Facebook Redesign and Change Aversion

Every time a major site with a big audience changes, there are always going to be detractors. Especially a site like Facebook. People spend a lot of time there, so interface changes are almost tantamount to moving stuff around in their lounge/den.

I think there are a number of issues with the new Facebook homepage. I’ve seen it before. It’s called feature creep. Lots of stuff all clamouring for your attention. Chat, realtime updates, top stories, the rest of the news, adverts, suggestions for friends, app updates, messages (FB-ized email) and notifications.

Clever use of AJAX saves FB a heavy, slow loading user experience. Unfortunately it also allows stuff to get very busy. Progressive loading is an interesting technique and FB has evangelised it well. They’ve added a new design pattern I’m less of a fan of into the mix, inspired no doubt by a pattern I’ve seen on mobile terminals: revealing scrollbars on mouse over.

For some time you have been able to set overflow:auto on <div> elements so that scrollbars – regular, OS managed scrollbars that look different depending on whether you’re a Mac or a PC – appear if the content goes outside the bounding box as defined for the div. FB are presenting to the masses a funky new way of doing it. A grey rounded scrollbar, as seen on your iPhone / Android terminal when you touch a screen full of text that can scroll, appears when you hover your mouse around each of the blocks of content on the right hand side (and in some other cases too).

I have a big beef with this, because scrollers are now everywhere on the page. You still have your regular scrollbar if you’re still using a desk/lap-top machine to access the site. Very close to it you now have other scrollable elements that don’t follow the same rules. They don’t work the same as OS scrollbars. If like me you often scroll with the keyboard once the area has focus, they’re a PITA. The target for scrolling is not very wide. The screen looks a mess if you leave all the different boxes scrolled at different points. It’s not intuitive to know which zones really will scroll or not if text inside them aligns perfectly with then edge of the scrollable zone. So you have to mouse over them, which isn’t good for an addict of the PgUp, PgDn, Ctrl, Shift and arrow keys like me. I only click to give a zone focus or to position the cursor far from where I am currently.

Other bad karma effect for me: I was assaulted with little bubbles and tutorial messages when the version change happened. Not a discreet “learn about what’s new” that I could easily dismiss, but (IIRC) something like 3 or 4 different notifications all around the screen which meant I had to dismiss them all before getting back to my usual FB timewasting / networking activity.

There is a personality type that resists change, and with group effects in play this gets amplified. I’ve already seen groups campaigning to get the old back. I could care less about that, by all means go and change and organically improve. Just be careful about the over-riding experience, because a site as popular as FB has a real responsibility to keep design patterns sound, so that people don’t start getting used to bad practices. FB may have more reasons than most to cram stuff into a central page, but what they’re doing is making a one-page experience as they remove more and more reasons to leave the main page. You can now comment on people’s walls straight from the home, and read comments not currently on screen with new fly-outs from the right hand column. I can imagine other sites doing the same, and how difficult they’d be to navigate.

And of course I can hear them now in boardrooms around the world. “Why don’t we just make that a scrolly box, and stick like four of them together in the right column…”. Like as if somehow, the page no longer scrolling has solved the old page fold debate, and instead lots of individual blocks will be scrollable. Or not.

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