For a long time, the photo sharing service Flickr felt like an abandoned product. It was well-loved in its younger, more innovative days, when co-founder Caterina Fake made it a point to comment on every image that was uploaded. But once it was bought by Yahoo, Flickr sort of froze; and by doing so, it allowed its users to be lured away by Instagram, Facebook, and even Google+. However, the service has started to come alive again, with more than eight billion photos from more than 87 million users, more than 3.5 million new images uploaded daily, and a refresh of the mobile apps which led to a significant boost in traffic.
The beginnings of Flickr’s comeback happened after a photographer from Radebeul, Germany, Markus Spiering (@spieri) took over as head of product in 2011. After just a year on the job, he pushed Flickr’s biggest makeover in years. Then came a massive update to the iPhone app. Now, almost exactly two years after he took over, Spiering reflects on how Flickr has changed and what Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer has to do with it.
After Marissa Mayer took over, there was a public appeal to "make Flickr awesome again." You guys responded with a website that directed people to a jobs site, but it takes more than just hiring new people — how is Yahoo going to make Flickr awesome again?
I don’t remember the date or time, but I do remember our reaction where it’s like, "that’s pretty amazing." We did put up the response to the internet: "yes, come help make Flickr more awesome, we are hiring."
Did you feel insulted by that at all?
No. You see that there were a lot, a lot, of users that are really passionate about Flickr, the brand, the service. So no, not at all.
For a long time, Flickr was not a top priority for Yahoo. Has that changed?
"Yahoo is focusing on daily habits."
Marissa, the leadership team, [and] Yahoo overall is focusing on daily habits. Taking, sharing, and consuming photos is a top daily habit. Digital photography is an evolving, engaging, and very popular daily habit, which makes Flickr a priority for Yahoo.
With Marissa joining there is overall a new energy in the company. One of the ways we are going to see this very directly is, we are hiring, and the amount of candidates — as well as their willingness and their interest and excitement to work for Yahoo and for Flickr — is quite different. It’s quite exciting to see that.
You’ve hired an undisclosed number of people for the Flickr team since Mayer started (although it has not quite doubled, as was rumored). Has the pace of development accelerated?
Yes, with more manpower you can do better things. I can’t talk about like the things that are coming up. But if you think 2012 was a big year, 2013 will be bigger.
Creating beautiful and engaging experiences for Flickr users and attracting new users to the service is always our goal. The latest update to the app was primarily driven from direct user feedback. Users wanted to download their photos, wanted to mention their friends in their photos and comments and asked for faster uploads, while maintaining the original photo quality. So that’s what we built and released.
Speaking of 2012, how did you decide what to include in the big iPhone update in December?
"How do you take this to mobile in a way where its very easy to use?"
The overall goal for the big release was how to redesign Flickr in a way where, on one hand, you have this extremely feature-rich website. It’s kind of an entire photo solution for you that is really rich and complex. So how do you take this to mobile in a way where its very easy to use, so that people can quickly see the latest activity from their friends, quickly take and share photos in the best quality possible? But then how do you add in the richness that the Flickr platform has?
I think that’s our leading design principle: finding the right balance between ease of use and providing a very powerful tool to users.
What is the roadmap for mobile in the near future? The iPhone app looks great, but there's still no iPad app. How do you decide what to build next?
We are working hard to make the best Flickr experience available wherever our users are, but I can’t share an exact roadmap.
One [thing] we look into when we design new services, new products, new features, is data. So for example, we see that the iPhone is the most popular camera, but the experience that we used to have before the big iPhone release wasn’t really catered to share images quickly from an iPhone.
The other thing — and that’s the wonderful thing about the Flickr community — there actually is a public forum where people can come to us, give us their ideas, give us their needs. It’s something we as a team monitor very closely, and it’s basically open to everyone that’s in the community.
There is a mechanism within the update to provide feedback. We certainly, every day, look through the App Store reviews and what people have to tell us over there. That’s certainly a source that we use in order to make product and feature decisions.
What about other social services that have become more photo-centric, like Tumblr and Instagram? Do you watch what they’re doing?
You are always aware of what the market is doing and where the market is going. Where Flickr is uniquely positioned is, we have this amazing big website, and we’re doing a lot of work over there. We’re making a strong push toward mobile.
And the really amazing thing about Flickr is it’s bigger than Flickr itself. If you take a photo with a third party app like Hipstamatic and you simultaneously upload it to Flickr, and you go home and turn on your Apple TV — your photo is there, and it’s only because it’s on Flickr.
So what we always try to do is think about our own product experience, but also about the platform. And the interesting piece about the platform is that our own products are built on our API. It’s something that’s super important to us because it makes Flickr bigger than just Flickr.
"We’re making a strong push toward mobile."
Almost every photo sharing app — Hipstamatic, Instagram, a lot of other services — uses the Flickr API to post photos or retrieve photos. On the desktop, that is very popular with our users, we have Adobe Lightroom, iPhoto. On tablets you have Flipboard. On the web you have services like Pinterest which integrate with Flickr. Apple TV and Google TV have Flickr built in.
What’s the end goal in focusing on the platform — will this ensure Flickr remains relevant?
The end goal for the platform is to provide users with the possibility that, as long as they have their photos on Flickr, their photos are everywhere.
In the end it’s a big ecosystem. You have multiple devices, you have multiple screens, you have different software. Regardless, if you for example got a new Windows 8 machine and Flickr is built in, or you use a Mac and Flickr is built in... it’s something that, you have Flickr, and you always have this functionality with you.
Interview has been condensed and edited.