I fully understand that Facebook must be an extremely hard site to design. I mean, it has 400 million users, many of whom use it several times a day. If you make on little change, millions of people are going to freak out, and get confused. For an example of this, see any time Facebook tweaks anything on its site. But saying that a lot of Facebook is a cluttered, complicated mess is an understatement, in my opinion. And that’s why the news today that Facebook has killed off the lite version of its site is disappointing — not because it was great, but because it was better.
When Facebook Lite first debuted back in September (after an accidental preview in the U.S. in August), we hailed it as a return to the simpler roots of Facebook. Gone were the mess of settings, bottom menu bars, and crap applications — the emphasis was almost entirely on the stream, profiles, and events. Since then, Facebook has tweaked its full version to be more Lite-like, including the removal of the ridiculous bottom toolbar, the addition of icon indicators along the top toolbar, and a clearer emphasis on events. To be clear, Facebook proper today looks much, much better than it did a year ago. But some elements are still a mess, such as the ugly comments under feed items. And some continue to get worse, like the headache-inducing privacy settings.
Facebook Lite was not perfect, but I suspect that the main problem with the site was that Facebook made it hard to find. Unless you enabled a toolbar (yes, another damn toolbar) along the top of the site to easily switch back and forth, it was nearly impossible to figure out how to do so. As such, I doubt many people used the version. And because it lacked some features of the main site, you were often required to switch back even if you were using Lite by default (the main reason I didn’t use it all the time).
And the truth is that Facebook Lite was always just a test. It was originally designed, much like Facebook Zero, to be used in places around the world that only had slow Internet connections. The test in the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world seemed to be an experiment to see how people would react to a slimmed down site with less feature clutter (which is exactly why it was never a so-called “Twitter Killer” despite many labeling it as such). As stated, the service used some of Lite to improve the regular version, but Facebook proper is now still much more like Facebook Bloated rather than Facebook Lite.
Thinking back a few years ago when I started using Facebook over MySpace, it had nothing to do with the social graph (MySpace was much larger at the time), but rather because Facebook looked so much nicer and was simpler to use. Despite MySpace’s attempts to improve over the past few years, Facebook still does look much nicer, but I’m not sure who has the edge in simplicity anymore. It’s a problem all sites face as they continue to grow — yes, even Twitter — how do you keep things simple while adding new features to keep your users engaged?
And again, that’s why the killing of Lite is disappointing. It seemed to suggest that huge sites were at least thinking about a move back towards simplicity. Now, once again, it’s complicated.