Why isn’t Facebook as pretty as it could be? More to the point: why isn’t the latest design, rolling out now, as pretty as the experimental design teased last year? Julie Zhuo, director of product design at Facebook, explains, as a response to a post written by Dustin Curtis accusing Facebook of having nefarious (read: financially motivated) goals.
Curtis, the creator of minimalist blogging platform Svbtle, wrote a post (on Svbtle) accusing Facebook of abandoning what he describes as a superior design in order to wring more pageviews (and thus more advertising dollars) out of users. Zhuo took to her Medium blog to deny this explanation–and perhaps inadvertently reveal how Facebook sees itself.
Curtis wrote that the experimental design (above), which rolled out briefly last year, was “beautiful” and made his Facebook experience “significantly better.” It had “large photos, big user icons, better integration with Facebook messenger, and it brought Facebook’s website into closer alignment with its mobile apps,” he wrote. But according to Curtis, it had unintended consequences:
It was performing so well from a design standpoint that users no longer felt the need to browse areas outside of the News Feed as often, so they were spending less time on the site. Unfortunately, this change in user behavior led to fewer advertisement impressions, which led, ultimately, to less revenue.
(This is “according to several people I’ve spoken to,” who are left anonymous.) The design was pulled and then modified into the current version. The current version is more of a compromise. It has two sidebars to the experimental version’s one; its pictures are significantly smaller; and the search bar and other navigational tools (like the link to your profile) are much more prominent. Overall the current version is busier and less magazine-like than the experimental version.
In her post, Zhuo directly refutes the charge that revenue drove the design decision. “The old design we tested last year would actually have been positive for revenue,” she writes, though she doesn’t provide any evidence for that, and that kind of language could mean anything: Positive in the short-term? Long-term? Positive meaning more pageviews or increased traffic from a certain demographic or what? Regardless! Her explanation for the move is that the experimental version did not perform well on older or slower devices, like netbooks, which are more often used in developing nations. “This is about designing something that works for the hundreds of millions of people who use the Facebook website every day, from all over the world, on all types of computers,” she writes.
Zhuo claims that on smaller screens–netbooks usually have screens about the size of an iPad–the experimental Facebook design had problems. Sometimes the images would be too wide. The image-heavy look also means lots more scrolling, which she says can be difficult for users on devices without trackpads or scroll wheels (like an old-school mouse). “These people may not be early adopters or use the same hardware we do, but the quality of their experience matters just as much,” she writes.
This is, mostly, a reasonable explanation, though there are design tools (like responsive design, which dynamically resizes content for any given screen size) that can address some of those problems.
Zhuo also claims that users weren’t nuts about the experimental version: “Most of the people we showed the [experimental] design to told us they didn’t like it more than what they previously had,” she writes. “…People like [the current design] more than the design we tested a year ago.” We might argue that that’s because the current design is much more familiar, and thus less scary, than the experimental design. Facebookers react terribly to change; remember early on when there were petitions to show Facebook how much people hated new designs?
Either way, it’s a revealing look inside the design debate at Facebook. Facebook sees itself as needing to optimize its service for the lower-end, almost as if the social network were a utility (like Google Search) rather than a non-essential service (like, say, Netflix, which also won’t work well on low-end machines). Facebook values–or at least wants to be seen as valuing–access to everyone, over giving an optimal Facebook to the few.