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If Microsoft Designed Facebook

About five or six years ago, before Microsoft decided they wanted a slice of the portable MP3 player pie and introduced the Zune, a video called "Microsoft Re-Designs the iPod Packaging" made the rounds of the Internettubes.

At the time, I was running a small consulting firm that shared office space with an advertising and design company, who was also my biggest client. I passed the video around the office, and it got quite a few chuckles. It's spot-on what was, back then, Microsoft's biggest marketing weakness: a colossal, sometimes hilarious, and always hamfisted incompetence in all matters of design. (Steve Jobs is reported to have once remarked "t's not that Microsoft keeps stealing our ideas, it's that they're so ugly!)"

If you haven't seen the video, it's worth a look and a chuckle or two, even though it's a bit outdated.

But I didn't come here to talk about Microsoft. I came here to talk about Facebook.

Apparently, Facebook introduced a new design change today. I didn't actually notice until someone called me up and asked my opinion on it; I rarely use Facebook. For the most part, it's just a repository for my Twitter nattering. I hear it's a big deal in some quarters, though, so I wandered over to take a look.

And my goodness, have they got things wrong.

Now, Facebook is ugly. Facebook has always been ugly. Most Web 2.0 properties are ugly. Web programmers, by and large, don't understand design (or user interface), and like almost all computer people everywhere, they figure that anything that they don't understand is not worth understanding, so they have contempt for design as well. To a Web 2.0 programming guru, design means making a pale blue banner with the name of the Web site and a line drawing of a logo or an animal or something on it and slapping it at the top of the page.

That's not entirely the fault of the programmers, of course; the basic, fundamental structure of CSS discourages good design, just by making it more of a pain in the ass than it really needs to be. You can do good design in CSS, if you're the sort of person who doesn't mind doing linear algebra in your head while walking a tightrope stretched across the Grand Canyon with no net, and you don't mind that it won't render in Internet Explorer anyway...but I digress. Where was I again?

Oh, yeah. Facebook.

So. Facebook is a business, and a profitable one. Everything about it, from the back-end infrastructure to the HTML that appears on the home page, is about making money. That means that any analysis of anything they do, including changing their design, needs to be done through the lens of how it benefits Facebook financially. And the new design is clearly intended to do that.

Unfortunately, they take the same approach as Microsoft: throw everything that might make money (Third-party endorsements! Bullet points! Big colorful discount offers!) at the wall and see what sticks. Each individual design decision, by itself, has a financial goal...but the end result is a mess.

Good design is worth money, too. People gravitate toward it--and here's an important bit--even if they don't understand it. There are a lot of folks who hate Apple, but their design strategy works.

And the evidence is written all over the Web 1.0 wreckage. Take Yahoo's home page (please!). Yahoo, desperate for money, decided to keep packing crap onto the home page. News, video ads, horoscopes, music, movie trailers...each element, by itself, either directly or indirectly brings in money.

Yet Yahoos proverbial clock has well and truly been cleaned by Google, whose home page is Spartan in its simplicity, and yet who makes money faster than the U.S. Mint can print it.

Design matters. Today's Facebook looks like a social networking site designed by Microsoft in 2005, only creepier.

For me, it's the creepiness factor that really does it.

I'm used to Web 2.0 being ugly. I'm resigned to it. Examples of beautiful Web 2.0 design are about as thin on the ground as snowmen in the Bahamas, and on some level I've simply accepted that and moved on.

But the new Facebook design? It's like someone took Microsoft's aesthetic and combined with with Google's tentacular creepiness, and put the result in one place.

In the past, my Facebook wall was a chronology of what was going on in my friends' lives. Now, I don't answer most Facebook friends requests, unless they come from folks I know to one degree or another, and apparently that's a bit unusual. But my Wall was useful; I could glance at it and see, roughly, what was going on in more or less chronological order, and that seemed like it worked just fine.

But now? The "top posts" on my wall come from Facebook's attempt to understand me and my interests, and that's a bit freaky. "Hmm, I wonder what Franklin might be interested in today? Let's see if we can tease that out and then show him what we think he'll want to see."

It's as if a stalker camped out on my doorstep, went through my garbage, read my mail, followed me around town, poured over my grocery receipts, made detailed lists of everyone I spoke to and when...

...all for the purpose of cutting up and rearranging my newspaper so that the articles he thought I'd like the best were on top.

So that, y'know, I would buy his newspaper.


And it gets creepier when I look at Facebook's suggestions for my "close friends" list. Facebook not only wants, in its particularly stalkeriffic way, to know what sorts of subjects interest me, it also wants to know who my REAL best friends are. And not content just to ask me, it...makes suggestions.

