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Summary:

Facebook recently announced a redesign of its newsfeed – one that it plans to roll out to its billion customers. I got a chance to take the new newsfeed for a spin. Here is my take on the changes and their business implications.

My skepticism about Facebook 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

  1. This is just what I needed as I haven’t had the time to pay attention in detail.

    Facebook amazes me–all the people everywhere are there.

    Facebook amazes me–all the people and they have basically no good will from anyone and no community.

    Facebook amazes–they know everything about everyone and they plumb this data so that when someones Bday pops up they say that he/she liked Britney Spears and how about a song from iTunes.

    Tell me that this is not the future of data-driven advertising and marketing.

    Sorry–needed to kvetch and your fine post just caught me at that time.

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    1. @awaldstein

      Good kvetch, but they still can’t do data driven advertising — or at least it seems from the outside. They (FB) have their work cut out and we shall see how this works out. I have a suspicion that they need to look beyond advertising.

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  2. Bernard Desarnauts Friday, March 8, 2013

    Om, what is your take on FB engagement? you touch upon it but not much. Is the change helping in your mind to create more meaningful “conversations”?

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    1. @Bernard,

      Sorry for not being more explicit. I think the changes have done nothing for me to have more meaningful conversations. How deep can we really get about someone liking a band or their kids. A little but not a lot.

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  3. Hi Om,

    Nice write up as always! BTW, I can see only four items in the “Five Burning Questions” section.

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    1. I guess I killed one and forgot to change the headline @sammellon. My bad. Sorry about that. fixing it.

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  4. I’ve used FB for 3 years. Quitting today. It’s a waste of time, filled with spam, no longer serves as a useful tool for keeping up with friends. The redesign is lousy. Photos are fuzzy. Comments do not align with photos. More importantly, what info about ME is being used by marketers and who knows?

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  5. That move is still not really about users – it is about marketers, to display their ads around. And, by the way, that redesign, as Graph Search, started with a lie – http://dtsonev.tumblr.com/post/44850460693/the-new-facebooks-roll-out-system

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  6. I only care about their ability to make money from ads for their shareholders. So if redesigned news feed will draw more ad dollars – Job Well Done!!!

    The rest of your article is for people who actually use FB for personal reasons, which I couldn’t care less for.

    Good read though.

    Thanks.

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    1. Lol @shaichason. Thanks for being totally candid :)

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  7. To use context one first has to understand what it is and how it is created. It’s not a nice mix of sensor data, as some seem to believe.

    As I have pointed out before, context is messy. But abstracts are incredible fast to activate vast amounts of data to create a best fit differential. Much faster than keyword indexing since the base is “all”. Just don’t think hierarchy, way way to strict and slow and no overlaps (very useful for differentials).[3]

    “The group believes this partially overlapping representation of related concepts are the neural underpinnings of encoding associations, a key memory function.”[1]

    “There has long been a tendency to look at the many distinct anatomical areas of the cerebral cortex of the brain and to assume that each area is like a specialized module that plays a very specific function.” Freedman said. “Our results support the growing sense that most, if not all, of these brain areas have multiple overlapping roles.” [2]

    1. Small Groups of Brain Cells Store Concepts for Memory Formation — From Luke Skywalker to Your Grandmother
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130222083049.htm

    2. http://medicalxpress.com/news/2013-03-region-functions-brain-cells-multitasking.html#jCp

    3. https://plus.google.com/112533373338852324880/posts

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  8. whereismycar Friday, March 8, 2013

    The only thing I objected to is what you said about the search bar.

    It is one of the most useful things that facebook has and a huge asset. I use it 50% of the time i get on facebook. Ways i’ve used it in the last 7 days.

    1. you want to see pictures of a friend of a friend who doesn’t share them with non-friends (graph search still finds all the photos where that person was tagged with people who do share their photos with you) – disclaimer: I used this when trying to decide if i should accept a friend request from someone who had set their profile picture to that of a dog.

    2. you want to meet a club promoter in your area (search ‘promoters in san diego california’ and boom.

    3. THE BIG ONE: finding people who’s name you misspelled or whos number you lost. I lost the number that a girl had given me, but I knew she was a senior at a large state school and that she where she went to highschool (from our conversation), so I was able to find her on facebook.

    anyways, its the best feature facebook has ever added

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  9. Good article , is really happend on FB that you say?
    I will hope the changes too.
    Regards

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  10. I find I have lost interest because its much harder for me to actually see my friends updates and posts that I actually engage me. I find I am hiding more and more people do to the never ending “liked” pictures of jokes, etc. I loved using facebook to engage in topics and stay in touch with friends. Now, I feel like its a never ending of scrolling.. and boring, actually. :( Too bad, facebook really did it to themselves. That’s what happens when something really great gets supposably, all these great, over paid super talents.. like all big corporations, they mess with things so much it’s over thought and they are their own demise.

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    1. @Carla

      I think what you want and need to engage is a challenge that hasn’t been resolved by the company as the old news feed with new design is still at the bottom of it all.

      That said, I don’t think we should give up on them & their capabilities just yet.

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    2. I completely agree. I HATE not seeing updates from the people on my friends list. I get the same 5 people, and the same 5 people see my stuff. it is awful :( why won’t they fix this Om??

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