Facebook's redesign: Time to listen to users?

User sentiment seems decidedly set against the recent home page layout changes. The question now is how, or whether, Facebook will respond.

Jon Skillings Editorial director
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is director of copy editing at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing tech publications back when the web was just getting under way. He writes occasionally, on topics from GPS to James Bond.
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  • 30 years experience at tech and consumer publications, print and online. Five years in the US Army as a translator (German and Polish).
Jon Skillings
4 min read

It wouldn't be at all surprising if Facebook's response to the bad vibes elicited its latest redesign were straight out of the 1970 comic war movie "Kelly's Heroes." To wit, we give you just one of the refrains from Donald Sutherland's tanker/proto-hippie character, Oddball:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
How happy can CEO Mark Zuckerberg be with the griping by users over the latest Facebook redesign?

Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves...Why don't you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?

Hopeful, positive comments from Facebook users have been awfully hard to come by in recent days since the powerhouse social-networking site pushed out a redesign that seems inspired, at least in part, by the up-and-coming Twitter service. To pick just one newly voiced opinion from the company's "Vote on the new Facebook layout" app, which seems in keeping with consensus among the 624,665 comments there so far: "this one is really confusing... the home page look like every one is kinda takin to you!!!!! the previous one was really nice... would feel better if it was changed to the previous version..."

The negativity has continued into the weekend, fueled in part by a Valleywag item alleging that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sent an e-mail to employees suggesting that it's folly for a disruptive company to listen to its customers.

Writes Dare Obasanjo, using the Valleywag post as a starting point:

When your application becomes an integral part of your customers lives and identities, it is almost expected that they protest any major changes to the user experience. The problem is that you may eventually become jaded about negative feedback because you assume that for the most part the protests are simply people's natural resistance to change...

Somewhere along the line, it seems the folks at Facebook didn't internalize this fundamental difference in the social context that differentiates user to user relationships on Twitter versus Facebook. This to me is a big mistake.

But some folks are trying to find a silver lining.

Over at VentureBeat, Eric Eldon and MG Siegler offer an in-depth appraisal of the redesign, and lay out their share of criticism--including paying more attention to how users might might react:

From here, Facebook needs to figure out what might be worth bringing back from the old feed, like items about your friends making new friends, events, profile picture changes, etc.

Perhaps most importantly though, Facebook needs to do a better job easing users into this redesign. If it wants people to do their own filtering using lists, it needs to make sure they know how. That's why above the feed filters, there should be two options: One to show you the news feed after the redesign, and one "legacy feed" below to show you just the core Facebook elements that were previously in the news feed prior to the redesign. In effect, this would be the "training" mechanism described above, and again, is critical before the real flood of information starts coming in through Facebook Connect.

Implementation issues aside, Eldon and Siegler write, "the overall idea behind it is the right one." Beyond that, they say:

Facebook should listen to its users in some regards - but if every company only listened to its users, there would be no innovation. If the changes made are ultimately for the better, as Facebook clearly believes, then it needs to suck it up and get through this growing pain. And so do its users.

High-profile blogger Robert Scoble definitely seems to be in the tough-love camp when it comes to users' gripes:

Anyway, all those who are saying the new design sucks should NOT be listened to. Yeah, I know a lot of people are going to get mad at me for saying that. After all, how can a blogger say to not listen to the masses? Easy: I've seen the advice the masses are giving and most of it isn't very good for Facebook's business interests...

Zuckerberg is not listening to you because you don't get how Facebook is going to make billions.

We've reached out to the folks at Facebook for comment on the purported Zuckerberg missive and, just in general, for how they're reacting to users' boos. No response yet, but we'll let you know if we do hear anything back on this first springtime Sunday afternoon.

Update at 1:34 p.m PDT: Several readers have objected that this story makes it seem like everyone hates the Facebook redesign, which wasn't the intent. Facebook has 175 million users, a number that's vastly greater than the 600,000-plus comments on the company's "Vote on the new Facebook layout" application.

One person in the comments section below offers this positive assessment: "I actually find the new design more pleasing. It is more functional and manageable. I can select what I want to view instead of everything as a hodgepodge on one page. all they need now is the ability to make my feeds as rss and watch other walls as rss. It is a more advanced design. Probably best for advanced users."

Still, among those who've voiced their opinion on the redesign, the sentiment has largely been somewhere on the side of disappointment.