Be Like Gmail

What Facebook and other Internet companies can learn from Google’s webmail service.

On Tuesday, Facebook launched Prototypes, a service that lets users test out new tools and features before they become fixtures on the site. The first small batch offers nothing revolutionary: a search feature for photo tags, a way to better sync events with Outlook and other programs, and an app to let Mac users monitor their profiles from their desktop. But for a site with a history of unveiling huge makeovers with little notice—like the March 2009 redesign that got a 5 percent approval rating its first week—this is good news. Using Facebookers as beta testers is a great PR move and a positive sign for the future of the social networking site. By enlisting a huge, devoted focus group, Facebook will likely ensure that nothing that nine out of 10 users hate will become a part of the site’s permanent design.

If Facebook wants assurance that this model will work, it need only look to Gmail. For more than a year, Google has been crafting its webmail service by observing what its users do and don’t want. Here’s how it works: When a Google developer cooks up a new gizmo, the team will debut it in Gmail Labs, a buffet where individual users can pick and choose what to add to their accounts. (To get to Labs, sign in and click on the Settings page to find the bazaar of optional features.) There are currently 52 optional features in Labs. Some apps offer aesthetic improvements (adding thumbnail images to the chat window or randomizing the quote at the end of your messages), while others are more functional (previewing YouTube videos in the body of an e-mail). And then there is the save-you-from-yourself genre, with gems like the forgotten attachment detector and Mail Goggles, a program that asks you to solve math problems before sending e-mail during hours when you’re likely to be drunk.

Rather than saddling users with a variety of new, untested gewgaws all at once—both Facebook circa March 2009 and Microsoft Office 2007 spring to mind—Google developers monitor how many users add each Labs project and how often they use them. Thus far, Tasks, Gmail’s “to do” list, is the only app that has graduated to the version of Gmail that everyone sees. Several other add-ons—Undo Send, which gives you a few seconds to cancel an outgoing e-mail; in-message previews of videos, pictures, and Yelp reviews; and offline access—are extremely popular and among the most likely to graduate to Gmail proper in the foreseeable future.

By offering new toys to early adopters, Google conscripts its most active users to serve as guinea pigs. Even if some Labs projects are unlikely to graduate to prime time—it’s hard to imagine Mail Goggles making the cut—testing them out gives developers a sense of how people want to use their Gmail accounts. Do they want a battery of options for restricting bad behavior, or do they just want to be left alone? Is there a burning desire to integrate GPS location into messages? These are the kind of questions that can be answered only in a huge, real-world testing environment.

Firefox pioneered this pick-and-choose-your-features approach with its add-ons, which allow any developer to program auxiliary features into the browser. (eBay fanatics, for example, can install an add-on that tracks their bids in a side panel.) Mike Beltzner, Firefox’s product director, says that about 30 percent of users install some sort of add-on, a rate he says is more than sufficient to get a sense for what people want from the software. Many now-standard features, like the ability to drag and drop tabs or to restore tabs after a crash, were born from innovative, third-party-written add-ons that Mozilla developers happened to notice. Unlike with Gmail, outside developers can write programs that work in Firefox. The downside of this is that Mozilla’s in-house programmers often have to rework the code of an add-on to optimize it for the browser. But there’s also an overwhelming positive: Setting more developers loose means more and better add-ons will get written.

It’s about time that Labs-like features proliferate across the Web. Flickr, for example, could offer more customization of how photos are stored and presented. Online blogging platforms could allow more freedom for users to write and share gadgets. It’s Facebook, however, that stands to benefit most from adopting an add-on philosophy. The social networking behemoth rivals Gmail in its centrality to our social lives. That means its users are hypersensitive to change—and more likely to experiment with new features that make Facebook more fun or effective. Legions of Facebookers already add applications like Mafia Wars, FarmVille, or any of the zillions of quizzes available. If Facebook offers add-ons that improve the site’s user experience, millions will jump at the chance to test them out.

Like with Gmail, the first round of Facebook’s prototypes were developed in-house. The initial run of add-ons will thus have access to the site’s underlying architecture and theoretically give users the ability to tweak Facebook’s form and function. Maybe one application could display a little ticker of how much time each of my friends waste on Facebook quizzes; another could tint people’s profile pictures red or blue according to their political affiliation. (To be clear, I’m talking about changing only what individual users see when they log in to Facebook, not the public look and feel of an individual’s page. No one wants to give people the chance to build MySpace-style pages that assault you with MIDIs and jarringly tessellated wallpaper.)

Facebook spokeswoman Meredith Chin says the company wants to use Prototypes to study the behavior of its users, not just figure out which features are popular and which aren’t. Hopefully this is a signal that Zuckerberg and Co. finally get it. As Facebook was preparing its redesign last spring, it might have first tested it as an option in Prototypes. After a few months, Facebook could see how the new design fared: Did users quickly uninstall it, or did they adopt it and never look back? Even more so than Gmail, Facebook has to be all things to all types of people. It would be useful if it figured out what all types of people actually want.