Four ways to redesign Facebook.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 30 2009 5:36 PM

Let's Fix Facebook

Four ways to redesign one of the world's most-annoying, least-intuitive Web sites.

Facebook logo.

Back in March, I asked people to quit whining about Facebook's redesign. It wasn't that I liked the radical changes the site had made—they were unquestionably terrible. In the past, Facebook would roll all of your friends' recently added photos, notes, and status updates into a few new posts a day; now the site shows you an ever-changing "stream" of activity, with new stuff from everyone in your network popping up as it happens. In other words, they made it just like Twitter. In an online poll that attracted more than 1 million respondents, 94 percent panned the new design. But I doubted the numbers: People always hate when their favorite site is redesigned. Lots of users were probably responding more to the suddenness of the changes than to the substance, and we'd all get over it soon enough.

Five months later, I feel vindicated. Since the redesign, Facebook's growth has exploded. According to the Web-stats company Comscore, the site's U.S. traffic in June was more than 25 percent higher than it was in March; between January and March, before the redesign, the site's traffic grew by only 7 percent. Fifty million people joined Facebook in the last three months—the site now has more than 250 million users, with more than 500,000 people signing up each day. Sure, the surge doesn't prove that people love the redesign—you could argue that the site would have seen even more traffic had it not messed with the design. But all those Facebookers who threatened to quit if it didn't undo the changes? They were bluffing.

Indeed, Facebook's redesign has gone so well that I'm going to advise something radical: another redesign! And this time, fix all the bugs.

I've grown used to the Twitterized home page; I don't love it, but it's too late for Facebook to drop its new look. But there are lots of other parts of Facebook that would do well with a makeover. The site feels like a work in progress—little about it is intuitive, and getting to the stuff you use every day requires an expedition. I'm not the only one confused by Facebook. When I polled people on Twitter, I got a flood of complaints. Here are some of the biggest ones:

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Finding your own stuff is a pain. Say you're an investment banker who's trying to rehabilitate your industry's image, so you've just started a Facebook group called "1 Million Strong for Goldman Sachs!" Now you'd like to check the group to see how many hundreds of thousands of people have joined your cause. But where are your groups? You search the home page but find nothing. OK, maybe if you click "Profile" up at the top, you'll find your groups listed there. Nope. It turns out you've got to click "Profile," then find the tab called "Info" to see a summary of your groups—and if you'd like more details, you've got to click a third link, "See all." If you need to find the same groups over and over again, your best bet is just to bookmark them in your browser.

This is a common problem on Facebook. If you're looking for pictures you posted three months ago, good luck. Sure, there's a button on the home page that says "Photos"—but if you click there, you see a list of your friends' photos, not yours. What if you click on the Applications button at the bottom of the page, and then click Photos? Wrong again: Now you see an array—not a list—of your friends' photos. The correct answer: To see the pictures that you've added, you've got to click "My Photos" at the top of this photo array page or click the "Photos" tab from your profile. Yes, there are at least three different links on the site labeled "Photos," and each one takes you to a completely different page.

This is easy to fix. Facebook should add a link to the home page called "Your Stuff." This would take you to a page that lists your groups, your photos, and all your other things on the same page—not divided in multiple tabs. If Facebook wanted to be really nice, they'd sort this list in order of what you use most frequently.

The "Highlights" section is useless. Facebook's home page is divided into two main sections. In the center, there's a quick-moving list of real-time updates. On the right, there's a stream that updates more slowly, labeled "Highlights." The trouble is, it isn't clear how Facebook decides which items deserve to be called highlights. For instance, yesterday someone I barely knew in college posted pictures from her friends' recent trip to California. Because those friends—who aren't my friends—posted several comments on one of the photos, Facebook assumed that the picture was a hot item. Now it's in my Highlights section—but I don't know anyone in the photo.

Some items linger in Highlights forever, while others pop in and out in a flash—it's hard to tell what accounts for the difference. Worst of all, the section takes up space that would be better used for stuff I actually care about. One reader told me she often missed her friends' birthdays because the alerts were buried beneath the Highlights section. So, too, are your upcoming events.

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