The Facebook Controversy: A Lesson About Embraceable Change

Jared Spool

September 13th, 2006

This has got to be a designer’s worst nightmare: reading in the New York Times how hundreds of thousands of users are signing petitions for your new features to be removed. That’s exactly what happened to the designers at Facebook last week.

A ton has already been written about the privacy aspects of this, so I’m not going to touch on that in this post. If you somehow missed all this controversy, I suggest you read this excellent discussion of the privacy implications by Danah Boyd and MoBuzz’s 4 minute YouTube video. Then you’ll know all there is to know about the privacy perspective.

What I’m interested is, as designers, what we’re going to learn from all this, with regards to how we design for change.

From the Facebook Blog on September 5, the day the feature was added:

You’ve probably noticed that Facebook looks different today. We’ve added two cool features: News Feed, which appears on your homepage, and Mini-Feed, which appears in each person’s profile.

News Feed highlights what’s happening in your social circles on Facebook. It updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again. Now, whenever you log in, you’ll get the latest headlines generated by the activity of your friends and social groups.

Mini-Feed is a new part of the profile that shows all the latest stuff someone has added on Facebook. Mini-Feed is similar, except that it centers around one person. Each person’s Mini-Feed shows what has changed recently in their profile and what content (notes, photos, etc.) they’ve added.

and

These features are not only different from anything we’ve had on Facebook before, but they’re quite unlike anything you can find on the web. We hope these changes help you stay more up to date on your friends’ lives.

Users didn’t react as positively as they’d hoped. From the NY Times article:

But within hours of the new feature’s debut, thousands of Facebook members had organized behind a desperate, angry plea: Make it stop.

“You pretty much are being tracked with every movement you make on Facebook,” said Emily Bean, a pharmacy major and Facebook user at Ohio Northern University who signed an anti-Facebook petition on Tuesday, when the new feature made its debut. “It’s like someone peeking in on my conversations. People now know exactly when you became friends with somebody. When you hook up with somebody is now documented. Before it took some extra effort.”

Facebook added a new feature without doing any work to prepare their users for the change. One day, they logged in and the world was different. Not better, just different. It seems the Facebook design team felt it was much improved, but that feels like it was the result of groupthink, not an actual assessment of the people who mattered: the users.

The lack of preparation for change is not a new problem. I talked about it 18 months ago when I wrote the article Designing Embraceable Change. We knew back then you don’t just have to design the change, you have to design the process of introducing the change and ensuring it’s embraced by the users.

While the Facebook controversy isn’t signalling a new type of problem, it is telling us the ramifications of when we get it wrong. Design changes are like organ implants — the host can reject the new organ and bad things happen. Facebook found itself in damage-control mode : “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.” (from the blog entry by the CEO).

I think this is going to happen more and more. Whereas, in the olden days, the user had control when an upgrade happened, that’s gone away. My Tivo now upgrades itself while I sleep. Windows XP has updates it’s constantly trying to get me to install:

Microsoft Automatic Updates Dialog

This morning, my version of AOL’s AIM instantly was sorely out of date:

AOL AIM's Update Dialog

And apparently I needed a new version of iTunes today:

iTunes Update Dialog

Not to mention whatever changes I might run into over at Amazon, Yahoo, or any of the other dozen sites and services I use on a daily basis.

None of these do anything to help the user adapt to the new interface. The iTunes installation has all sorts of new features, but they don’t tell you how to use them (or that all your settings will go back to factory defaults). The Microsoft updates often introduce new behaviors in applications you weren’t previously aware were changed. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it scenario, with no real thought given to how users will react.

Which is why it’s not surprising that the Facebook users had such a strong negative reaction. (Interestingly, it was the news feed feature that propagated the news about the petitions against said feature.)

I’m a big proponent of making frequent changes quickly. However, as Uncle Ben reminds us, “with great power there comes great responsibility.” We have the power to introduce changes, we need to take on the responsibility of designing the process of change.

I wonder how many times we have to see the Facebook controversy play itself out before people start to take this seriously.

7 Responses to “The Facebook Controversy: A Lesson About Embraceable Change”

  1. UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » Social Networking Sites Renew Interest in User Research Says:

    [...] One of the outcomes of the rediculously-fast rise of social networking web sites is that it’s got us asking a lot of questions. Not a day goes by here at UIE where we aren’t discussing MySpace, Facebook, or Xanga with each other or with clients. These sites are truly mysterious, in part because they’re not really made for our demographic but also because we’re not sure why people actually use them in the myriad of ways they do. As a result, we’re learning a tremendous amount of new things about social web design. [...]

  2. Facebook for the masses? Hmmm… « ToughSledding Says:

    [...] But when you think about it, Facebook’s redesign made sense. As a social network, the old Facebook didn’t function well. To get the scoop on folks in your network, you had to visit their pages individually. In contrast, the new design instantly brings news from those folks right to your page. But it remains a PR nightmare that even now the software designers understand. [...]

  3. Facebook for the masses? Hmmm… « ToughSledding Says:

    [...] But when you think about it, Facebook’s redesign made sense. As a social network, the old Facebook didn’t function well. To get the scoop on folks in your network, you had to visit their pages individually. In contrast, the new design instantly brings news from those folks right to your page. But it remains a PR nightmare that even now the software designers understand. [...]

  4. UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » SpoolCast #2.1: Facebook Becomes Anti-Social (Part 1) Says:

    [...] What can we learn from the recent Facebook controversy? [...]

  5. UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » Birth of a New Specialty: Social Networking Design Says:

    [...] I agree. It’s not going away soon. And more importantly, there will be increasing demand for designers who have experience with this. The recent Facebook controversy shows us what happens when we design social networking functionality poorly. And how we design, introduce, and maintain social network systems is unlike any of the other design problems we currently regularly face. [...]

  6. Lucas Says:

    Very nice article. I’ve found another one about facebook controversy.. If You re interesed pls read: http://www.e-controversy.com/Facebook_Privacy_1a.html

  7. Darren Says:

    I found that it all happens to me, and it annoys me that everytime i log in it asks to update, i have the second last update (the update before the newer one) and i dont want to waste my downloads keeping up to date. i shouldn’t have to pay for something so minor

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