By Chris Cardinal
On March 14th, 2009
Just eight short months ago, Facebook redesigned the home page for a logged in user. At the time, I bashed on the News Feed, as it made a poor use of whitespace and seemed haphazard and disheveled. Facebook took to repair and tighten the design down a good deal, and I grew to find it functional, informative, and useful.
Facebook began rolling out their new design two days ago, and it’s frankly simply terrible. The first thing you’ll notice about the Facebook redesign is that it looks a lot like a basic Twitter page. Facebook talks a lot about how this new layout helps show a “live stream of your social graph” and a lot of other nonsense that would seem completely applicable if they were switching from the new design to the old.
The reality is that they are angering their customers by making things difficult to find, dramatically altering the aesthetic and interface of the site, and in many people’s opinion, taking a dramatic step backwards in usability. My exposure to this nightmare of an interface began just today, but I get a distinct impression that it won’t grow on me like the last changes.
What don’t I like? Let’s take a look:
- Avatars: I’ve grown to love Twitter. I use it every day. Facebook has made a clear overture towards Twitter by displaying your friend’s avatars on every single feed item. This takes up space and annoys me a great deal: On Twitter, I may not know the individuals I follow. I may closely associate them with their avatars and use that as a visual reference. On Facebook, however, I know almost everyone I’m “friends” with, by name, and relatively personally. I know some users are exceptions to this and have tons of friends, but the avatar won’t help them any more than it will annoy me. It takes up space, looks off-balance, and feels out of place:
- What’s on your mind? As it turns out, the same thing that’s on everyone’s mind: The new Facebook makes us stabby. They’ve changed the simple status update to a more poignant question: What’s on your mind? This has been merged into something called the Publisher, which essentially combines posted items, photos, and any app that is built to post news stories using the Publisher into one unwieldy and rather confusing component. While I think the Publisher has some potential, I think only showing the “Add” pane on focus is a mistake. The “building” interface is confusing–as you progress down the path of adding items like a link URL, more options become available to you, but because they’re not visible to start with, users may worry that they’ll end up just posting a straight link.
- Multiple Notification Areas: Facebook has always walked the line with this a bit: New friend or application requests or other pressing needs always appeared in the upper right corner, at the top of the sidebar. This wouldn’t inform you of new inbox messages; for that you need to see if there’s a number next to Inbox. Facebook has does us one worse by putting friend requests near the Welcome banner, at the top of your stream, while other notifications like birthdays appear on the right side near the Highlights sidebar.
- Birthday Handling Is Curiously Stupid: This one is hard to verify, because it’s not presenting right now, but when I first loaded the new design, it showed me my friend’s birthday was today. Below that, it offered me a link to view more upcoming events. As it turns out, another friend has a birthday within 3 days. Nice that I need to click a call to action to display that information. Old Facebook just showed me birthdays of friends three days out. Worrying: My friend’s birthday has passed, but my other friend’s forthcoming day of jubilee is no longer showing up anywhere on the page, at all.
- Event Handling Is Curiously Stupid: Or broken, I can’t tell which. I have a forthcoming event—one I created, am attending, and would like additional details on—but all I see near the Highlights sidebar area is a stupid sponsored event for a forthcoming movie I have no intent on seeing. This is wildly inconvenient as a reminder to NOT see a film I couldn’t care less about is markedly less useful for me than a friendly, ever-present reminder of an event I’m, you know, RUNNING. I’m hoping this is just a simple bug, because not having a consistent space for forthcoming events that you’re attending will near-completely irradicate any usefulness that feature once had.
- “Highlights”: Not Anyone’s Definition of Highlights: Seriously, I understand the concept, as Facebook describes it:
“This section will feature photos, notes and other content you probably don’t want to miss: events lots of your friends are attending, links many people have commented on, public profiles your friends connect to and so on.” But they really missed the boat on this one. Maybe it’s my particular group of friends, but showing me a few people’s tagged photos doesn’t really rank as “breaking” for me. It’s stranger still that it seems to give weight to the first two items, even though their presence at the top of the list is arbitrary.
