Yet again, a new Facebook timeline has been released to the wild. If you haven’t acquired the newest timeline yourself, you’ve probably heard mention of it, though it seems the mob has overcome its urge to cause a fuss with every version that comes out. There has, however, been a good amount of backlash amongst the design community following a blog post by Dustin Curtis, which was then highlighted on The Fox is Black. The biggest point of contention discussed in both articles is how Facebook made design decisions with the intention to increase revenue… gasp! Although it does not sound out of character, whether or not this is accurate is up for debate. In fact, Julie Zhuo, Product Design Director at Facebook, wrote a response on Medium outright denying the claims. Instead, she says the newest design is intended to solve for accommodating the majority of their users, who are viewing the site on low-res monitors and with devices in which scrolling is more difficult. This is as opposed to those of us viewing it on the large shiny screens through which we are passing our design judgment.
The first thing to note is that none of these articles cite any tangible evidence or data, and while Curtis claims to have sources, Zhuo is counting on us to take her word for it. If there were numbers to back any of this up, I would be able to form an opinion on that matter, but there aren’t so I won’t. (A great example of providing evidence-based criteria for a redesign is this post from Prismatic.)
Instead, I’d like to talk about the things I do know. As Zhuo so elegantly states, “At the heart of developing any product is the question of what defines better?” What’s interesting about that statement is that it’s up to Facebook to decide what “better” is for their product, and she’s a bit vague in explaining how they have defined the term.
For the purposes of this argument, and based on some of the points Zhuo makes in her article, let’s say better means the following: Does it work for the majority of people? Is the content legible? Does the hierarchy of the content make sense, and allow for the user to quickly find what they’re looking for? Is there a consistent experience with the brand across devices? Does the design encourage engagement?
So let’s look at the newest iteration:
Does it work for the majority of people? Meaning, does it fit well in their screens? Yes, it does. The type is smaller, images only a little bit bigger. In general, things are more condensed. If we don’t want to consider responsive design, then this meets our small-screen-friendly criteria.
Is the content legible? There is enough research to say this typography is not legible, and that’s aside from the fact that my mom can’t read it. 16px is the standard size of body type for the web, or 12pt, which is what you get when you open Word. The body type in this design appears to be 14px (10.5pt) and the comment type size is a shrimpy 12px (9pt).
Does the hierarchy of the content make sense, and allow for the user to quickly find what they’re looking for? In terms of hierarchy between user content and advertisements, it’s essentially nonexistent. The type size within the advertisements isn’t far off from the user content, sizing in at 11px. The spacing within the modules is very similar between the two sections, the colors are identical, and the ad column is a little more than 1/2 the width of the user content column, providing little differentiation. I’m going to call this a bust, and unless users are looking for ads as much as they’re looking for what their friends are saying, the intake of information does not seem efficient.
Is there a consistent brand experience across devices? Let’s cut to the chase and say no. The ads are entirely different, the typography is entirely different, and if they made the app anything like this I think we can all agree it would be distressing.
Finally, does the new design encourage engagement? According to Zhou, the new design is better for “how much people share and converse with their friends.” If this is the case, I would like to cite the measly point size of 12px for our dear comments section. That just seems rude. “How easy it is to navigate to your groups” is complicated by the fact that the left navigation type size is also 12px, and while there is a clear distinction between the sections, we run into hierarchy issues yet again. I don’t even want to click anything over there for fear of breaking it. With the importance of these areas being so greatly scaled down, I’m not entirely sure how it could possibly be encouraging engagement.
Regardless of the exact reasoning behind the newest design of Facebook, it’s difficult to call the design better based on the terms we’ve outlined as well as standard criteria.
Would it have been possible to find a happy medium? If the old newsfeed design was too efficient, and didn’t generate circulation around the site, could they have designed posts such as events to be more intriguing/less revealing to encourage clicks? If it’s that the design wasn’t looking great on smaller desktop screens, are there really no other solutions that would have accommodated for this?
While it’s easy to poke holes in the design without knowing what the team went through to get here, it’s not easy to dispute data. I’d love to see evidence to support that users have a better interaction experience with the current design, and had a worse experience with the one tested last year, but until then it’s all speculation.
From where I’m sitting this design is just different, not better. We should be careful not to confuse the two.
- April 4, 2014