My impressions of Facebook’s news feed redesign & what it means

My skepticism about Facebook (s fb) is pretty well known. I have found them to be a company that plays loose and easy with people and makes decisions that are not always in their users’ best interest. So yesterday when they announced the news feed redesign, I was a little bemused. My initial reaction: while Google is trying to make the physical world searchable, Facebook is adding a “category menu” to its feed.

Then a friend emailed and said that I was being too harsh because they are, after all, catering to a billion people, are a publicly traded company and are under attack from all sides by more nimble, smarter startups that are taking attention away from them. Fair enough: I decided that I would give them a fair shake whenever I got access to the redesigned news feed.

Facebook News Feed Redesign March 2013

Given the planet-long wait list, I didn’t sign up and didn’t email Facebook PR. But sometime last night, the new feed update showed up. I have had a few hours to play around with it, and here are my impressions and thoughts on the business implications of the redesign. So here we go:

Four things I like:

  • Overall design: Facebook has been stockpiling design talent like the U.S. used to stockpile nuclear weapons. And the result of all that design IQ is finally bearing fruit. The new news feed is actually what Facebook says it is — clean, simple and beautiful. The white space (or gray space) is put to effective use. You can see the iOS and Apple influence on the redesign in small smallest of the elements such as menu items, icons and message status buttons. They also get full marks for creating a unified experience (including the left hand navigation menu — which includes links to apps, messenger, events and what not) that spans elegantly across devices. They get a A- on this (for reasons stated below.)
  • Responsive Design: In my test, it worked well on iPad, iPad Mini, desktop, Nexus 7, Nexus 4 and iPhone5. It is very consistent and I wouldn’t change a thing. An A+ on this.
  • Photos: Mark Zuckerberg and his coterie might like to think of themselves as rivals to Twitter (not) or a newspaper, but in the end, Facebook is and will always be a giant photo service. And to that end, increasing the size of the photos and being able to create photos collages (collections, as Evan Williams would say) is a great move and actually makes scrolling through photos easier, faster and more enjoyable. I do believe that with this redesign, Facebook has give its core functionality a nice boost. I would give this an A+, though Facebook should consider giving us the ability to make it our default feed.
  • Music: Remember that Facebook Music service we talked about back in June 2011? Two years later, the new “music” feed that is showing up a sub-category of their feed is reminiscent of that design. It also aggregates music events in my calendar and also shows me the bands liked by my friends. I like the suggestions that are offered to me but I am still not sure what to do with that information. Why? Because when someone recommends me a or an artist, I want to be able to listen to the song (or the artist’s work) and if I like it, I add to a playlist for future consumption. That flow is still not there. All in all, decent offering which gets a solid B+ from me, because I am still not sure why I care if Kevin Tofel likes Dido.

Two things I don’t:

  • Facebook did a nice facelift of the news feed, but rest of the service looks a little out of touch. The Messaging app looks old school and could actually use a quick dusting.
  • The Search bar on the top is actually quite worthless and comes in the way of what could be a pretty seamless experience. It is a case of when a hasty business decision gets layered on top of good design decisions — the end result is like a great pair of leather shoes with a plastic sole.

And four burning questions:

  • I have spent a lot of time with the redesign and I am not clear how this solves Facebook’s two major challenges: retention and engagement. Yes, it is lovely, and the notifications are sort of nicer, but it still does nothing to make me come back more often and actually if anything I will spend less time. I can skim photos and bounce much faster.
  • The younger demographic, who is leaving the service (though they are still part of the zombie mob), are not going to come back because of the changes.
  • The actual news feed, despite the attractive photos and bigger visuals, is still messy and much less useful that it used to be.
  • The biggest question that arises from this cosmetic facelift: what happened to Facebook’s ability to actually learn, adapt and become more human with the feed? In other words, has their ability to sift and make sense of data hit a glass ceiling? My guess is yes.

What it means from a business/money perspective

  • Facebook is and will always be news feed centric. And it is one of the main reasons why its early attempts at search and other experiments have not really succeeded. The news feed has to become more context oriented and if they screw up the news feed, they start to lose overall value. So, that is why this aesthetic facelift is much needed.
  • Just like I said earlier, Facebook will struggle beyond the news feed and that is why they need to make the feed the focus of all monetization efforts including a more traditional form of advertising. Bigger photos will condition people to bigger ads — something marketers want and like. So expect to see a lot more ads in your feed. I suspect, as the desire to reinvent advertising takes a backseat to realities of the public market.
  • Here is the problem with the scenario. So far, you and I don’t much care about the ads that appear on the right hand column. I don’t much care if Zoosk or some crappy ad shows up — I have programmed my brain to ignore it. Others feel that way — though many people are still spending money on those right-column ads.
  • Because despite all their posturing, Facebook is terrible at providing context and surfacing ads that make sense. But if they start surfacing similar pointless and terrible ads in the main feed (like all those stupid paid-shares by my friends) then this grand experiment to make more money is going to backfire.

To sum it up

This was a great job to clean up the news feed, make it easier for folks to consume Facebook on all sorts of devices and find ways for easy consumption and create advertising opportunities that are easier advertising agencies and their traditional skills to manage. It is also a tactical admission (though a silent one) about their limitations in providing context and creating a new advertising model.

Screenshot Facebook newsfeed