WTF- A short comic strip analysis

Reviewing Facebook's new design

Hey there you beautiful people! Here’s a short story called “WTF”.

Meet our characters for this story…

One Tuesday afternoon, in a hypothetical world where the Covid-19 lockdown did not exist, Mani stepped out from the Blue Tokai coffee shop in Galleria Market, Gurgaon where by now she had accepted that she’d be spending a third of her salary every month.

She slowly walked down the stairs, still hungry after the overpriced brunch, as she passed a fleet of Instagram micro-influencers chatting amidst each other on their way to Cult. As she did so, she opened her phone to check some URGENT notifications while walking on the road, you know - as most people in Gurgaon do. She thought to herself…

As her thumb was about to subconsciously find its way and click on the ‘new friend requests’ button on the recently updated Facebook app, she realised…

It did! Facebook recently started rolling out the new design that it had announced in its annual F8 developer conference last year. It looks something like this on desktop:

Screen shot of the new feed on desktop. There’s also a dark mode which people are getting crazy about, but I’m not that big of a fan. But they say Facebook had to relook its tech stack to implement it in a seamless way.

And that’s how it looks on mobile:

Mani was only just beginning to browse through the latest design update, feeling both excited and disgusted by the design (yeah, I’m projecting my emotions on her) when JJ and Raj came along discussing the usual buzz words…

Seeing Mani, they decided to pull her into the conversation - because who needs to go to work in the middle of the day, right?

And it did come.

After Raj and JJ had shared 6 blogs, 3 Twitter threads and 2 podcasts about why the deal was going to be huge, all containing previously known information, Mani brought the new design to their attention:

Thing is - only grandparents and professional UI designers look at their phones in landscape mode. As Mani opened her laptop on the side of the street to show the latest design on her laptop, 3x entrepreneur JJ immediately had an opinion:

JJ is right. Back in 2006, the feed used to look very very different. Check out the amount of information and text that used to exist:

There is much less on your screen now, even then most of it is dominated by a few photos and videos. Clearly, the Silicon Valley, chlorophyll sipping geeks at Facebook like to remove clutter - probably even more so than a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk.

The updated feed seems to be a step in a direction that Facebook’s design team has been moving slowly but steadily over the years - not making radical changes like a neumorphism based UI, but still balancing the quantity of information in the available space. In 2017, the Facebook Design team justified the new rollout of the last big update for news feed with their motivation to “explore how we could make News Feed more readable, conversational, and easier to navigate”.

Yes, Marie Kondo would be proud of you Facebook. But you do have a lot of skeletons in your closet.

Sorry, we were about to digress. Back to the story.

Not surprisingly, our desi Raj doesn’t seem impressed. As he half heartedly took off his dope Janpath sunglasses, unable to view the laptop screen with them on, he said while revealing his unibrow:

By the way, you all know who Raj’s father in law is, and his favourite game on Facebook, right?

You see Raj cares. He cares about the design changes in the apps and products he uses so often (avg. 4 hrs a day as per an app or 1/6th of his life- but don’t worry its all in dark mode, so it’s all justified).

We thought most other people did as well, but as it turns out, out of the ~100 people who answered our Twitter poll, most don’t care if notifications are merged with friend requests…

But honestly, if you’re ahead of the curve - then does it matter if your users like it or not? Facebook’s answer is “somewhat yes, somewhat no” - probably McKinsey wrote their strategy, who knows (/who cares)?

And so, it very strategically takes the middle ground - you can choose to go back to the old design for about an year but after that the new design would apply.

Now, to be honest, I didn’t like the last time my news feed design changed either. But back then, I was a more frequent user of Facebook. We all sort of grew used to it. For a company, that has some of the best minds working for it - I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

To be fair, Facebook has always been at the top of its game. As this 2012 New York Times article will remind you, it was much ahead of its rivals, Twitter and Snapchat, in implementing a ‘mobile first’ approach even if it meant taking a hit on revenue (web ads used to pay more than mobile ads then - so when Facebook changed its tech stack for mobile first, it was betting on the future).

So, it’s safe to say that this big change in Facebook should have a bigger meaning for us to take note of rather than just our new friend request and notification buttons getting merged.

So, what are the key takeaways? Here’s what I think. JJ is likely to agree, if he hears it from someone more prominent.

  1. Browsers these days are becoming increasingly more powerful, which means more things can now be transferred to the client side on your product/app. Facebook says they changed their entire tech stack to move to a client-driven app with a competitively fast startup time. (Read this blog by their engineering team on how they changed their tech stack). This is already the trend, but will gain more prominence going forward. Engineering teams should take note of the stack change.

  2. Remember when you used to download an app, they would show you some tutorial on how to use the app. You don’t see much of that these days, do you? Because we’re sort of used to living in a world with apps - we know which buttons do what. As Facebook made its buttons bigger and more prominent, this is a direction all app/web design will slowly move in. Less text + more prominent buttons - which you SHOULD NOT have to explain to the user.

  3. Speed matters! We will soon live in a world of 5G. Can your product match up with the speeds that people will likely expect? We all should get ready for that big push - stop talking about 4G in India that Jio brought. Get ready for the next wave!

By the way if you missed it, Facebook announced its Q1 2020 numbers on April 29 - an 18% Y-o-Y increase in revenue - which is big considering its base.

It would be exciting to see what’s next for Facebook.

Meanwhile, if you enjoyed reading this piece and would like to get more such posts and the latest episodes of the Use Case podcast delivered to your email, consider subscribing to the Turnaround Newsletter.

Signing off,

Ravish with Mani, Raj and JJ

PS: If you’re interested in building social products, stay tuned for our upcoming episode on the Use Case podcast with Sairee Chahal, CEO of Sheroes, India’s largest social network for women and Board Member, Paytm Payments Bank.