By Chris Cardinal
On March 25th, 2009
Once again, Facebook has released a complete failure of a feature set or upgrade and been hit with such a strong backlash by their users (who, they assure us, are listened to even BEFORE launching such drivel) that they have had to backpedal to appease the masses. Facebook seems to have this bizarre mentality that shaking the etch-a-sketch and slapping the user in the face is a great way to spring new changes, regardless of the thoughts of their users or their preliminary feedback. Beacon, un-restricted Minifeed, new Facebook, new Facebook again, rape-and-pillage privacy policies—you would think someone over there would suggest that they NOT continue to learn these lessons the hard way, as one time of baptism by fire tends to be enough for most people.
With the exception of the penultimate “new Facebook”, they have had to rollback or significantly change tack from their initial position of “this is new and you’re going to like it,” forced instead to listen to their users, post a mea culpa and attempt to save face with the global press and the blogosphere collectively rolling their eyes at each new foible. TechCrunch has an idiotic post about how when Facebook listens to their users, God kills a kitten for bowing to the masses and “designing by committee”. Robert Scoble backed this up with a misguided treatise about how Zuckerberg is on track to score billions from these changes and how they shouldn’t/wouldn’t start listening to their users. I call bullshit.
Scoble cites the fun designer quip: “if you asked a group of Porsche owners what they wanted they’d tell you things like “smoother ride, more trunk space, more leg room, etc.” He’d then say “well, they just designed a Volvo.””
This isn’t that. This is as if Facebook simply removed the steering wheel from the car and told you you’ll go farther now that you can’t steer.
What Facebook did here was not revolutionary. It was not bringing about hard change we needed. Instead, they stripped away piles of features their users had come to like and depend on. They replaced them with broken stand-ins, like the quiz/application-spammed “stream”, with no way to reasonably filter the nature of what was coming in. Sure, you’ve exposed me to “more” of the “social graph”, but at great cost to the signal/noise ratio that made Facebook so very useful to most people. When you make a product markedly and objectively worse to use and interact with on a daily basis, under the backwards-minded notion that the new way will help users connect “better”, you’re going to frustrate nearly EVERYone. And rightfully so.
This is not a question of design by committee. It’s interesting to note that, while excessive, there’s been a lot of chatter on how Google designs, if not by committee, then by cold, hard statistics. Douglas Bowman, Google’s former lead designer, recently left Google because of their engineering-centric approach to design: essentially to (arguably) overengineer the user experience and back every design decision with quantitative analysis, facts, and figures. He goes on to cite how Google tested 41 shades of blue in what must have been one hell of an A/B test—the point here is that the “committee” was essentially the aggregated experience of the user base, whether they knew it or not. This is fundamentally different than assigning 20 or 30 key “stakeholders” who can significantly alter the course and outcome of a project on their personal whims. Likewise, Facebook “listening” to their users is closer to the Google approach of implementing user feedback—saying it’s “design by committee” is a false dichotomy.
Further, telling me that Facebook is slimming things down and cutting features “for my own good” is like telling me that new keyboards will no longer come with an “E” key in order to simplify the user experience—I’ll just have to launch Character Map and manually copy and paste my vowel from now on, but look! Fewer keys! This is a perfect example of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
What’s stranger still to me is that the example Scoble cites is a complete non-sequitir: he basically suggests that Facebook is moving closer to copying FriendFeed than Twitter, and that we’ll be able to use it for recommendations and the “social” or “peer-based” marketing. Point of contention: the “old” Facebook design did absolutely nothing to stop exactly that. It was simply a different, more powerful interface that gave users more of what they wanted and better controls by which to express those preferences. Further, the *new* Facebook does nothing to better deliver that.
Even Mark Zuckerberg has trouble making a compelling case for the changes. Quoth Z:
We’re also going to make some changes to the home page. The new home page will let you see everything that’s shared by your friends and connections as it happens. [Previously possible with the Live Feed option on Old Facebook.] It will also provide you more control by letting you choose exactly who you see among the people and things you are connected to. [Previously possible with the Old Facebook sliders and "more" or "less" about this person option.] You can decide you no longer want to get updates from your old friend from high school who you rarely talk to, or you can filter the stream to only see updates about your family members. [Both previously possible.]
So what’s changed? They’ve consolidated four purpose-driven feeds into one amalgamated clusterfucky stream. They’ve *removed* the capability to specify the type of events you’d like to see the most, and thus, which things should remain visible for you the longest. The advantage to the old system was dynamic, intelligent exposure. Old Facebook would do its level best to show you what it thought was most important and make sure those things were persistent and visible. It used algorithms. It did NOT just spew an unadulterated, stream-of-consciousness of everyone around me with no means to filter it. Enter New Facebook. The world is better when you can’t turn down the volume, right?
Facebook has announced that they are, in fact, integrating some user feedback into the new design. Among these changes are things to mitigate application updates (something that Old Facebook already had, since you could mute a given application’s update), photo tags (sometnoshing that Old Facebook accomplished well enough with the Photos feed), more Highlights (something I’m not sure anyone really wants), and moving the Friend Request and Event Invites to the top right corner. You know, where they were on Old Facebook.
Subjective, design and interface-oriented changes that don’t significantly improve any user’s experience do not enable me to be better in touch with my “social graph” or heart chakra, for that matter. Please, let’s not confuse good design with an overly simplistic, featureless future. And let’s not just full steam ahead, ignoring the pleas of millions, simply because Mark hath seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. Facebook’s future is still bright and buzzing with potential, but they haven’t gained any ground by seriously smudging the window to my social graph.
Responding to Your Feedback | Facebook Blog via TechCrunch
10 Things That Suck About the New Facebook | HTMList
Why Facebook has never listened and why it definitely won’t start now | Scobleizer