Do you hate Facebook’s new design? Do you find the home page too noisy, with important updates from your friends getting buried under a stream of banal comments from high-school classmates and other people you pity-friended? I bet you think the site’s confusing, too. It used to be easy to get to people’s photos and notes, but now you’ve got to click around to find anything. Are you at your wit’s end?
I’ve got news for you: You’ll get over it soon enough.
Though Facebook will probably tweak its new layout over the next few weeks—sites always tweak new designs—the giant social network is unlikely to revert to its former self. That’s because it’s banking on a tried-and-true axiom of the Web: People always hate when their favorite site is suddenly completely different. A lot of them threaten to quit. They’re bluffing.
For readers who aren’t among the angry horde, here’s the back story: Over the last couple of weeks, Facebook revamped members’ home pages in an effort to let people “share more information about what is happening with them,” as founder Mark Zuckerberg put it. In the past, Facebook used a complex algorithm to round up your friends’ recently added photos, notes, and status updates and compile them into a neat summary on your front page. But Facebook execs have lately become enamored of the microblogging service Twitter, where people share stuff with each other in real time. Earlier this month, I argued that, like many in Silicon Valley, Facebook was overestimating the importance of immediacy to its members; not everyone wants to see what their friends are doing as it’s happening. The company didn’t listen to me, and its new home page is essentially a Twitterized Facebook. Now, instead of a summary of what your friends have been up to in the last few hours, you get what Zuckerberg calls a “stream”—a continuously updated timeline that shows every little thing that someone in your network does.
Every time you refresh the front page, there’s new stuff for you to read. Much of it isn’t very interesting, and because the stream moves so quickly, the little that is interesting gets drowned out by items that aren’t. Facebook allows you to block certain people’s updates from appearing on your home page or to filter the stream according to your friends lists, but these options are too crude. You can’t simply choose to hear a bit less from some people, or to say, I’d like to see Farhad’s notes and photos, but not his incessant status updates. The effect is like being at a party of oversharers; every interesting conversation is interrupted by 10 people who’d love to tell you what they ate for breakfast. *
In a poll on the site, more than 1 million members—94 percent of respondents—say they can’t stand the design. I voted against it, too. I don’t necessarily want the old version back, but I think Facebook should look for a better balance between showing you what’s immediate and showing you what’s interesting. The bulk of the page should be reserved for what’s happened over the last day, with only a small section displaying what’s happening right now.
Still, I’m not very confident that my feelings are genuine. When a site as popular as Facebook makes a change as big as this, it’s hard to know whether your immediate negative response really does reflect substantive concerns. As we flit about the Web every day, we get used to our favorite sites being laid out in a certain way. We develop habits for interacting with them, ways of moving the mouse or the keyboard that become so familiar they’re etched in our muscle memory. Redesigns discombobulate us.
But eventually we adjust. Over the next few weeks, you’ll probably grow increasingly comfortable with the new Facebook. You’ll discover the path of least resistance to get to the stuff you like best, and you’ll learn ways to tame the noise coming from everyone in your network. (Over time, you can expect Facebook to add more refined ways to filter what shows up.) Soon you’ll also forget much of what you loved about the old site. In a month or two, the new Facebook will come to seem like home.
Don’t believe me? Mark your calendar for some time in June. If you still hate the new design then—and if you can still remember what the old Facebook looked like—shoot me an e-mail.
How can I be so sure that you’ll learn to like the redesign? Because you did the last two times Facebook did it. In 2006, Facebook added the original news feed to its site. (This was the slowly updated stream of what’s happening with your friends that new redesign is replacing.) People hated it. They said the feed cluttered their home pages and violated their privacy. Zuckerberg responded with a blog post titled, “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.” Facebook tweaked the feed a bit, but the redesign stuck. Zuckerberg’s instinct was right on. In time, the news feed became Facebook’s signature feature, the part of the site that everyone checked first. Last summer, Facebook redesigned its front page to give more weight to the news feed. Again, millions protested. But once more, people learned to love the new site—stats show members started using Facebook more often. On Friday, Gawker, citing an unnamed source, reported that Zuckerberg sent a memo to his staff telling them to ignore the latest cries because “the most disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers.” That’s not very politic, but if Zuckerberg did really say it, he was only describing recent history.
Indeed, learning to ignore readers is a necessary skill among people who design for the Web. In January, Jason Kottke redesigned his popular blog about “liberal arts 2.0.” A few days after the new version launched, Kottke, who is careful and thoughtful about design, wrote a post describing people’s reactions. Most of the readers he’d heard from didn’t like it; many wanted him to bring back the old site. “This is exactly the reaction I expected, and it’s heartening to learn that the old design struck such a chord with people,” he wrote. He pointed out that people hated the old design when it was new, too. “All I’m asking is that you give it a little time.”
Kottke’s few hundred thousand readers might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Facebook is in a different spot. It has nearly 200 million users, and each of them thinks of their page as something they should control. This suggests that Facebook should approach redesigns much more carefully. About a week before the new site went into effect, Facebook put up a short note preparing users for coming changes. That was insufficient notice. A better approach would have allowed people to choose between the new site and the old one for a while; this would have let the company get feedback on the new site and fix what people hated about it before it rolled it out to everyone. It would also have given users a chance to get used to the new design before it became the default view. (In fact, Facebook did this for its last redesign; it’s baffling why it didn’t do the same this time.)
Other big Web companies have taken this go-slow approach in their design shops. More than 300 million people around the world check in to Yahoo’s front page every day. The company has spent months redesigning it. Yahoo relies heavily on “bucket testing,” in which it randomly serves up potential new designs and monitors feedback. That process has given designers deep insight into what people want from a new site and how best to ease people into a new design. Google takes bucket testing to almost absurd lengths. The New York Times reported recently that in choosing the color of a single toolbar on one of its sites, Google served up pages with 41 different shades of blue to see which one people were most likely to click on. (One of Google’s top designers recently quit in part over his displeasure with this strategy.)
When Slate redesigned its home page last fall, many readers wrote in to complain. Last week I e-mailed a handful of them to see if they still hated Slate’s design. A couple of them said they still weren’t big fans; most admitted they’d grown used to it and couldn’t really recall the old site very well. But several said something I found interesting—that what had bothered them about the redesign wasn’t exactly the change but the fact that the changes hadn’t seemed necessary. Slate, like a lot of sites, hadn’t explained well enough why it was making such sweeping changes.
“I’m a big believer in ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ ” a reader named Barry Geisler told me. “The seemingly constant redesigning of Web sites needlessly frustrates the user for what appears to be very little gain. Yes, users adapt fairly quickly—so what? Is the new Facebook a richer, better experience this week over last week? Doubtful.”
That’s the main problem with Facebook’s sudden redesign. The real reason Facebook implemented it is to compete with Twitter. So far, there’s nothing in it for us.
Correction, March 25, 2009: This article originally stated that Facebook’s new activity stream forces people to listen to conversations from everyone in their network; in fact, you can filter your stream according to groups of friends. (Return to the corrected sentence.)