Four ways to redesign Facebook.

Four ways to redesign Facebook.

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.

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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.

I suggest beefing up the algorithms that decide what's a highlight and what isn't. For instance, the site ought to take into account stuff I've pressed "Like" on. (If it already does so, I can't tell.) It should also be smart enough not to list items from people I've blocked. (Some readers say it makes that mistake often.) If it's too hard to make sure the Highlights really are highlights? Just scrap the whole thing and move up the birthdays.

The "Inbox" is awful. Facebook's messaging system is meant to mimic e-mail, which was invented in the 1960s. The Facebook system looks ancient by comparison. It lacks e-mail's most rudimentary features: You can't sort your Facebook messages in any way—not by sender, date, or read and unread messages. You can't forward them to other people or reply to people other than the person who sent you the message. There are no folders or tags to use for archiving messages. If you get a lot of messages, the "Inbox" essentially breaks—everything gets lost, and sooner or later you find yourself quitting altogether. People have been asking Facebook to fix this for a long time; here's hoping they do.

And here's a related bug, something that has bothered me many times: If someone sends you a message as part of a friending request, Facebook shows you that message on your page of friend requests. If you accept that person as a friend, the site offers you no way to reply to that message—instead, you have to send a separate message, under a new subject line, that goes into your new friend's Inbox. To them, it appears like a message out of the blue, not as a reply to something they've said before; plus, it's sure to get lost among their many other messages. Come on, Facebook. This is ridiculous.

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There's more. I'm telling you, I got bombarded with complaints. Does anyone use the navigation bar at the bottom of the page—I don't, and several readers agreed it's a waste of space. And what about Facebook's iPhone app? It sucks. Mobile Facebook lacks many of the site's main features and makes it even more difficult to find your groups and other items. Also, the chat function: It's intrusive and riddled with bugs.

Facebook probably thinks it can afford to be complacent right now; after all, we users don't have much choice. Facebook's design isn't friendly, but it's a lot better than MySpace's, so where are we going to go? But that's what MySpace thought, too. And then along came Facebook—with its comparatively cleaner, more intuitive design—and lots of people jumped ship. That could happen again. So shape up Facebook—or else!

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