The Flickr redesign and knowing your site's focus
You may have heard that Flickr recently did a major site redesign that significantly changed the look and the experience of the site (of course many long-term users are up in arms over it). I'm not sure how I feel about it myself, but after interacting with the new Flickr for a while I've realized something: the new Flickr is very strongly focused on looking at photographs.
This might sound obvious, but the old Flickr wasn't this way. The easiest way to explain it is to say that the old Flickr showed you a lot of distractions. For example when you were looking at a single photograph the page had the photograph in a relatively modest size and then a lot of both empty space and other stuff (there was various photo information, groups, tags, and other stuff on the right and the description and comments below the picture, all routinely visible in a normally sized browser window). In the new Flickr, almost all you see on an individual photo page is the photograph itself; everything else has been removed, pushed 'below the fold' where you have to scroll to see it, or minimized. A similar transformation has happened to the various sorts of index pages (eg sets), where now almost all of their space is filled with photographs instead of anything else (and photographs are now presented uncropped; they used to be usually shown in cropped-to-square thumbnails).
The old Flickr didn't have a clear focus. It was about photographs, sure, but it was also about information about photographs and comments on them and so on and so forth. The new Flickr still has those other things but now its focus is clearly on looking at the photographs, to the point where you have to go out of your way to see much else. I suspect that it's successful at this and a good part of me thinks that it's more interesting and useful now.
In a way I'm lucky in that I don't generally deal with the sort of web sites where we should be worrying a lot about this. But that's probably too narrow a reading of this particular lesson; for example, we have a support site here and I don't think we've ever tried to sit down and figure out what its focus is.
(You can argue that this is in fact a central issue in the wiki approach to building websites. Unless it's carefully curated a wiki is just a pile of information emptied into a pile of pages and thus doesn't really have any sort of focus as such. It's just a database and a jumble.)
(This is of course related to recent ruminations on blog design issues and in fact Matt Gemmell's original article is called Designing blogs for readers. If you take it seriously, there's your focus right there.)