Facebook needs a Facelift

Nov 15, 2010

The basic Facebook page is probably the most looked-at image in history, chalking up something like 10 billion eyeball-hours of attention a month. Blake Gopnik, the Post's chief art critic, insists that it's also one of the ugliest images around. He thinks Facebook owes its 500 million users a much more rewarding eyeful.

Do you agree? Or do you feel that Facebook can afford to ignore aesthetics, as it gets on with the job of connecting you with your friends?

Gopnik will be online Monday, Nov. 15, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss Facebook and how it's in need of a facelift. Joining him will be Facebook-hater Paddy Harrington, design director of Bruce Mau Design, whose culture-savvy clients have included New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Disney concert hall in Los Angeles.

Hi, Paddy here.

Thanks for joining. We're here to talk about the merits of a facebook upgrade: An improvement of the visual dimension of the site. We all know that it's highly functional, but why not consider aesthetics if for no other reason than because you can.

And Blake here, too.

Welcome to our chat, and thanks for reading the article.

I guess the central issue is, do things we look at often need to be as aesthetically compelling as possible?

And: Is there a necessary tradeoff between "function" and "beauty," or is this a false choice advanced by designers who refuse to get both right?

Look forward to talking all this through!

It's simple and that's why it works. Why does everything have to be shiny with bells and whistles? (if you want bells an whistles- go to myspace- is that place still around?)

No one -- least of all fine designers like Paddy Harrington, or art critics like me -- want bells and whistles. As designer Stephen Doyle said in the article, Facebook has too much visual clutter already. A more pared-down design would probably be the direction we'd move Facebook in -- but pared-down does not by any means mean bland.

I agree with Blake. There's this idea that design is about a superficial addition of flourishes of something. That's an old idea. Good design is about optimization and purpose. Why are we doing what we're doing? What's the end goal? Right now I think that facebook is ultra efficient, but to what end? And, in terms of the visuals, why not consider making it cleaner, more beautiful?

Shouldn't this be an obvious answer? You have 500 milliion people on the website, so, why not spruce up the website? Other than tradition, who is out there stating the design should not be changed?

I guess I'm arguing for more than a "spruce up." And many people who've commented on the article seem to think that the design is simply irrelevant, since ALL that matters is the functionality.

I can't buy that -- but hey, I'm an art critic, so what things look like matters to me. And I think 500 million people are being short-changed, by not being given something worth looking at.

Facebook's popularity doesn't seem to mesh with its bland design

I did not like your suggested focus on the photos. For the most part, I don't want to see my friends' pictures and I like the emphasis on words and reading what friends are doing. I would not be happy with having to click more to see what friends are up to--I'm quite good at just scanning the feed, thanks. I actually don't see a problem with the layout of Facebook at all (though, really, just get rid of the "highlights" feed).

I don't know that there's a "problem" with how the layout of Facebook works.  (Although I think Paddy's right in thinking there are social and cultural dangers hiding in there.) The question is, do we have to settle for something so visually unsatisfactory. As a society, we care enough about the "visual" to fund art museums. DOesn't that mean we should care enough to ask Facaebook to look better?

The reality is that the site is likley the most efficient website on the planet, in terms of usability. Our redesign was purposely intended to work against that efficiency. The reality is, if we were to work with facebook on this, we'd maintain all that efficiency. It'd be crazy not too. But we'd also try to figure out ways to make the connections between friends richer.

The recent commentary about this topic in the Sunday print edition (11/14/2010) is interesting but omits discussion of an important aspect of the matter: designing for compatibility with different browsers. There are a bunch of major browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari) and many minor ones as well, mutliplied by their different versions (many of which are in widespread use despite being older), compounded by different Doctype specifications (instructions to the browser regarding how to render a page), and finally impacted by the "culture" settings in the browser ( English reads left-to-right, Arabic, right-to-left). All these permutations make it very challenging to design web pages that will look and behave in exactly the same way for everyone. I have always assumed that the spare design of sites such as Facebook, Google, and Craigslist were in part an attempt to simplify the page so that it would be usable by as wide an audience, using whatever browser, as possible. Fancy design may be wonderful, but it looks lousy, for example, when the browser unilaterally decides to right justify everything.