Suggestions that world-class supercomputing infrastructure has been brought to bear on. Suggestions that involve analyzing every little telltale crumb of information I let it have.

Google, to be fair, is just as creepifyingly stalkeriffic as Facebook; it's just (slightly) less in my face about it. Google stalks me to know what sorts of ads to present to my eyeballs; Facebook stalks me to make things easier for me.

Thanks, Mark "The Age of Privacy is Over" Zuckerberg. At least you're refreshing in one sense; you're one of the few business bigwigs who actually puts his words into action.

Since I started this with a video, it's reasonable to end it with a video. It shows Steve Jobs, until recently the CEO of one of the most financially successful businesses in history, responding to an openly insulting question about his return to Apple with grace and dignity. Granted, he's basically a sociopath, but the interesting bit is when he talks about prioritizing user experience over technical faffery. He's another of the few business leaders who practices what he preaches, and I think the example of Apple Computer shows that priortizing design and user experience can be profitable too.

"You've got to start with the customer's experience and work backwards from that."



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 22nd, 2011 04:27 am (UTC)
Yes. Design matters.
Sep. 22nd, 2011 11:46 am (UTC)
I must admit I was resisting Facebook until a friend got on Facebook whobrefused to be boring.... Just as I was getting into connecting with a wide range of people? They started getting crerpy lol! I agrees with your assessment of the creepy factor.... But now I'm in the habit of waking up by checking out what's going on with my fb buds to the extent that it cut into my fetlife activity ( because really there are only so many kinky topic you can go into depth about ;) )
I guess I'll just continue on it because I enjoy the spiritual quotes and conversations and I have too much time on my hands hehe !
Sep. 22nd, 2011 04:27 am (UTC)
Just now seeing the new Facebook layout myself I am sooooo glad I don't use it for anything but playing flash games when I'm bored. I'm not into being connected with everyone and their cat on the interwebs so Facebook creeps me out anyway. I like having a bit of non-connected peace in my life. I have enough ways to reach me, by various email, instant message, and a cell phone, that I don't need old high school pals finding me on Facebook, too.

My best to you and yours. <3
Sep. 22nd, 2011 04:48 am (UTC)
Google's home page was simple. They've been hurling design overboard at an accelerating rate for the last few years, and their interfaces have gotten so bad that I've gone back to using Yahoo/Bing for search.
Sep. 22nd, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC)
Fantastic analysis of Web evolution and social-networking. I've gotten more Google+ "circle" requests since Facebook decided to get uber-creepy than I had in my circles before. I use Facebook because so many people do, and will drop it as soon as they're all over on G+. And I'll drop G+ as soon as the next thing offers us networking with less creepiness. And so on.

Thing is, we're getting a lot of value for free. If you pay for something, you expect privacy, but who pays for social networking? WE ALL DO - with our exposed privacy.
Sep. 22nd, 2011 07:30 pm (UTC)
F***book f***-ups.
Oh dear, what a right mess they've made of Facebook? I fear that either Zuckerberg is having a mental breakdown or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory has locked himself in the server room.

Even in a place like Silicon Valley, I'm sure that they can take a break from diving into pools of gold like Scrooge McDuck to read the extremely negative reactions. I really can't see how advertisers are going to be attracted to or stay with Facebook.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 4th, 2011 10:17 am (UTC)

i study usability, so i'm pretty picky. there are definitely things i dislike about http://www.quora.com, but it's clean and minimal at least...
Oct. 4th, 2011 10:16 am (UTC)
"But now? The "top posts" on my wall come from Facebook's attempt to understand me and my interests, and that's a bit freaky."

the only thing that's changed is aesthetics. unless you use custom lists, the posts you see are chosen by facebook's algorithms.

similarly, the posts other people see from you are chosen by facebook's algorithms. if you interact with someone regularly, or they visit your page regularly, your updates will appear in top news. if you don't talk to them via facebook very often, and they don't visit your facebook page very often, other people's updates will appear instead of your updates, regardless of whether theirs are "i ate a sandwich" and yours are interesting links.

the algorithm also includes how many people visit a facebook page in general. so for example, i have ~880 facebook friends, and people visit my page directly pretty frequently. so my updates show up more often in top news, regardless of whether my updates are better or not.

when google+ came out, people got all excited about circles. facebook already had the same functionality. it's just that most people didn't know that the lists feature existed and didn't use it. it wasn't very user-friendly. facebook took the 'acquaintances', etc. concept from google+ and tried to implement it automatically to make lists easier to use.

(i'm getting a degree in human-computer interaction, so i read a lot of 50+ page research papers about facebook and wikipedia behavior and various other things that typically cause people's eyes to glaze over ;)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )