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Why Facebook went for basic over bold with News Feed (Q&A)

Product Manager Greg Marra explains why the company went back to basics for the version of News Feed that it will dole out to all members.

Facebook News Feed design

After a year of waiting, you're finally getting a new News Feed -- except that it's not at all like the one you were originally promised.

Thursday, Facebook started rolling out an "updated" look to the desktop version of News Feed. The changes, announced with little fanfare in a blog post, amount to larger pictures and new fonts, and they represent a distinct about-face from the bigger, bolder News Feed that the social network unveiled with pomp and circumstance last year. That version, however, turned out to be too complex for the average person and was never dolled out to the masses.

So CNET went to the source, News Feed Product Manager Greg Marra, to find out why the company decided to backtrack from its original vision. Though Marra managed to dodge most of our tough questions, he was able to shed some light on the social network's newfound appreciation for the simpler things in News Feed.

What follows is a lightly edited version of our exchange with Marra.

Q: Last year, Mark Zuckerberg showed off a very different version of News Feed from the one you're releasing now. That design was never talked about as experimental until Facebook decided to go in a different direction. So the obvious question is, what changed in the past year?
Marra: With so many people using Facebook in so many different ways, we're careful to test and understand product updates before we roll them out broadly. We roll out updates to a small portion of people who use Facebook to see how they use it and what they tell us.

greg marra
News Feed Product Manager Greg Marra Greg Marra

We do in-person usability testing both at Facebook HQ and by sending researchers around the world to meet with and interview people with very different perspectives than ourselves. Since we can only talk to so many people, we also run surveys that tens of thousands of people reply to, telling us qualitatively what's working and what's not working for them. On the site, people can send us feedback and bug reports. With changes this big, we're particularly proactive in asking people what they think.

We found that some parts of this updated design for News Feed were working for people, but others weren't. For example, the left-hand navigation bar showed fewer links to your Groups and apps if you were on a smaller screen, and many people on smaller screens told us it took much more effort to visit these parts of Facebook with this design. We wanted to take the time to listen to this feedback, understand it, and make changes that improved the new design. That's what we've been working on for the past year in order to get to the design we're rolling out now.

When did you know that the more radical design wasn't going to work for the masses?
Marra: As we started hearing feedback from people and understanding what was working and wasn't working, we tried many small adjustments and a few big shifts to the updated design. At each step along the way, we focused on a big issue people were having, and thought about how to solve it. We'd build a new approach; test it with more people and listen to their feedback; and keep iterating forward.

After a few months, we realized we were going to need to do some bigger revamps and change some of the bigger elements of the design, especially the links to navigate around the site. All of the parts of the site have to fit together into one cohesive design, so moving one thing causes rippling changes that require adjustments elsewhere. We got the next big iteration of the design ready, tested it, found that it worked well for people, and that's what we're rolling out now.

Part of last year's News Feed look came with additional feeds that were featured prominently in the upper right-hand corner of the page. What's happening to those feeds and why?
Marra: We saw that there were some feeds people enjoyed and checked often, and there were some feeds people checked a few times and then stopped using. We're keeping around the feeds people liked the most -- Games Feed, Pages Feed, Friends List Feeds -- but are removing some that people didn't use.

Bigger images are here to stay. Why?
Marra: People love looking at photos on Facebook, and this was one of the parts of the design people told us they liked. Over time, more and more of News Feed is photos, so we want to show them as best we can. Having larger photos means you don't have to click to see photos in the photo viewer as often, so it's easier for you to see what your friends are sharing. We present individual photos in their original aspect ratio, and posts with multiple photos have a tiled grid of photos.

What's up with the new font? Was that really necessary?
Marra: The new fonts are simpler sans-serif fonts, and are more like system fonts. We're trying to help the design get out of the way so you can focus on what your friends are sharing.

Was there anything you had to scrap in this release that you really didn't want to?
Marra: We have the privilege of designing for all the people who use Facebook, and we focused on making this design update something that worked for them. That's what motivates us.

When it comes to down to it, are Facebook users just afraid of change?
We heard from people that parts of the redesign worked for them and parts of it didn't. People come to Facebook to share with their friends, and it's important that our designs don't get in the way. We saw that some parts of the redesign, such as the navigation changes that meant it took more effort to get around on smaller screen sizes, made it harder for people to see what their friends were sharing, so we've improved that part in the version we're rolling out to everyone.

As Facebook gets bigger and bigger, is it possible to evolve News Feed with the times and still keep members happy?
We think so! Every day we think about how we can make News Feed better based on the feedback we get from everyone who uses Facebook.