This was never intended to address functionality. That's a different kettle of fish. That's the nuts and bolts. The piece, in my view is meant to answer the question... to what end?  Facebook is ultra efficient, but what effect does that have? There's a great article on slate called 'seeking' that people should look at if they believe that there's no negative effect of the online world.

So can we take it that you think a redesigned page will increase Facebook's total value to $100 Billion?

Hmmm. Interesting. So do I want Facebook to have even MORE power and authority, by looking better?

I guess I'm willing to risk that, for the sake of beauty!

Facebook articles generate more clickthroughs, so the Post is making up things to complain about. This is ridiculous. Facebook is clean and usable even by grandma. I'd think more sites would be copying them. Let's pointlessly discuss breaking something that works really well some more!

Sorry, as I said in my article, I believe that looking good is a crucial function of any object in the world -- no object can claim optimal functionality if it looks bad. Facebook only "works" half as well as it might, just by virtue of looking so bad.

It's a false choice to imagine that we have to choose. Apple products work just fine -- AND they care about how they look.

Do you think that Facebook should redesign their homepage to be more minimal and in-the-background, placing more import on the proto-relational aspects of "friendship" and information that has come to define their "network"? Should it more resemble a sketched "family-tree" of a network, being purely visual to reflect the false sense of security it gives?

When you actually really examine what facebook has done on their page there is a lot of redundant and superflous functionality. One thing we did was to eliminate some of that redundancy and distill functionality into graphic buttons on the top of the page. Why the two toned blue? Useless. If we're truly committed to functionality then we should look at all aspects of the design, including the visual. To your point, I do think that the time is coming where we need some sort of hierarchy to organize the friends. Everyone can acknowledge that facebook is evolving from a focus on actual friends to more of a networking tool. To me, that means it has lost some of its charm.

They changed the groups so now you can't tell if a new post has been added. Now you have to go into each one to check. I stopped checking. Dumb.

The amazing thing about facebook is that it's an active prototype. Constantly evolving. Imaging Coca-Cola, ten years ago, playing with their recipe in the public eye constantly. It'd never happen. Facebook is super interesting because it makes decisions with the community. And it's not easy. Every change they make is going to alienate somebody. It's the beauty and curse. Beautiful because it's democratic. Scary because it's about finding the average... some might say mediocrity.

The beauty of facebook is that it's a prototype. Constantly being tested and improved. Facebook is actually quite redundant and not useable in many ways, if you carefully analyse. But it's also very personal. People feel ownership and so resist anybody messing with it. There is documented science that states that the behaviour it encourages is detrimental, and so the question is.. how do you improve the quality of the experience? The reality is, the site WILL change over time as technology changes. So how do you improve it? All things can be improved.

Hypothetically speaking, I'd love to get the communities perspective on the following...

Suppose, for a moment, that there's something you could do to IMPROVE the current facebook experience. What would it be?

I think another redesign, especially one that doesn't focus on functionality, would only alienate users. Constant evolution means a lack of stability, just as you get used to one design a new one emerges and everything changes. Even something as small as reducing the font size on the News Feed has resulted in many older people whose eyes aren't as fresh as the younger crowd on Facebook using the site less.

You may be right, but I'd argue that a really WONDERFUL redesign might attract as many users as it would alienate. After all, Apple electronics  (to cite them again) clearly get a good part of their appeal from their look. And I feel that a redesign is almost a moral duty, for any company that has so many our eyes on its product so often.

Everytime Facebook does do a redesign users come out en masse to complain about it. Why are people so passionate about something they have little control over? You would think that users might embrace the opportunity to be a little creative and have a say of what is on their page.

It's an amazing phenomenon. And what's also amazing is the level of passion people feel for the protection of something that's in a constant state of flux as though it is something that has been around for decades and must be protected. The site is, what, 6 years old? I LOVE facebook, and certainly wouldn't change it in the way that we proposed. But I also think that facebook has a major opportunity to do even more to bring people together in meaningful ways.

Sites like Facebook and Linkedin are just a fad. They can keep changing their layouts, but they don't offer anything substansive and will die out soon. Just ask the people at Yahoo.

