found drama

get oblique

revisiting GoodReads

by Rob Friesel

Back in June, I posted about my foray into GoodReads. At the time, I simply posted some “short versions of immediate impressions”. I was convinced that my time with GoodReads would be short, that I would quickly grow frustrated with it and move on. In part, I formed this opinion because I dove into it without a real sense of scope or mission. I had joined GoodReads on a whim, because a couple of friends had, and I had not really thought through what I wanted to get out of the site. After a couple months of on-again-off-again usage, I figured out how it fit into my overall plan; I could use it to track the books in my personal library, to track books I had taken out of our local library, to track what I was reading and when, to record my thoughts as I went along and then convert those notes into full reviews, to find other interesting books, etc. I suppose that is the site’s mission after all. Which is not to say that I do not still have some critiques.

Purpose. Before we can discuss the site with anything resembling depth, we need to make a few statements about its purpose. As I mentioned above, it take a me a few months to get into the rhythm of the site and to establish my own goals, to establish what I wanted to get out of the site. Having done that, I find myself using the site more often, using it in a more directed fashion, and thinking more favorably of it. I consider the GoodReads tagline: “it’s what your friends are reading!” This implies a strong social but ultimately bibliocentric mission to the site. In my own use, I have found this to be only marginally true. There is a great deal of “social” and there is a great deal of “bibliocentrism” but not always and not always together. But more on that later.

As I mentioned above, the site really seems to shine when you start using it to track your books and reviews. The site’s three default “shelves” (i.e., “read”, “currently-reading”, and “to-read”) are certainly the ones that see the most action from me. I am often looking back over the “read” shelf to find comments, remarks, author’s names, etc. — anything to do with books that I have recently finished. I dive into “currently-reading” a couple times a week to add a note or two (“for my review”) about whichever book I currently have open. And every trip to the library is prefaced with a quick review of what’s on my “to-read” shelf. In that way, GoodReads seems to be positioning itself as a strong candidate for mobile web; the use-case is certainly there: accessing GoodReads from your Treo or iPod touch or whatever, grabbing a title or two on the fly after you’ve dropped by your local Wi-Fi-enabled library on a whim. By much the same token, it makes it easy to take those titles and drop them into shelves like “borrowed” or “loaned-out”.

One of the biggest things that seems to be missing from the site seems to be a strong recommendation system. It seems difficult to recommend books specifically to other users or to look for who is recommending books to you. Or (even better) to have the system “compare notes” on your behalf and recommend titles. Maybe it’s there and buried within the UI — but in my searching thus far, I have yet to find it.

The Interface. The GoodReads UI is a subject that continues to enter my thoughts with each use. I had very strong reactions to the UI when I first started using GoodReads; some of my early on-again-off-again usage patterns were because of periodic frustration with that interface. Part of this frustration comes from the fact that I had written (in my notes): I guess you get used to the UI. I don’t want to “get used to” it; the interface should be a defining feature of the GoodReads experience. Back in June, I had written that the correct action links seemed hard to find. That is a big part of it. I do not feel it is necessary to do a line-by-line, screen-by-screen, detailed analysis of that UI. If I were going to go that far, I may as well include a mock-up of proposed changes. That said, I’ll still make an effort at commenting on a few of the specifics; I’ll stick to the landing page1.

GoodReads landing page wireframeIf I had to pick one central item as the focal point for my critique of the GoodReads UI, I would say that it’s too passive or ambient. The landing page is this stream of recent events that all seem so disconnected from your own user experience, disconnected from your own contributions, it does not really invite your active participation but instead waits for you to respond while giving you little incentive or prompting to do so. When you are signed in and you land at ““, the page is overwhelmed by recent updates from your friends — a stream that quickly grows out of control when you consider that these “updates” include other “friends” they have added, comments that they have made in group discussions, comments that they have made on others’ reviews, their own reviews, comments they have made on other users’ profiles, groups they have joined, “writings” they have made… It lacks focus and seems arbitrary; your attention is not directed. And a big complicating factor is that because an actionable link can be two different colors2 it adds an additional layer of processing: Is this a link? Did I click it already? There seem to be some violations of (shall we say…) Krugian UI laws. While I will admit that I am a biased fan of Flickr, I believe that the GoodReads crew could take a cue from the actionable layout of Flickr’s landing page. Something that puts you (the user) at the forefront and constantly prompts you to interact with it. Right now the landing page says: What did these system-identified “friends” do on GoodReads recently? The landing page should say: What are you reading now? What did you read recently? What have you read but not reviewed? Did you see these comments that some other user left behind on your review? This is what your peers/friends are reading; don’t you want to read it, too? Some of that is there now but you need to go digging for it. Instead it should be right in front of your face, begging you to get more involved. It should look more like this3.

There are other nit-picky things that we could delve into… “Shelves” versus just plain ol’ “tags”? No cancel button when you’re editing a review? Accessing your own reviews at all? Making sure that you’re getting your review onto the right edition? But again, these are all nit-picky. And I’m sure that a re-design of the landing page would kick more than a few gears into motion to round out these details.

