By Dean Burney
Feb 13, 2012

Pinterest - Get Back to Exploring

As a user interface guy, I am fascinated by the phenomenon of Pinterest

For those of you who haven’t heard, Pinterest is a social website and app that allows you to easily share "webfinds" in a sleek, simple, visual presentation.  And according to comScore, since officially launching in May 2011, the site has already accumulated 11.7 million unique monthly U.S. visitors and reached 10 million faster than any other standalone site ever.

So what’s Pinterest all about?

When I try to describe it, the first thing that comes to mind is social bookmarking.  It's certainly a derivative of sites like Delicious, Pinboard and Stumbleupon, as well as social news sites like Digg and Reddit.  But one quick glance at the site and you'll immediately recognize that while the concept is not new, the execution definitely is.

Beyond the interface, which I'll touch on later, to me the fundamental difference is that earlier incarnations of social bookmarking were about sharing websites, pages or articles.  Pinterest is about sharing on a more specific and emotional level.  As the name implies, Pinterest is about sharing interests.  In fact, the site's mission statement is "connect everyone in the world through the 'things' they find interesting."

I think the key word in that mission statement is 'things.'  The site isn't about sites, pages or topics.  It is about those little individual things we see every day online that catch our interest; things that we didn't expect or weren't even looking for at the time.   To me, it harkens back to the glory days of simply getting online and surfing the web, which I find refreshing.

Certainly there is dramatic evidence that the way people use the web is shifting

Facebook now consumes a huge percentage of the minutes the average user spends online, and time spent on other sites is shrinking rather dramatically.  And while Facebook allows users to share content generated on other sites, a great emphasis is encouraging its users generate their own content (photos, status updates, messages etc.) and share it with a growing universe of friends.

Pinterest flies in the face of this.

It is more a pure sharing tool, helping you discover sort and organize interesting things that were found other places. And while the concept of “friends” still drives its growth, growing a friends list isn't its reason for existing.  To put it another way(s):

  • Friends shine the spotlight; they aren't in the spotlight.
  • They promote the content; they don't become the content.

Clearly Pinterest is trying to keep it that way.  There is very little personal information you can put on the site.  There is no concept of branded Pinterest content.  Pinterest doesn't even let companies create their own pages.  All of this is for good reason: that's not the point.  Pinterest is not a destination, as much as a portal.  A portal to whatever you think is kinda cool.

You can't talk about Pinterest without talking about its interface.

Almost certainly inspired by Masonry (kudos David Desandro), and a movement toward responsive, device-flexible layouts, Pinterest's interface is what makes the act of discovering content so dead simple, and certainly is a big reason behind the rapid growth. It excites me to see a design play such an integral part in the success of a site. That’s not always the case (see Craigslist, eBay, Amazon, Facebook).  With Pinterest the layout facilitates the concept, perhaps more than any site since Google.  And it’s so simple and straightforward to use. Much like the late Steve Jobs showed us, you don't have to tell people how to use something.  Pinterest reflects that spirit by keeping the interface so simple that users aren’t afraid to experiment and teach themselves.

Did I really know what I was doing the first time I visited Pinterest?  No.  But there are only a few things I COULD do, so I just figured it out.  Sounds a little like the first time I picked up an iPod.

Is Pinterest perfect? 

No. As I experimented with more advanced functionality, I stumbled a few more times than I probably should have, and the filtering seems very limiting at times.  It also is very heavily populated with the interests of the happy, crafty homemaker.  However, keep in mind how young it really is.  Facebook started as a site for college kids, and it is still working out the kinks of its interface. As its user base continues its hockey-stick growth, the site will change and adapt.  Let's just hope it doesn't try to become something else and stays focused on being whatever we want it to be.

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