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Designing the Obvious Clinic: Tumblr

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Robert Hoekman, Jr.

About Designing the Obvious Clinics

The goal of each Designing the Obvious clinic is to see how a particular web application measures up to the principles discussed in my book, Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design. To learn more about Designing the Obvious, visit my Web site.

A New Day For Tumblelogging

Um, yeah, what the heck is a tumblelog?

The illustrious Jason Kottke (http://www.kottke.org) describes tumblelogs in this post like so:

"A tumblelog is a quick and dirty stream of consciousness, a bit like a remaindered links style linklog but with more than just links. They remind me of an older style of blogging, back when people did sites by hand, before Movable Type made post titles all but mandatory, blog entries turned into short magazine articles, and posts belonged to a conversation distributed throughout the entire blogosphere."

What this boils down to is a blog that looks like it was created by James Joyce. It's a stream-of-consciousness version of more traditional blogging that generally results in an unsearchable, disorganized mess of posts with no titles, no focus, and no particular theme. And it happens to be a lot of fun.

Figure 1

Figure 1. My own personal James Joyce-style novella, in the form of a tumbleblog.

One major benefit to this is that people who want to play around with the idea of blogging before committing to a full-fledged blogging tool can experiment with Tumblr for awhile to catch the blogging bug. Experienced bloggers, on the other hand, can branch out and create a stripped-down stream of random posts on anything they want, which is far less confining than always trying to stay on a particular topic so that their blog gains and maintains popularity.

In fact, tumblelogging can be highly addictive. The overhead of creating new posts is so incredibly low that you can post 20 times a day and spend less than a total of 10 minutes doing it.

Tumblelogging has yet to catch on in the mainstream, and there's no way to know if it will, but to make things easy, the cool cats at Davidville introduced Tumblr, the super-speedy way to get up and running on your tumblelog.

In this Designing the Obvious Clinic, we'll look at what Tumblr does to support the activity of tumblelogging, how it keeps functionality relevant to the activity, and how it handles errors.

Supporting The Activity

The activity of tumblelogging is really the activity of collecting and creating content in various media formats as a means of communication and expression. Tumblr's job is to facilitate this activity. To do this, the Tumblr team put together a few basic tasks that result in your own personal tumblelog.

After the obligatory registration process, which Tumblr keeps very clean and simple and which is required so you can maintain your Tumblr blog, you can start posting anything you want—quotes, photos, regular blog posts, links, conversations, or videos.

And posting is extremely simple. Just click one of the six posting options, post something, and you're done. No additional thinking is required.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Tumblr’s posting process is very easy to use, and wildly different than a normal blogging experience.

Enjoying Tumblr means completely abandoning the expectation that you'll have a normal blogging experience in addition to giving up any thought of control or customization. But, if you can do these things, you can have a lot of fun.

Building Only What's Absolutely Necessary

The really interesting thing about Tumblr is what it doesn't do. First, it doesn't offer a way to tag or categorize posts in any way. Second, it doesn't offer RSS for published pages. Finally, it doesn't offer a search function.

The idea is actually quite brilliant. After all, the point is not to turn Tumblr into yet another blogging tool; it's to support the stream-of-consciousness approach to blogging. Leaving out categorization functionality means users have no way to deviate from the purpose of tumblelogging. If the goal of tumblelogging is to be loose and fluid, Tumblr will help you stay that way.

Sadly, though, it offers no way to assign a link to a quote post, or put a caption on a link post, and there's not a compelling reason to avoid these options. A link post is a post that contains nothing but a single link to another web page, and you can certainly name the link any way you choose, but Tumblr would be a lot more flexible if it offered captioning for link posts. Likewise, there's no way to link a quote post back to a page that contains the quote and perhaps more information on the subject of the quote.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Posting a quote leaves us without an option to link back to a web page.

Also, the lack of RSS support is potentially a huge misstep. More and more bloggers and blog aggregators pop up every day, and despite the inherent usability issues with RSS subscription processes, the use of RSS to read a Tumblr blog could greatly increase the service’s popularity without impeding the tumblelogger's experience.

Another small thing missing from the application is a "Remember Me" option for the sign-in screen. The unfortunate effect of this is that you need to sign in every time you visit the site.

While I can deal with most of these things, there is one interaction that really bothers me. To create a new post, you click one of six icons on the homepage (after signing in) and then create the post on another page. If you change your mind, the Back button is your new best friend. This interaction could easily have been consolidated into a single page, and doing this would enable faster posting and fewer page loads.

Tumblr did create a bookmarklet to help you create posts while on other sites. Simply drag the bookmarklet to your Favorites bar and click it anytime you want to add the page you're viewing as a link post in your Tumblr blog. Unfortunately, though, link posts are the only type of post that can be created through the bookmarklet. This is understandable, because the bookmarklet has no way to automatically detect anything but the title and URL of the page you're viewing, but the popup window opened by the bookmarklet, at the very least, could offer the option to create a regular post.

Figure 4

Figure 4. The bookmarklet popup window is great for adding link posts, but nothing else.

Tumblr certainly does a good job of avoiding functionality it shouldn't include, but it also seems to take this concept a bit too far by excluding a few things it could really use.

Handling Errors Wisely

Finally, I have to take issue yet again with the use of Javascript alerts. Used for everything from confirmations to error messages, Javascript alerts are application-model, which means the user can't interact with any part of the browser or web application until the alert has been dealt with. This, of course, is awful.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Javascript alerts prevent all interaction with the browser for no very good reason.

In Tumblr's case, Javascript alerts are used to confirm that you want to delete a post. Sure, these alerts are a quick and convenient way for developers to try to prevent users from making unintentional mistakes, but it's also quite ineffective because people have become so immune to these little annoyances that they often simply click OK and move on.

Instead of using Javascript alerts—and yes, I realize this would be more difficult to create—build an Undo feature. Either offer the ability to undo the last action (such as deleting a post) for 10 seconds or so, or create a page that lists recent actions the user can undo. No need to keep track of everything—just the last few actions.

Wrapping Up

Overall, Tumblr does a great job of making tumblelogging very easy and quick, which is the whole point, so it supports the stream-of-consciousness approach to blogging very well. But a few tweaks here and there—like merging the task of selecting a post type with the page for entering the post—would go a long way towards making the experience even simpler and more efficient. Still, tumblelogging can be a lot of fun for experienced bloggers, and it's a great way to get aspiring bloggers into the swing of creating their own web content.

Worth noting is that Davidville, the creators of Tumblr, created another application called Senduit (http://www.senduit.com), designed to make the transfer of large files from one person to another easier. It does this by providing a temporary URL for a file you upload, so you simply upload any file you want, choose how long you need the link to exist—from 30 minutes to one week—and send the link to whoever needs it.