At least Facebook didn’t break anything, but the extra feeds and search box it recently launched have yet to drastically improve my experience. The homepage redesign is pretty, but I keep forgetting the Photos and Music feeds exist since they’re buried in the sidebar. And Graph Search is great when I need it, but I rarely do. With some design tweaks, though, Facebook could unleash the potential of its hard work.
When you’re talking about a service where one-seventh of the world’s population has developed deeply ingrained behaviors, not screwing up is kind of an accomplishment. There are a dozen ways Facebook could have made its new features overbearing or interruptive. They’re not, or at least don’t seem like it to me. Both are rolled out to just a tiny percentage of all users, though, so if there’s panic and outrage to be had, it’s still on the horizon. Here’s what the homepage looks like if you have both of the new features. Note that even among the few people with the rollouts, there are many different design variants in testing.
The feed redesign and Graph Search aren’t steroids for your social network, all juiced up and braggadocious. They’re more like a nice pair of running shoes. They’ll improve your performance, but they need breaking in and they’ll only help if you remember to wear them.
But that means their true value will be overlooked by most, like a pair of sneakers left in the closet. Just some quick-fading feel-good novelty. That’s a shame for two products Facebook spent a helluva lot of time and money developing and that could make the service much better. With any luck, Mark Zuckerberg and company will be able to strike a design balance that serves their purpose without making them imposing.
Graph Search already got a subtle but significant tweak last week. Rather than search prompt text floating in the blue sea of Facebook’s top navigation bar, some Graph Search users now see an anchored navy box. It’s a bit more obvious that it’s something you should actually, you know, click.
Still, Graph Search’s greatest barrier to usage is unfamiliarity with pecking in semantic queries like “Cafes in San Francisco visited by friends of friends.” Facebook has tried to school us with blog posts of suggested searches and automatically opening a random results page when you click the Browse bookmark in the sidebar.
To make people really grasp the potential of Graph Search and purposefully contribute, it may need to be a bit more forceful. One way would be to pre-populate the search box with a great sample query rather than the generic “Search for people, places, and things.” A single click would show off the unique strength of its Unicorn search engine, and the prompt’s presence could spark our imaginations.
Another way would be creating a graphical user interface for Graph Search — a series of check boxes you could toggle to formulate a query. It could be like Facebook’s old Advanced Search page. Select ‘Places’ then ‘Cafes’, ‘visited’ rather than ‘liked’, ‘friends of friends’, and ‘San Francisco’ rather than other popular cities or places you’ve lived. Voilà, the GUI query builder constructs “Cafes in San Francisco visited by friends of friends.” That could be much easier for some people while simultaneously teaching them how to search semantically. It could all be stowed within a Graph Search drop-down.
So what about the feeds? When I talked to one of Facebook’s lead designers at a party at Facebook’s Austin office, he said the biggest question is how to remind people these powerful new content-specific feeds exist without cluttering the homepage or making everyone feel overwhelmed.
On mobile that won’t be as much of a problem, as Facebook confirmed to me the feed selector will sit right at the top of the news feed / homepage. But right now on the web, the folded-up feed selector slapped in the sidebar is far too easy to ignore. At first it only shows one additional feed to choose until you click to slide it open. Start scrolling down the homepage and the selector minimizes to just the currently viewed feed.
Despite my voracious Facebook usage and hyper-awareness of the new feeds (I know – I just won’t shut up about this social network), I’ve only opened them a handful of times. They’re not annoying me, so uh, kudos, but with the current design they might not give Facebook’s time-on-site and engagement much of a boost. I’m not going to make you cringe with my crummy mockups, but I bet Facebook could dream up an interface that gets me exploring these new content streams more often.
Extra feeds could make Facebook even more informative, and Graph Search could squeeze fresh utility from its vast data set. Their back-ends are built. Now Facebook just has to fiddle with their designs until they’re firmly cemented in our cerebral cortexes. Most of us could Like a status or scroll through photos in our sleep. Let’s see if these new features can become a reflex, too.
[Image Credit: The Health Journal]