Finally, I can’t “clear” items from this list. I like to remove persistent items after I’ve decided to read or disregard them. But because I can’t nix them, I’m stuck looking at the same stupid rotation of menial items until it decides to rotate them out. (A good example of the functionality I’d like to see is the “People You May Know” widget that appears on the home page—click the X and it’s replaced with a new potential person you may know, until there are none left.)
- Fully Integrated Ads: I understand Facebook needs to generate revenue. Integrating ads directly into the Highlights sidebar with absolutely NO visual cue that it’s an ad is a quick way to ruin the entire Highlights experience for me and annoy the fuck out of me in the process. I read and responded to Facebook ads before, when they were disparate and set apart and clearly ads. Now, I’m skipping the entire Highlights bar because a few items look like ads to me.
- No Sorting by Content Type: Facebook let us select the News Feed, which was the generic home page view, or drill down to just Status Updates, which was actually very useful when you just wanted to keep tabs on your friends’ statuses. These filters aren’t available anymore, though I hope that’s just for now. (You could also filter by Top Stories, Photos, Posted Items or the Live Feed, or any of your friend groups—all very useful in their own ways.)
- Changing the Interface So Dramatically Frustrates Users: Sure most people will stick around and “get the hang” of things. And Facebook will continue to evolve the design so that it’s perhaps someday half as useful as its predecessor. But every time you make a sweeping change to the entire way the site functions, you alienate all of your users who took the time to learn their way around your software. It’s not really practical to allow users to select their theme, since branching design concepts could become a maintenance nightmare, but it’s also not fair to ask your entire user base to relearn their way around. Least of all when it offers such little additional utility and frustrates so many.
- It’s A Full Step Backward: As argued throughout, the new design is actually less functional than its predecessor. When you remove very useful features that people know and love from your application, you’re looking for trouble. When you do so for what appears to many to be no particular reason, change for the sake of change, all you’re going to do is stir the ire of the masses.
Facebook has a very, very bad habit of firing off sweeping changes to the site without properly introducing them or soliciting real feedback. They did it with the news and mini feeds, they did it with the Facebook Beacon, and they’ve done it again. The last sweeping change to Facebook, they approached much more civily. They had a long transition period where you could elect to try the new Facebook, submit your feedback, get the hang of it, and see where they were going with the changes. Even still, when they formally launched the new version, it wasn’t tightened down and finished properly—that came later.
This iteration around, Facebook provided significantly less time and warning, and instead of soliciting honest feedback, their attitude seemed to be much more to the effect of: “This is what we’re doing. And you’re going to like it. Whether you like it or not.” It feels half-baked, especially when features like content-based filters are missing entirely. And it doesn’t feel as if it’s aiming to assist with any of the goals they espouse when talking about the social graph and tracking the actions of those around you.
It’s clear they see what Twitter’s doing and they think they can leverage their platform to do roughly the same thing. But they are two different properties. Facebook is where I go to track people I know and love. It’s where I share my photos, write long treatises, chat directly with friends, monitor birthdays, and challenge friends to games. Twitter is where I go to meet new people, strike up random conversations, and take in a peripheral awareness of my friends, but also the happenings of individuals I don’t know but am otherwise interested in. Because of the limited nature of the information Twitter provides, individuals like celebrities can allow people to follow them, when they would typically not add every fan as a “friend” on Facebook.
Facebook seems to be a bit of David chasing Goliath, even though they don’t necessarily operate in the same footprint at all. I wish they’d stop and consider what they do to their customer base when they make these changes. If the feedback on the blog post is any indication, they’re going to need to decide if they want to weather this storm, capitulate, or compromise. They’ve done all three in the past. It’d be nice if they would take a break from massive, crowd-angering, sweeping changes, perhaps for just a few months.
Posted in: Rants