That “Social” Thing. Like so many other sites launched over the past couple of years, GoodReads is a themed or topical “social network” site. We could argue for a million years about what this does/not mean but for purposes of this discussion, let us define it as follows: a “social networking site” is any web-based application or community where users are able and encouraged to create explicit relationships with other users that are tracked and managed by the system. That definition should be loose enough while still being specific enough.

Now to the point: explicit relationships. GoodReads has this but it has it in an unfortunately binary way.

Earlier in this critique, I wrote about the GoodReads landing page and how one can easily become “overwhelmed by recent updates from your friends“. There are two things that make this so. First, the threshold seems to be set quite low; there is a lot of noise drowning out the signal. But more so than that, GoodReads thinks you are either “friends” with someone or you are not. If there is anything that we have learned about “social networking” since its inception, it’s that you cannot put lists of “friends” on the honor system. And this is a big weak point for GoodReads. If someone thinks that your literary tastes are interesting, they cannot simply “follow” you (a la Twitter) or set you as a Contact (a la Flickr), they need to “friend” you and then wait for your reciprocity. I had posted to my profile:

I don’t approve all the friend requests that come through my inbox because it’s not always obvious to me why someone wants to “friend” me. I’m a bit more accustomed to Flickr’s method where you can set up one-way/non-reciprocal “Contact” relationships first. This all-or-nothing, mandatory bi-directional “Friends” thing that GoodReads has doesn’t really work for me. So if you want to “Friend” me here on GoodReads, try dropping me a message or a comment as well, to tell me why.

…and yet the requests continue to come through. Without messages or comments explaining why. And so I have a GoodReads inbox that seems to be filling up with friend requests from strangers. They may be interesting but I didn’t go out looking for them and the last thing I want to do is cause my GoodReads landing page cup to overfloweth even more than it already is. I.e., I do not want to miss new reviews from “actual” friends because a couple of contacts out there have made 15-20 posts in some ambiguously-titled group’s discussion about whether or not their thread is off-topic enough for an off-topic thread. This has become something of a sticking point for me. As I mentioned above, I’m a pretty unabashed fan of Flickr; I think that they have really nailed it as far as creating a themed/topical social network goes — and that bi-directional/non-reciprocal Contact/Friend/Family status is a huge part of it.

Miscellaneous & Conclusion. My critical approach to GoodReads really is out of love and enjoyment. I am a lifelong reader; I do not believe that I have had any literary downtime since Go Dog, Go, if you know what I mean. GoodReads has already proven to be a better “recommendation engine” for me than But it still seems to have some growth to get through: getting the UI right, getting the social networking aspect better dialed in, making the RSS feeds more specific and relevant… Monetizing without resorting to ads4; these are all things that they can get through.

But at the same time, GoodReads has emerged as worlds better than LibraryThing and Shelfari5. Like I mentioned, it has emerged as a good book recommendation engine. It has helped me to better track what I have taken out of the library and what I plan to read next. It has helped me to organize my reviews/thoughts/notes on those books. And that “quotes” feature is pretty cool, too.

Now if I can just get it to automatically cross-post my review to…

  1. …or “home page” if you prefer that phrase. []
  2. At least two different colors; they might be using others but I haven’t been able to verify that. []
  3. OK fine, I lied; I did mock-up a proposed new/different layout. []
  4. The ads that I was disappointed to start noticing over the past week… []
  5. Though I will admit that I like the effort that the Shelfari folks have at least tried to put into the look-and-feel. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

6 Responses to revisiting GoodReads

Otis says:

One of the smarter pieces of feedback on Goodreads we’ve seen in a while – thank you! I really like your idea for the homepage layout – we’ll do our best to put your ideas to work! And if you feel like continuing the coversation please join the Goodreads Feedback group!.

– Otis from Goodreads

fogus says:

There are three things that I would add to this article:

1) Read-books are one-shots. That is, I can only mark a book as being read once. However, if I re-read a book I have to either choose to update its read date as the first, last, or some intermediate date. There is no way of tracking rereads.

2) I want access to my data programmatically. I want to write a little Ruby script to get my list of book, last read, etc… and to likewise hook my Java app into the GRs system.

3) I want statistics out of the wazoo. I want to know how many pages I read in 2005. What was the total weight of books read in Feb. 2007? What genre did I spend the most time in when my son was born? I can’t (easily) answer these questions with GRs. They have it however (minus rereads that is… which could be a non-starter for me).

A few minor things, but these are central to how I operate.


found_drama says:

@fogus: I think I see what you’re saying here…

* on “read as one-shot”… that hasn’t been a big deal for me but I can see how that might be of more importance if there were more stats going on.

* on accessing data… I haven’t gone down that road too aggressively yet. I’ve checked in on the API a couple times but my recent focus hasn’t been there.


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