Facebook Preps Radically Visual Redesign Of The Mobile News Feed

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Today, Facebook’s mobile apps look like its website shrunk down. Soon, that could change. I’ve seen first-hand the employee-only iOS app build of an evolved form of Facebook’s mobile news feed, which ditches the empty blue and white chrome for full-screen photo tiles and overlaid text. Reminiscent of Flipboard, Google+ for iPad, and Microsoft Metro, the fresh design could make Facebook’s feed exciting again.

I have no information on when this could be released. It could be announced at Facebook’s big launch event tomorrow, take a few more months, or get scrapped altogether. I don’t know if it could come as a standalone app, an option in the main apps, or be mandatory. But it exists, and I’ve seen it, though I wasn’t authorized to.

Regardless of the exact release date, it’s about time for an aesthetic shake-up of Facebook’s main mobile apps. Facebook for iOS and Android moved from a grid of icons for navigation to the slide-out menu we use today in October 2011. Much of the rest of the app, and the news feed in particular, has looked almost exactly the same for three-and-a-half years.

Facebook Old News FeedIn that time, the mobile space has gotten a lot more visual. Smartphone cameras and connections have improved. Visual-focused apps like Instagram that minimize chrome in exchange for showing content as big as possible have grown popular. There’s also been an increased interest in design after Path 2.0 set a new standard for beauty in social networking.

Facebook’s attention has been elsewhere. After an admitted misstep with poor-performance HTML5, Facebook concentrated its resources in 2011 to speeding up its iOS and Android apps. It also released several standalone apps including Camera and Poke. Meanwhile, the look of Facebook’s flagship app has languished.

But behind closed doors and on the phones of employees, Facebook has been thinking outside the list-style vertical feed.

This is not a rumor or a “sources say” situation. I’ve seen this app on a phone with my own two eyes. That’s not to say this is going to launch tomorrow (though it could), but Facebook has gone as far as to build a functioning app with this re-imagined design. Things could certainly change before it does launch in some form, but this will give you an idea of how Facebook is experimenting with a design language that’s much different than what it has used to date.

The news feed of the evolved Facebook app I’ve seen creates separate feeds for a few different content types including news and photos. Users navigate between them by swiping sideways on a photo that serves as a header tile filling the top quarter or so of a portrait layout iPhone screen. Below the header is a larger body tile that takes up most of the rest of the screen. From what I saw, it shows one story at a time, with text and who posted it laid on top of a full-screen image.

For example, instead of the screenshot above where most of the screen is taken up with white, blue, and gray chrome and empty space, the app looks like the mock-up below. I’m sorry to the app’s expert designers out there, but I’m no artist. This mockup is just my approximation from memory of the Facebook app I saw (and the icon up top is a mockup of what’s been on Facebook employee homescreens). The real app is much more polished. Still, notice the full-width image instead of a small thumbnail, with the text laid over the image.

Next Facebook News Feed

The sliding tiles remind me of Microsoft Metro (Windows 8), the focus on imagery evokes the Google+ iPad app, and the over style is similar to Flipboard. Print magazine covers could be an inspiration, where the text and images merge rather than being formally separated. After years of daily news feed reading, some power users may have started to consider it a chore to wade through their streams. The more visual interface could make Facebook feel much more dynamic from day to day.

The existence of the new app, or at least a redesign of the mobile feed, backs up some chatter we’ve heard. When I spoke to Josh Williams, former CEO of Gowalla whose company was acquihired and now heads the Facebook Nearby product, he said there was a lot that Facebook could do in separate feeds for different content types. The app I saw at least has separate feeds for news and photos, and more for videos, music, etc. could be in there, too. A former Facebook employee today said the company will make big changes to the mobile experience and the news feed in 2013. This redesign would certainly constitute big changes.

How Facebook would roll out its starkest change to its mobile interface yet is an important question. People tend to freak out when their ingrained Facebook browsing behavior patterns are changed, and some people have been set in their ways for several years now. Facebook might cause too much drama and risk losing users if people woke up one day to find this visual interface had replaced the classic feed.

Instead, the redesign could be rolled out as an optional news feed interface selectable from the main Facebook app’s navigation menu. Alternatively, Facebook may use its standalone-app-as-guinea-pig strategy. In that case it would release this as a standalone “Feeds” app, and if it proved popular, it might then add it as an optional or mandatory new interface for its main app.

Either way, Facebook is almost nine years old now, and it’s got too much public-market scrutiny to risk another “Students Against Facebook News Feed” protest by forcing such a radical change on everyone at once. In some form or another, though, there’s a new Facebook on the horizon.

TechCrunch will be reporting live from Facebook’s big launch event. Check back tomorrow (Tuesday 1/15) at 10 a.m. PST for our coverage and analysis.