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A Design Critique of Facebook’s New Features

It is remarkable how strongly Facebook’s periodic interface changes inevitably awaken users’ passions, particularly because the company’s product design has always exhibited great aesthetic restraint. This is a clear testament to the platform’s exceptional power to engage users. The latest batch of design updates, undertaken partly in response to the new challenge posed by Google+, were no exception and have met with the usual chorus of fan departure threats.

But, from a design quality stand point, are the recent changes all that bad?

The answer is, they are mostly positive: the new Facebook Timeline, inspired by famed infographics designer Nicholas Felton feels like one of those epochal moves that open up entire new horizons and ways for people to engage with one another. Some other updates, like the new friends activity column (aka the Ticker) seem tactical and reactive, if not downright redundant.

Facebook Timeline

The Timeline

The Timeline is simply gorgeous. Its strong grid, tiled content, contrasted typography, large images, and intuitive controls make the layout both immersive and engaging. For brands whose visual identity is so carefully nurtured, this shows tremendous potential. Right now, it appears that Timeline will first be available only to individuals, but when brands join the party they will be able to very easily refresh the appearance of their content using the Timeline’s built-in size and hierarchy selection tool.

Timeline’s modular and “hopefully” responsive design should translate well to multiple devices. Its wide orientation feels inspired by the success of the iPad form factor, and it is just one more indication that websites of all kinds are mirroring design patterns found on iPhone, iPad, and Android apps-and rightly so. Web design is truly and finally being optimized across platforms.

From an interaction design perspective, there is something intrinsically satisfying about zipping up and down memory lane. The potential to reflect one’s heritage using Facebook’s Timeline turns the feature into a true biopic for individuals and brands alike. The interface is so holistic, easy to set up and maintain that many companies may bypass creating their own website or blog to just focus on crafting the best timeline they can muster, while tapping the vast, engaged audience that Facebook already offers them.

Timeline takes Facebook’s modernist design and pushes it close to its logical conclusion. The company’s user interface is finally being refined to incorporate the best tenets of that Swiss style which was such a defining part of its origins.

The Good…

Other positive design additions include:

  • Now, photos from friends can be displayed much bigger on the news feed (brands seem to be excluded from leveraging this feature at the moment, retaining the previous smaller thumbnail images in their updates).
  • The photo gallery display mode is now performed via a nice carousel, and the background’s opacity (although aesthetically questionable) does a good job at keeping the content in focus.
  • The progressive disclosure of functions is done well, as in the top-right corner of each news feed story which now features a pull-down menu activated on rollover to allow for the prioritization of stories.
  • I like the fact that one can subscribe to people without being friends with them. However, introducing too much granularity in the kind of connections we may have on Facebook can ultimately get complicated and overlapping.
  • The Poke has been deprecated to almost non-existence.

The Not So Good…

The latest batch of Facebook updates include some questionable elements as well:

  • The differentiation between close friends and family within Lists, while being a nice addition, is one of Facebook’s most obvious reactions against Google+. From its debut, Google+ introduced a nuanced and useful way to manage groups of friends employing direct manipulation (easy drag and drop), whereas Facebook’s execution is awkward.
  • The new Ticker clutters the page and gets confusing when the Chat column is expanded directly to its right. The idea of relegating less important updates to a ticker is good, but the visual execution could have been better.
  • The logout function on the top right has been hidden behind a weirdly stand-alone pull-down menu arrow, whereas before it was housed more intuitively under the user’s name (a practice that followed established design patterns).
  • Since there’s no label for “close friends” within the Chat window, the “more friends” header in the middle seems like an arbitrary and unnecessary label.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge for Facebook is to avoid looking too much like a busy dashboard. Things like the Ticker and a multiplicity of panels forming the frame choke the actual content inside, and take the Facebook interface in the wrong direction. This danger has been a constant for the company, but their new Timeline and its potential to gradually influence the way the entire interface looks and feels might help Facebook overcome that challenge once and for all.