Redesigns are something Facebook doesn’t take lightly. With more than a billion users, there is mass revolt every time the design team moves as much as a pixel. So when it organised an event last year to announce that it would be revamping its precious News Feed, people sat up and took notice. And the redesign was, well, very pretty — lots of focus on photos and imagery, simple uncluttered space and functionality that just ‘got out of the way’. But Facebook never made it available to all its users.
Instead of the ‘new News Feed’, Facebook has begun rolling out an adapted design, which sticks to the old three column layout rather than morphing to a magazine-style one. But why?
Dustin Curtis has a theory. The founder of minimalist blogging platform Svbtle says that his sources suggest that the ‘prettier’ design actually worked too well. He reports that, in early tests, the Facebook team found that users were spending too much time in the revamped News Feed and not enough time in other popular portions of the site like profile and event pages. That translates to fewer ad impressions, which could eventually translate into less ad money for Facebook if the design was made available to the billions. As Curtis explains:
This is truly a nightmare scenario for any CEO: do you take the risk and proceed with the better user experience/product at the expense of short-term numbers – with no promise that the better design will actually lead to long-term benefits – or do you scrap the new design and start over? The answer to this question is where company culture and identity dramatically peek through the curtain and express themselves in very raw form. Because it is impossible to answer this question rationally – both sides can be argued very successfully – it has to be answered from a cultural point of view.
Based on the News Feed design Facebook eventually shipped, which is being rolled out right now, it’s obvious which answer Facebook chose:
In response to the suggestion that Facebook put its advertisers above user experience, the company’s product design director, Julie Zhuo (who helped create and announce the bold new design last year) took to her Medium blog. She said that while the first design provided an amazing experience for early adopters with larger high-resolution monitors, it was a disaster for PC users in developing markets with older, smaller machines:
It turns out, while I (and maybe you as well) have sharp, stunning super high-resolution 27-inch monitors, many more people in the world do not. Low-res, small screens are more common across the world than hi-res Apple or Dell monitors. And the old design we tested didn’t work very well on a 10-inch Netbook. A single story might not even fit on the viewport.
Not to mention, many people who access the website every day only use Facebook through their PC—no mobile phones or tablets. Scrolling by clicking or dragging the browser scrollbar is still commonly done because not everyone has trackpads or scroll wheels. If more scrolling is required because every story is taller, or navigation requires greater mouse movement because it’s further away, then the site becomes harder to use.
While the continuing use of Netbooks may not be the only reason the design was scrapped, the changes raise an interesting point, especially considering Facebook’s quest to connect the rest of the world to the internet (and help them sign up for their own Facebook account too).
Because of Facebook’s massive user base, it has to make sure current and future higher-end users stay engaged while those on older machines (or basic mobile sites) still get the best experience. “These people may not be early adopters or use the same hardware we do,” Zhou explains. “But the quality of their experience matters just as much.”