Social media is a’changing all over

Is there something in the rule book that says this is the time of year for social media web sites to redesign themselves? It began with Facebook but now Flickr, Twitter and FriendFeed are all engulfed in the redesign storm.

I was going to write about “Spore” today but I’ll leave that for over the weekend, as today’s redesign of Twitter makes this post more timely. Twitter gave advance notice that they were going to be rolling out some changes to its tried and tested (code for: old fashioned and dated) interface and then a couple of hours later it crashed into life. (Tip for Twitter: advance warning should be, you know, advance and give people time to read it. Most people I saw tweeting this morning were totally taken by surprise because the gap between announcement and implementation was too brief to be seen.)

Screen grab of the new Twitter front page

The Twitter changes are noticeable but not too major. The same links and options are present, they’ve just been cleaned up and moved slightly. I described it in one Twitter post as “an old friend wearing a snazzy new tie” and I’m surprised at how taken aback many people on Twitter seem to be with it. It looks cleaner, slightly more modern, but essentially the same.

The driving force behind the change is – as usual – future enhancement. The introduction of Ajax to handle sub-pages is a sign of the times; I’m disappointed they didn’t use it to allow the page to automatically update with new posts (like they have with the new election page) however, which would remove the need for many a third party application like TwitKit.

Screen grab of Flickr's new front page

Meanwhile Flickr are also redesigning their front page. At the moment, it’s not being imposed on users but is running in parallel for those who click on the “Want a sneak peek of your new home page?” link at the bottom of the current front page. (Be warned, however – this is less a sneak peek than volunteering to be an early adopter, as once you click you can’t revert. Hmmm.) Like Twitter they also did a blog post explaining the rationale behind the update – but unlike Twitter, they actually made that announcement a few weeks before the actual enforced change over and provided the sneak peek/early adopter function.

Personally I haven’t noticed much difference with Flickr’s new look. Columns have switched sides and the design is much neater; some dynamic HTML makes it easier to display the information without sprawling. I like it just fine, but I always did find the old Flickr home page to be messy and a little amateur. But some heavy users of Flickr have not been happy, bemoaning the lack of configuration options to turn off the newly added photo feeds from groups, and also noting that Flickr no longer says that it “loves you”. Did it ever? I missed that. As a Brit, I would have found that a somewhat stomach-turning piece of schmaltz, so if it’s gone now then good riddance.

Screen grab of the new FriendFeed page

Yesterday also saw the revamp of FriendFeed – again heralded a few weeks earlier in a blog post, by the team behind the best social media aggregator I’ve yet come across. It does look quite different but I can’t imagine this one causing an uproar: it’s simply cleaned up the design and made it more intuitive. Reactions have been few, but mostly positive. It strikes me that the main driver behind the redesign was to make it work better within Facebook, where it appears inside a frame in the FriendFeed application. The old format was broken by the frame, too wide to fit without causing controls to overlap with content, so the new look is much appreciated by me.

Ahh, talking of Facebook …

Facebook is where the real redesign action and controversy is happening. They actually started the process of redesigning back in April this year when they rolled out the first of an ongoing series of redesigns. It’s safe to say that reaction was “mixed” even then, and when Facebook came to the next big design change seven weeks ago they decided to play “softly, softly” with a quiet launch allowing people to opt in – or stick with the existing design. Despite the careful approach, groups of hundreds of thousands of users opposed to the new design sprang up.

This week that opt-in approach came to an end, and Facebook is now imposing the new look on everyone, giving the hold-outs no choice. They’re buoyed up by data that suggests that even initially sceptical users quickly adapt and like the new looks – but they may find that this research data doesn’t transfer to the hard core of resistors. Still, I do have sympathy with Facebook on the non-feasibility of running both designs in parallel indefinitely: it stretches resources and limits new features that you can develop if you have to make them work in both. Just ask Microsoft about the dangers of supporting legacy systems in new OS versions for far too long.

I only joined Facebook last month, right about the time that Facebook were starting their soft roll-out. One of the things they did was quickly switch new members over to the new Facebook, on the quite reasonable grounds that I wouldn’t know any better and wouldn’t complain, and that it would be very confusing for me to get used to one system only to then be made to change in a matter of weeks.

Fine by me. I certainly don’t miss the old Facebook – how can I miss what I never knew or had? The main impact it’s had on me is the number of Facebook applications that are broken or don’t work in the new Facebook design and therefore have never worked for me, confusing me as to why – and what I was doing wrong. On top of that, the help pages have until now been written for the old look and feel and therefore were just plain wrong, confusing and misleading whenever I tried to find out information.

No matter. I’m a web developer, usability and information architecture consultant so I’m used to figuring things out for myself. In fact a site that’s too easy is no challenge to me and is quickly dull.

But the last week has been annoying even for me. Because it’s not that Facebook are rolling out their new design on everyone – it’s that they’re making dozens of on-the-fly changes to the new design on a daily basis. You log in in the morning and things have changed, they’re no longer where you left them. They don’t work in the same way. Okay, so you adapt … And log in a day or two later and they’re changed. Again.

