How Facebook Uses UX Research To Personalize The Way We See Each Other

Your friends’ profiles now change their layout dynamically based on your relationship. Here’s how Facebook conducted the UX research that drove the changes.

How Facebook Uses UX Research To Personalize The Way We See Each Other
[Image: Flickr user John O'Nolan]

We’ve all been there: You get a friend request from somebody you don’t immediately recognize, and start thumbing through their photos for clues. If you’ve ever wished Facebook would make this kind of benign social “stalking” easier, you’re in luck–they just did.


You see, Facebook recently made profiles more “contextual” on their iOS app. That means that like Google searches or other personalized experiences, Facebook profiles will now appear differently based on who’s viewing.

“We wanted to know what people find useful when they look at their friends’ profiles.” says Facebook UX researcher Shivani Mohan. “And what do they not find very useful? When people are going to the profile of a person who is not their friend, we wanted to know the same thing.”

To figure out the look and feel of these dynamic layouts, Mohan and her team did tons of user research, both digital and analog. Here’s what they learned.

Participatory Design The Old School Way

To establish heuristics for making profiles more “useful,” Mohan and her team first conducted some old-school user research. In an approach she describes as “participatory design,” they actually handed users a pen and printout of a design mock-up and told them to mark it up like a grade school teacher. If somebody thought a given detail was irrelevant, they’d cross it out. If a desired piece of information was missing, they would scribble it in by hand.

For instance, many users wanted the option to call somebody if they were a friend (presuming they’ve provided their number). On the other hand, when looking at a stranger’s profile, a call button would certainly be weird, but a box showing mutual friends might be useful. So participants in the study simply drew one in.

The team repeated this process, handing paper-based mock-ups of the new designs to user after user and asking them what information they sought when looking at other users’ timelines.


“There were some really interesting things that came out of this research,” says Mohan. “And they came out pretty loud and clear.”

When viewing the profile of a non-friend, most participants wanted to know what they had in common with that person: shared friends, a common hometown or a past employer, for example. Thus, those types of details–called “snippets”–are front and center on the new timeline, beneath large swipeable photos that lets users quickly ascertain another important detail: what the person looks like.

Naturally, the desired experience changed considerably when people were asked what they wanted to see on the timeline of somebody they actually knew. For these people, the “snippets” area of the timeline will display a glimpse at their recent activity: a trip they recently took, what music they listened to, or an event they attended.

In a lot of ways, the new profile designs are analogous to bumping into somebody at a party in the real world: If they’re a stranger, you try to find out what you have in common. If they’re an old friend, you want to know what they’ve been up to lately. The questions you’d ask somebody at a party were exactly the kinds of things that people wanted to know in Facebook’s user testing. And it shows.

“One thing that was surprising when we were doing the research was the unified consensus of the response that we got in terms of the features that we were considering,” says Kyle Meyer, a product designer at Facebook. “We got the sense that people were clamoring for the same things.”

One of the most universally in-demand features, says Meyer, was the ability to more easily browse through photos. Whether the person is a friend or non-friend, photographs are a uniquely effective way to understand who a person is, what their life is like, and how attractive they might be. And on mobile devices, there’s no more natural and intuitive way to browse photos these days than by swiping one’s finger across the screen.


Fine-Tuning The Research With Hard Data

The research that went into Facebook’s new mobile timeline design wasn’t all printouts and magic markers. As you might expect from a service with over 1 billion users–and the data they each generate–Facebook employs its share of hard numbers and user behavior analytics in its research.

“Any finding that we find either interesting or counterintuitive, we always check that with the product analysts to check our logs to make sure that it matches what we find in our research and then we move forward with that,” says Mohan.

Users’ insatiable appetite for photos, for instance, was probably something that was easy to confirm using aggregate user behavior analytics.

Once the results of in-person surveys are checked against some hard numbers, the design team builds working prototypes, which are tested by Facebook employees internally. This “dogfooding” process–fairly typical at companies like Facebook–lets the team work out the kinks before rolling the designs out to the public, who are notoriously sensitive about even the most subtle design changes.

“While interviews give us a good sense of what people they say they do, we immediately tie that back to what they actually do,” says Mohan. “For example, if I repeatedly keep hearing in all of my interviews that people really want to see mutual information, we can actually go back and look across our logs of millions of people’s data and see that, yes, most people overall are switching from mutual friends when they’re looking at a non-friends profile.”

When it comes time to unveil a project like this to the public, Facebook does it in stages. To ensure the changes had the desired result, the new mobile timeline designs were first rolled out to 2% of users and then expanded to a wider audience.


“We waited for the numbers to come back to make sure that we weren’t moving numbers the wrong way and that the things that we expected to happen were happening,” says Meyer. “We moved immediately to 100% because the numbers were in a very good place.”