Facebook gets simpler with bet that we just want the news that fits

Facebook (s fb) CEO Mark Zuckerberg paused before unveiling a fresh design for its News Feed on Thursday at company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Before moving to the slide everyone was waiting for, he took us back in time for a few seconds, first showing how Facebook’s homepage used to look.

It was a good reminder. Back in 2007, the News Feed was a lot boxier. It had a lot fewer photos. There was more text, and everything seemed smaller.

In those early days, Facebook pioneered a different look that distinguished it from competitors like MySpace, offering a cleaner design and fewer options and customization for users. It was a new approach, and it worked. But the amount of content shared to the site has grown by an astounding amount since those days, as you’d expect from a site with now over a billion active users, and the News Feed hadn’t exactly kept pace. It had started to look cluttered and dated, and navigation (not to mention surfacing interesting content) was a challenge.

Mark Zuckerberg takes questions after announcing the updated News Feed in the company's Menlo Park headquarters on March 7.

Mark Zuckerberg takes questions after announcing the updated News Feed in the company’s Menlo Park headquarters on March 7.

So from a visual perspective, Thursday’s update clears out most of the clutter from the homepage, taking Facebook back to its original design proposition of simplicity and filtering. And it emphasizes the idea of Facebook as the “local newspaper,” bringing you a small slice of the most interesting and informative posts on the homepage — and giving you sections where can dive deeper into the material where you want.

I wrote on Wednesday about the three advantages Facebook still has that I didn’t think it should break with the new design: content discovery (showing you interesting things you hadn’t previously discovered), visual media (photos and videos still look the best on Facebook’s page), and the content directory (taking advantage of all your friends and their information on the site.) In many ways, the re-design announced Thursday played perfectly into these three strengths, primarily the first two.

“We believe that the best personalized newspaper should have a wide variety of content,” Zuckerberg explained during the hour-long presentation.

With content discovery, the new News Feed — structured after the metaphorical newspaper — is all about giving you more content to read and discover (in fact, it seems more like a consumption page now than one for sharing — interesting to consider that users are probably sharing more from mobile devices than desktops now). The re-design introduces tabs on the top right of the page that let you toggle your view: “All Friends” (who you haven’t hidden from the newsfeed), “Close Friends” (an older feature where you can designate certain people), “Following” (pages and people you subscribe to), “Groups,” “Photos,” “Games,” “Music,” and “Other.”

In each of these categories, users will be able to select specific set of content to dive into. “All Friends” gives users a chronological series of updates from friends, providing a feature that Facebook employees said was highly requested from users (especially considering the criticism the News Feed algorithms and perceived lack of transparency have faced in the past.)

Screenshot Facebook newsfeedThe “Following” page serves as almost like a page for news, assuming you like any celebrities, journalists, news outlets, or organizations on the site who post updates. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton recently criticized the company for not sharing his posts with subscribers as much as he would expect, and while the company refuted his claims, the Following page certainly addresses this need for asynchronous relationships and sharing.

And the company emphasized music — the music page will show songs your friends are listening to through apps like Spotify that use the company’s Open Graph. Each of these tabs give you a new set of information to dig into and greater control over the information you see.

From a design perspective, the emphasis on photos is a huge part of what’s new. Photos are far more dominant in the main news feed, appearing larger in previews and playing on two obvious influences: the Instagram experience of a continuous photo scroll, and design for mobile that inherently incorporates a simpler, stripped-down look.

While it’s still slightly unclear how advertising will play into the changes, since the company gave virtually no attention to ads on Thursday, it seems obvious, as The Atlantic pointed out, that the larger visuals the company debuted will play perfect with ads when they get the same treatment as user photos. Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call it’s something the company should provide. Mike Isaac for AllThingsD pointed out that for Facebook, it’s all about giving people compelling visuals, and surely that will go for ads as well.

Michael Reckhow, a product manager for mobile newsfeed, said they had worked so hard to build a cleaner mobile feed, that in looking at the desktop, they realized they’d already devised many of the solutions they needed:

“Mobile is inherently simpler,” he said. So it’s fair to say that in some ways, you’ve already seen the new Facebook — on your phone.

For Facebook, the question is how users will respond to the updated look. Hopefully for the company, adoption of the new features will go the opposite way of print newspaper subscriptions.