It’s just not a good way of undertaking a major redesign/usability project. Rather than winning over hearts and minds to the new design, Facebook are now actively antagonising their users and making it difficult for them to get used to the new design when things keep changing. Users think they know how it works – and then it changes again. And even when a very simple line of explanation would work wonders to manage user expectations, Facebook manage to drop the ball.

A case study: I use my Facebook “Wall” as a sort-of news aggregator, and I like my Twitter posts, blog posts, Flickr and del.icio.us additions to be reported on the wall. There are some applications that will do this publishing automatically, but Facebook have decided to break many of them (they seem to have a particular beef with Twitter for some reason.)

Facebook's wall import settings

As part of the new design, Facebook added a ‘publisher’ function to the wall settings that allowed updates to be imported from most of the sites I wanted (although not persona non grata Twitter.) Excellent! Duly set up. And then last weekend, I returned to tweak the settings, and … they were gone. Vanished. No forwarding address.But the updates were still being imported. Where from? How could I control it? It wasn’t in the applications or in the wall permissions settings. there was no trace.

After a long search I finally found it: a new tab had been added to the wall navigation (the tabs that include ‘Update status’, ‘Share Link’, ‘Add Photos’ etc. – it was called ‘Import’ but was in the overflow section you don’t see by default. Once found, I’m comfortable with the change – but would it really have been so hard to have left a little ‘forwarding address’ note on the original settings page? Well, one was finally inserted – five days after the change, and obviously because many people had complained or sought help. Honestly, that’s usability/customer service 101, surely?

Facebook's new application menu in the footer

A similar situation occurred with the applications: the top level Applications menu has gone, replaced by a new applications section on the floating footer bar. Which is fine, but where do you edit the applications preferences (bookmark, publishing authorization, etc.?) It used to be part of that applications menu, but suddenly it was no where to be found. Finally it was discovered under the ‘Settings’ menu when you were in that application: logical, but again no clue left by the developers or the help files.

Facebook's global navigation bar, with repeated entries

And why had they removed that applications menu, anyway? Lack of space in that  top level navigation? Hardly. In the biggest usability crime of all, they now have two buttons (“Facebook” and “Home”) going to the same front page; and “Profile” and “Your Name” also both linking to the wall page. You simply don’t do that with core, global navigation because it breaks Steve Krug‘s golden rule: it makes me stop and think, for absolutely no good reason.

Demonstrating the Show More Posts feature

There’s all sorts of irritating tinkering going on, and these have just been a few examples that have grated with me personally. The aforementioned wall publishing feature, for example, has now been tweaked so that it only shows one del.icio.us (or Flickr, etc.) update per day with the rest being accessed by a ‘Show 3 more posts’ etc. link. That annoys me – if I’m using the wall as an aggregator I want it to show all my updates. At the very least it should be configurable.

If nothing else, the Facebook experience has helped my crystallise why I don’t like the concept of web-based applications. When I turn on Microsoft Word in the morning I can at least get on and do my job; it has its failings (oh, does it have its failings …) but I can work around them. Imagine how irritating it would be turning on and finding it’s changed overnight. And then changes again during the day.

Sometimes change is good. But it can be overdone, and it can be done badly, and the approaches of the social media web sites in recent weeks have shown the best of ways – and some of the worst.

UPDATE: now CNN has a big story on the Facebook redesign and the pro- and anti-demonstrations.

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  1. bob ashley

    Great roundup and critical (but fair!) review of recent design changes by big-name socialmedia players. This is a really useful contribution.

    @bashley

  2. Marvellous post, love it… NOW, can you PLEASE see if you can get the customer insight work for us in Crime, Justice and the Law, and Government, Citizens and Rights through more quickly than mid-December?!! PLEASE… please…

    Dan will thank you for getting me off his back, and I will promise to say how fabulous you are at getting this stuff done :)

  3. andrewlewin

    Thanks, Bob. Was it critical? Only in the case of Facebook I suspect, which has just been winding me up in the last few days with their incessant tinkering, and none of it for the better. It’s like your local supermarket forever switching around which shelves they put things on, all it does is antagonise. I’ll say no more or it’ll set me off again…!

    And hi Emma, thanks for stopping by. As for the project – I can only feed back what I think the agencies will do and say. Happy if I’m wrong and they can do it quicker, in which case I’ll be sure to take all the credit!

  4. Sebastian Crump

    Great round up. I agree it’s very annoying that FB keep tweaking.

    While I understand that people have different opinions, but it is interesting how strong they are about “their” websites. For adopters of a ‘new’ web2.0 social networking sites I’m also slightly surprised about how ‘conservative’ they are – “no changes, please and thank you”.

    I’m so-so about the flickr ‘upgrade'; I like some of the ideas, but agree with most of the major criticisms. However, I’m using the homepage less and less – going directly to my contacts photostreams and groups from RSS feeds and seeing new comments via email anyway.

    BTW, you can opt-out of the new flickr homepage by going to http://flickr.com/publicbeta/homepage/ (the link is at the top of the feedback forum thread).




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