Right on time for it’s 6th birthday, Facebook changed the main interface once again. I haven’t been with the site for that long to witness all it’s transformations, but according to Wikipedia, this is at least the fifth redesign since launch. It’s not that radical compared to the previous, when they introduced the different feeds for recent and popular updates; Facebook 4.5 maybe?
The main changes happened on the ‘Home’ page; the profile page stayed basically the same. The more I look at the new layout, the more it reminds me of the interface of an email client: a sidebar on the left with Messages (Email), Events (Calendar), Friends (Address book) and in the center the actual updates (new emails). Compared to Gmail, the resemblance is even greater: both have a search box at the top and a list with online friends in the lower half of the sidebar. And if you start a chat, both pop-up a small window on the lower right side! Now that Gmail entered the social arena, the only difference between them is that Gmail places the private emails first and the public Buzz second, while Facebook defaults to the social activity. Nothing surprising, given their origins. With this email-like approach, Facebook could pave the way for it’s rumored email service or just trying to attract even more users with a familiar look.
Personally I liked it at first, but after a few days some small things started to become annoying. Some of the features disappeared, while others are now buried deeper under links and clicks. For example, to get to a list, you now have to click at least twice in the sidebar under Friends and you can’t drag a list to the top anymore to make it your default page. Looks like Facebook wants to be in control of what people first see on the site and restrict their customization options. Also, the ‘Pages’ section, with updates from the pages you are a fan of, is nowhere to be found in this new layout. You can still get to it with a direct link, but there’s no guaranty it will work in the future. The easiest way to find a page now is to use the auto-complete in the search box, but reading updates one source at a time is not at all efficient. I find it hard to understand how does Facebook encourage users to keep up with news with such poor interface choices.
There are more places for notifications now, scattered all over the front page. One is on the top bar between the logo and search, containing three icons for ‘Friend requests’, ‘Messages’ and ‘Notifications’ about comments and applications. Then there is the ‘Requests’ section on the right side and the unread count in the sidebar. I can understand that the top bar notifies you when away from the front page, but the other two options? I don’t think this is efficient at all, it’ a lot of unnecessary redundancy. Even worse, some of the links lead to different interfaces, for managing event invitations for example.
A bigger issue is the removal of the Logout link from the navigation bar. It’s another move that puts the interest of the network (e.g. staying logged-in on sites with Facebook connect) before the privacy of the users. If you forget to logout, leaving your account unprotected, you could get into serious trouble not only on a public computer, but also at home. The best solution would be to set your browser to delete cookies when you close it; this way you are logged out automatically from every account you visited during that session.
The unified view for photos is a nice addition, making it easier to discover new uploads by friends. Under this link you can also find the videos, so a more fitting name would be ‘Media’.
Similar dashboards for applications and games are more controversial, because they could surface activities the user didn’t intended on making public, like playing during office hours. Nevertheless, they are here to stay, because that’s where all the (virtual) money is. Facebook assures us on their blog that
if you would rather not have your recent application activity visible in the dashboards to your friends, you can change this through your Privacy settings., but if you navigate to Account ► Privacy Settings ► Applications and Websites ► Activity on Applications and Games Dashboards, you won’t find ‘Only me’ listed as an option. Until they come up with a solution, use the ‘Custom’ setting to exclude any list or person you don’t want following your game activities, or even all of them, if you’re not a social gamer.
As an extra precaution, you can also restrict what applications and games can publish to your wall. Visit Account ► Application Settings ► Allowed to Post or Granted Additional Permissions, track down any app that other might consider inappropriate and uncheck ‘Publish recent activity (one line stories) to my wall’ from ‘Additional Permissions’.
I can quickly adapt to changes, but that doesn’t mean I like it when previous features are removed ore displaced. In these cases, I usually take the path of least-resistance: if it’s hard to find, I just loose interest and stop using it after a while. That happened last time with ‘Highlights’: whey they were featured on the front page on the right, I used to visit them every time. After becoming a separate stream, forcing me to switch between the two, I abandoned the top stories and start my day directly with the recent stories. And now, this is happening again with updates from Pages.
The fresh, rapidly adapting interface and the tight control over it have always served Facebook as advantages against rivals. But the company should keep in mind that strict control can rapidly be perceived as arrogance and failure to listen to user feedback and sudden changes as inconsistence and loss of focus. I think the innovation must continue, but with smaller and more gradual steps. With a bigger and more culturally diverse audience, it will become increasingly harder to attract new users and keep the old ones happy.