter describes application archetypes or organizing principles such as News Stream, Wizard, Canvas Plus Palette, and Dashboard.

I found the Picture Manager concept interesting because it is so well-defined — everyone can identify one or more Picture Managers that they’re personally familiar with, and those of us who use them tend to have strong expectations for certain features and behaviors. (Personally, I find it hard to imagine any serious tool for managing visual objects that doesn’t more or less follow this pattern. Maybe a more inventive designer can.)

Here’s some of the functionality we tend to expect from Picture Managers:

  • We want an overview of our collections of pictures (or videos or other artwork, as the case may be). Usually this manifests as a grid of thumbnail images, which lets you see a lot of them at once. If we don’t actually own any items, as with TED or a museum site, then we expect to see a gallery of interesting items that we can browse.
  • We want to drill down to individual pictures or videos. Those single-item views are where we expect to find metadata — date, author, etc. — along with editing tools, social sharing, comments, and links to previous and next items in the lineup.
  • We want to browse and search. What’s popular right now? What’s got this keyword or tag? Can I see all the pictures with Aunt Judy in them? Where on earth did I put those pictures from Italy? What’s in this directory over here?
  • We want to manage the items that we own — add new ones, categorize or tag them, reorder them, edit their metadata, make them private or public, or otherwise enrich them in various ways that make them more interesting to ourselves and others.

Lots of familiar apps and sites work this way: Flickr, YouTube, iPhoto, SmugMug, Adobe Bridge, and so on. Some are public, some private, some both; but they all fit the pattern. Their different characters arise from how these features are manifested. TED’s home page, for instance, uses a variable-sized thumbnail display to show the videos matching the current filter — an interactive visualization within a Picture Manager! Nice. Clicking on one brings you to a single-video view, as one would expect. Doing otherwise might startle or puzzle a viewer.

(If you haven’t read the pattern yet, you can read it here. At least look at the pictures. Go on!)

Anyway, when writing the pattern, I found it instructive to compare the interfaces of iPhoto and Adobe Bridge, which is a photo organizer bundled with Photoshop and other costly Adobe products. Both organize your photos, but their designs are radically different in certain ways. iPhoto must be usable by all Mac users, regardless of their technical prowess, and the interface is ruthlessly simple for most of its features. I used it for a while, to manage my (large!) personal photo collection. But it lacks certain functionality that I want, and it’s had problems with scalability. I now choose not to use it.

Adobe Bridge, on the other hand, is a serious tool that must scale up to the needs of professionals. It’s complicated. It requires a lot of screen space, with its countless tabs and panels and tables, and it imposes a high cognitive load at first; it took me a bit of thought and twiddling to figure out how to use it best! But after I climbed the learning curve, it was better suited to my needs than iPhoto, especially since I spend a lot of time in Photoshop. I just needed its scalability and features. (I still wonder if a designer somewhere has figured out how to make an industrial-strength Picture Manager with a more graceful interface.)

Two audiences, two designs, but one pattern at the core of each product. So far, so good.

And then I signed up for Instagram.

Oh, it manages photos, all right — you create them, modify them, store them, share them, browse through other people’s collections. But it’s not really a Picture Manager. It’s a News Stream.

Say what? you may ask. Well, if you’re a user of Instagram, think about its purpose. It’s not trying to be Photoshop. It’s not trying to be Flickr, either. Its whole point is to share pictures instantly, and to build up a one-dimensional timestream of photos that communicate what’s new, not what’s past or what’s best. So far as I can tell, you can’t even see a Thumbnail Grid of your own past photos, let alone your friend’s — other than tags, you certainly can’t do much curation of your image collection. It’s a Twitter for photos.

…Which is fine, of course, and its users seem to be quite happy with it! I use it as a counterexample to Picture Manager not because it’s “wrong,” but because it casts a sharp light on the boundary between Picture Managers and other types of applications. Picture Managers seem to be appropriate for collections that are large, varied, complex, and that need to offer access to the “deep catalog” and not just the latest items. Picture Managers are browsing and curation tools for various media and audiences. Their designs are optimized accordingly.

In the next post, I’ll talk some more about the News Stream pattern.

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