Sometimes, it’s better to show up late than never at all.
Facebook plans to roll out a set of design changes to its News Feed product beginning Thursday morning, nearly a year to the day from when the company first unveiled a drastic overhaul of the product’s interface to the world.
But the version you will soon see isn’t the one Facebook first showed off last March. As I reported last fall, upon first rolling out the new News Feed to a single-digit percentage of users, engagement and overall user satisfaction with the redesign stalled.
In essence, it was a flop.
“Over the last year, we’ve spent a lot of time seeing what people were saying, what was working, what wasn’t working, and we’re rolling out the version that takes all of that feedback into account,” News Feed product manager Greg Marra said in an interview. “Some parts weren’t working and were just getting in the way for people.”
Many of those problems involved navigational issues in the left-hand column, which in the old redesign was completely overhauled to display different subsections of your Facebook page (groups, applications and events, for instance). Similarly, the column flanking the right-hand side of the News Feed was split up into different ways of viewing the feed, essentially a set of filters that would display some types of content — like photos, or stories — while sifting out other things. In theory, it was a way for a user to walk through a more orderly version of their Facebook “desktop.”
All of those changes are gone, and Facebook has left both the right and left columns alone. Instead, you’ll see larger photos and some updated design flourishes on things like buttons and links to other parts of your Facebook page. Mainly, what you’ll notice — if you notice it at all — is how much more prominent the photos in your stream appear. It isn’t terribly surprising, considering that in-stream photos see far and away the most engagement from users on the platform, according to people familiar with how News Feed performs.
Part of the tension here goes far back into the history of the News Feed team. The goal has been to reconcile a slick, high-design-minded version of what the team — and especially VP of Product Chris Cox — feels News Feed should look like, against what Facebook’s 1.2 billion-strong network of visitors are accustomed to using regularly.
And I’ll be fair to the News Feed team here, which has a very, very tough job. Any major changes to the feed can result in massive ripple effects that reverberate throughout the network — for better or for worse. Last year’s attempt at a redesign resulted in changes for the worse, according to sources. Product Manager Marra confirmed as much, saying that internal metrics and user surveys made it clear some of the changes were too complex and not preferable for many people.
“One of the things we have to figure out is how do we strike a balance between giving you very dense information and giving you things that don’t require you to click a lot to understand it,” Marra said. He also cited the difficulty in navigating the different desktop screen sizes across the world, which can affect how easy — or in this case, how difficult — it was to use the redesigned version of the News Feed.
I imagine this entire design saga is far from over. The News Feed redesign was years in the making, and while originally drastically different in size and scope, was whittled away into what you see today. And it’s clear that Facebook wants to make serious changes to the News Feed — it just needs to figure out the right way to do it.
Perhaps that’s what Paper, Facebook’s new standalone app, is attempting to experiment with. After all, sources said Paper started out as a yet another vision of changing the Feed, though was spun off into its own standalone project to work more effectively.
The new set of minor design updates should begin to roll out for the desktop to Facebook users at large in the coming weeks.
That is, of course, if all goes according to plan this time.