Flickr serves out thousands of photos every day to users hanging out for a glimpse into the lives of other people. We talk to George Oates, the woman whose job it is to make voyeurism easier than ever before.

How did Flickr come to be?

There was a little start-up in Vancouver called Ludicorp. I started working there around June 2003. At the time I joined, I was enlisted to help build a Web-based game called Game Neverending. It was a lot of fun, and the game was very popular amongst its 10,000 or so players, but it wasn’t making any money, and Ludicorp was in jeopardy.

We decided to enter the online photosharing market, and Flickr was launched at a conference called ETech in February of 2004.

Why do you think Flickr became so popular? What was that special something?

I’ve often wondered that myself!

I think it has a lot to do with how we publicised Flickr in the early days. We had a lot of friends who were prominent in the blogosphere. Telling them about it meant a lot of links into Flickr, and a lot of people who popped by to see what all the fuss was about.

One of the main reasons Flickr became so popular was because of the photos themselves. The simple act of sharing a photo publicly — where previously photo “sharing” had been a private act online — meant that suddenly, visitors to Flickr were given a glimpse into people’s lives. Let’s face it — we all have voyeuristic tendencies. Flickr played up to that.

Another reason I think Flickr gained traction so quickly was because of our approach to design and development. We were clearly naive of the photosharing market of the day, and thus were able to push and innovate in new ways. Our small development team of five were truly nimble — able to massage and tweak the system both in reaction to community feedback, but also in directions that we wanted to move. That “ever-changing UI” of the early days was a lot of fun for most of our visitors, and imbued the place with a sense of freshness and vitality (from a development point of view) that had rarely been seen before, if ever.

How big could Flickr become? Would expanding Flickr be a good thing?

The sky appears to be the limit! Some say that databases only start to get really interesting after they reach a certain size. I must admit, the bigger Flickr becomes, the more I see it as an enormous corpus of actual human history: events and people around the globe are being captured in an entirely new way.

I think continuing expansion would enrich the system immensely — the limits become more infrastructural than social.

What do designers need to keep in mind for developing a social content site such as Flickr?

I think the normal rules apply for designing any successful software — useability, good copywriting, easy interface etc. The difference with creating a site that’s intended to be social from the outset is that they require a social approach to growing the community: welcoming new members as personally as possible; providing new members with appropriate hooks to begin using the system in a way that suits them.

I don’t mean to blow our trumpet *too* loud, but having charismatic, entertaining staff also helps.

I’m really interested in the sorts of “network effects” I’ve observed as the system increases in size. It’s almost as if a personal connection with someone else who’s using the site becomes essential as the system surpasses that intimate size where most of the people using it are relatively nerdy early adopter types. When the place is settling down in that sort of phase, I think people assume a certain etiquette that falls away when the system increases in size.

What tips would you give software developers on designing a user interface?

One of my favourite stories about working on Flickr was when my friend Paul told me he could hear me in the interface … that the copy I wrote around interactions with the system actually sounded like me; like a person he knew.

Obviously funny copy doesn’t work for every system, but I think Flickr was one of the first places online that felt personable, like there was a person behind the screen talking to you.

One thing that developers are generally very good at is thinking through all the possible outcomes that a software process may generate. Apart from the obvious successful one, there are often several errors and gotchas that can stop people in their tracks. Designing (and writing) for these additional cases is extremely important, and incidentally, something that was a focus for our team very early on.

That, and make the UI predictable. Not necessarily beautiful, but functional and predictable.

As designers and developers, what should we be looking out for next?

Tom Coates has started talking recently about the “Web of Data”, where data from one system can be accessed and displayed and merged with data from other systems.

I think this is a very interesting new structure to play within, and whilst being certain that your users’ privacy is being respected, allowing external developers to work with an open API for your system presents hugely exciting opportunities to show and share data in all sorts of new ways. Also, to develop a system with openness in mind creates quite different results — both from the UI and code perspectives.

How has the increasingly social nature of the Web changed user interfaces?

I think the display of activity has become paramount. It’s as if these social systems allow us to publish a sustained personal narrative about the goings-on in our lives. When I log in to Flickr, I look to see if people have looked at my photos, or commented on them, as well as looking for news from friends and groups I belong to. All of these activities help to paint a picture of my life on Flickr, and the picture of me that that information generates; that narrative.

Do you think the world is ready for a Game Neverending?

Ha! Well, I think so, but then again, I’m weird. GNE was really quirky, but it was definitely a fun, generous place to be, and created a culture of sharing and playfulness that seems to have permeated Flickr as well.