Indeed, learning to ignore readers is a necessary skill among people who design for the Web. In January, Jason Kottke redesigned his popular blog about "liberal arts 2.0." A few days after the new version launched, Kottke, who is careful and thoughtful about design, wrote a post describing people's reactions. Most of the readers he'd heard from didn't like it; many wanted him to bring back the old site. "This is exactly the reaction I expected, and it's heartening to learn that the old design struck such a chord with people," he wrote. He pointed out that people hated the old design when it was new, too. "All I'm asking is that you give it a little time."
Kottke's few hundred thousand readers might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Facebook is in a different spot. It has nearly 200 million users, and each of them thinks of their page as something they should control. This suggests that Facebook should approach redesigns much more carefully. About a week before the new site went into effect, Facebook put up a short note preparing users for coming changes. That was insufficient notice. A better approach would have allowed people to choose between the new site and the old one for a while; this would have let the company get feedback on the new site and fix what people hated about it before it rolled it out to everyone. It would also have given users a chance to get used to the new design before it became the default view. (In fact, Facebook did this for its last redesign; it's baffling why it didn't do the same this time.)
Other big Web companies have taken this go-slow approach in their design shops. More than 300 million people around the world check in to Yahoo's front page every day. The company has spent months redesigning it. Yahoo relies heavily on "bucket testing," in which it randomly serves up potential new designs and monitors feedback. That process has given designers deep insight into what people want from a new site and how best to ease people into a new design. Google takes bucket testing to almost absurd lengths. The New York Times reported recently that in choosing the color of a single toolbar on one of its sites, Google served up pages with 41 different shades of blue to see which one people were most likely to click on. (One of Google's top designers recently quit in part over his displeasure with this strategy.)
When Slate redesigned its home page last fall, many readers wrote in to complain. Last week I e-mailed a handful of them to see if they still hated Slate's design. A couple of them said they still weren't big fans; most admitted they'd grown used to it and couldn't really recall the old site very well. But several said something I found interesting—that what had bothered them about the redesign wasn't exactly the change but the fact that the changes hadn't seemed necessary. Slate, like a lot of sites, hadn't explained well enough why it was making such sweeping changes.
"I'm a big believer in 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' " a reader named Barry Geisler told me. "The seemingly constant redesigning of Web sites needlessly frustrates the user for what appears to be very little gain. Yes, users adapt fairly quickly—so what? Is the new Facebook a richer, better experience this week over last week? Doubtful."
That's the main problem with Facebook's sudden redesign. The real reason Facebook implemented it is to compete with Twitter. So far, there's nothing in it for us.
Correction, March 25, 2009: This article originally stated that Facebook's new activity stream forces people to listen to conversations from everyone in their network; in fact, you can filter your stream according to groups of friends. (Return to the corrected sentence.)