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Facebook, Google, and the data design disaster

Why it's important for a Silicon Valley bigwigs like Facebook or Google to rein in that obsessive quest for information ownership: user-friendliness can fall by the wayside.

These days, in this world of IKEA and Target and "Project Runway," we like to think we know about design. We also like to think that the biggest names in Silicon Valley know what they're doing design-wise.

Yet recently, we saw two of the Web's most prominent players hit by design-related snafus: first, the continuing brouhaha over Facebook's latest home page redesign, which many users claim makes the service more difficult to use; and second, the departure of Douglas Bowman, a high-ranking Google designer who accompanied his resignation with a blog post detailing his frustration over the company's data-above-all mantra.

They were different issues, for sure. The Facebook fiasco was one of user experience. The social network, its massive user base now bringing in plenty of people who certainly don't fit the profile of the young and tech-savvy early adopter, sprang a Twitter-like revamp that threw many users off guard. After complaints, a few tweaks were made, but some critics say it's still not enough.

"It makes you feel like there's a lot more to digest, and it's all happening right now," said Whitney Hess, a New York-based user experience consultant. "It's a bit of an information overload because it takes up almost all of the real estate of the entire home page."

Google's reason for making headlines in the design world of late, meanwhile, was all about something much more internal. Bowman implied that he was unable to synchronize his visual-design expertise with Google's mission to index all the information that it possibly can. That meticulous, almost card catalog-like attitude didn't carry over so well with him.

"Yes, it's true that a team at Google couldn't decide between two blues, so they're testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better," Bowman, who had been hired at Google three years ago to start its visual-design team, wrote on his blog. "I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4, or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can't operate in an environment like that."

Facebook feedback
Within hours of being published, thousands of people "liked" Product Director Christopher Cox's message to Facebook users, saying the company would be addressing the outcry over its latest redesign. Jennifer Guevin/CNET

If Google's problem is excessive attention to data, Facebook's is an insistence on being at the forefront of communication. In other words, the difference between the two is that Google wouldn't change its products enough for the approval of a design professional like Bowman, but that Facebook (at least according to some users) was too willing to change in order to fit what it sees as the future of the industry.

In this case, it was the "information stream" made popular by Twitter--which, though it's a fraction of Facebook's size, has supplanted the social network as the hot name in connecting across the expanse of the Web.

With its new design, Facebook was effectively telling users that it intended them to start using the site for a different purpose, Hess said. "People are starting to get the sense that Facebook is changing what problems it's trying to solve," Hess said in an interview. "It started out being about connections, and it started to become about content, not just who you're friends with but what your friends are up to."

But at their core, both Facebook and Google were showing symptoms of the same problem: seduction by information, and the resulting disconnect between data and design. With its home page revamp, Facebook highlights the stream of content that its 175 million members are constantly pouring into its servers--links, images, videos, the random thoughts that make up "status messages"--and with its new "Share" interface, it encourages them to contribute even more.

That sort of extreme wealth of data must make anyone with access to the back-end operations at Facebook and Google--or, heck, even just your run-of-the-mill analytics junkie--simply giddy. But the face that a mainstream Web company puts forward is a visual one. And that can lead to quite the disconnect.

Hess pointed out the fact that when Google launched its Gmail e-mail client, there was no one-click "delete" button. "Google's response was, 'We gave you a gigabyte of space; you don't need one,'" she explained. "It was a technically focused response instead of realizing the real reason people want to delete their e-mail isn't because they want to make more digital space; they want to make space in their minds. They want to not have to look at something if they have an emotional response to it."

The backlash at Facebook's redesign is ironic, considering its clean, blue-and-white interface had typically gotten the thumbs-up from the design-conscious--especially as an alternative to its brasher, then-larger rival MySpace.

"There were other solutions out there, like Classmates.com, MySpace, and Friendster, that weren't doing the job," Hess said of Facebook. Finding a way for people to connect online "was a real problem, and they solved it."

Has Facebook strayed from its roots as the apex of user-friendliness? No, insists Christina Holsberry, the company's user experience manager. "Many of our designers are engineers and are the ones building some of the front-end functionality," Holsberry told CNET News. "The user experience team works very closely with them to come up with the right design. We spend time understanding user feedback and focusing on concerns, confusions, or user needs, and try to articulate the answers to, 'What are users saying and why?'"

Facebook has staved off previous user revolts by making small changes: the News Feed, for example, was scoffed at initially, its presentation criticized for being in-your-face promiscuous when it launched in the fall of 2006. A few extra privacy controls later, it's so central to the site that, ironically, when Facebook issued its latest redesign, users protested how much the News Feed had changed.

"We always run new designs by users to get their feedback, understand their concerns, and pinpoint any confusing areas," Holsberry said. "We typically bring people into our user-testing lab and observe how they use a new product, and then continuously iterate based on what we see from testing and any of our other feedback channels."

Facebook needs to be careful. Much of the Silicon Valley landgrab in the Web 2.0 boom was all about who reigned over mass content ownership: video hosting, photo sharing, blog posts, e-mail, and instant-message conversations. The sort of hunger for data and content aggregation that could make a visual design expert like Douglas Bowman feel cast aside at Google could also give off a heavy vibe that Facebook cares more about what it can pull in from users than what it can give back.

But on the flip side, an over-attention to trendy, consumer-grabbing design can be reason for caution too. That's what can make it downright impossible to assemble that new dining room table you just bought at IKEA.