You could very well be right. And it obviously can't keep growing forever -- last I checked, it only has another 5.5 billion people to draw on.

I do wonder if there won't be a moment when Facebook users start leaving in dramatic numbers...

Abetter way to customize what you see. I agree with an earlier poster that the Top News feed is a waste and it annoys me that it's the default. I'd like to pick which features I see on my front page instead of having it tell me how it ought to be.

If you look at the (short) history of facebook. It started that your home page was your profile page. They quickly realized that the way to get people coming back more and more was to get them what they want: more updates from their friends. So things evolved, and continue to evolve. It will absolutely continue to evolve. My concern (though it makes me sounds like a crotchety old man) is that the site promotes addictive behaviour. I think that that's bad. I'd love to see facebook find purpose in the same way that google does (more or less).. Focus on actually bringing me closer to my friends and family rather than spitting a continual (and HIGHLY efficient) stream of updates from a growing group of friends, acquaintances, and others.

I guess I'd like to ask a simple question: How many of you out there can say they get any visual pleasure out of LOOKING AT the Facebook page?

And another: How many of you have ever before thought about whether you get such pleasure from it?

I'd make it allow users to display which items/friends they want to display in the most prominent area, i.e., assign priorities. This is as much a user experience/information architecture discussion as a design exploration. Do either of you have UX background? Or are you only looking at pure visual aethetics?

We definitely work through UX as a part of our work. That, to me, is a given. It's the basic mechanics of the problem. Far more important is to answer the question: what's our purpose? Right now, I think that facebook's purpose is to get people on the site as much and as often as possible. Fine. But why not give us more? I think aesthetics are one part of that, and that new and innovative ways to encourage real world connections is another.

Facebook announcing e-mail service right now. What might it look like? What does this mean in terms of how we connect?

For me that's a lost battle. At least for my generation. I've got my email, and I'll keep it. One thing I feel we must all be wary of is the population of the entire web by facebook. When my kids get to the age where they're online, I'm sure facebook email will likely be the best option, but my concern is that they become this all encompassing mega enterprise that filters everything I do. AND, I'D BE OK WITH THAT if I saw that they were adding true value to my life. I'm not quite convinced that that's the case yet.

It will be interesting to see how profoundly linked Facebook email will be to Facebook itself. Will it simply be a competitor for Hotmail and Gmail, or a more profoundly "connected" email service.

I guess we'll know by tomorrow or so.

To return to the fundamental premise, for me, the argument that Blake makes is clear and undeniable. Facebook has room to improve their aesthetic. There's simply no question about that. But we should confuse design with purely visual and with added noise. Good design is about improving the user experience, not adding noise. And even changing the way it looks can have a profound effect on the quality of the experience.

Don't waste money on a new design until you do more to get the hackers and scammers out of facebook. I don't do any of the facebook applications because I got tired of intercepting facebook viruses.

I agree. For me, there's a strange connection between google and facebook. Where I feel that google innovates for the sake of improving our lives in some way, it feels like facebook does it to make money. That's a radical generalization, but I feel like it's a HUGE opportunity for facebook. If they can demonstrate a desire to enrich my life somehow, then I'd be a permanent disciple. Right now they're more of a passive filter than an active participant in my world.

The reality is, if we truly didn't care about the visual design, the site would look much more like Craig's list. Now, I know that some would say that that'd be even better, but it's also be a position that would not be inclusive. Some people love beautiful things, and that's ok. Beauty, in nature, is often an expression of inner health. So if facebook is healthy functionally, why not match that with an external expression of health?

Now that you mention it, no, I've never had any pleasure looking at the Facebook web page, probably because it's basically a list of links. Most web pages are the same; the one exception for me is the Bing website with the constantly changing pictures.

Yes, Bing came up in interviewing for my story. It does look as though someone at Bing was thinking long and hard about visual issues. (Which is amazing, because Bing is a Microsoft product, no? And those aren't exactly known for their beauty.)

Another locus of "beauty" on the Web is Tumblr -- depending, of course, on whose Tumblr site you go to. (Disclosure: My own Web page is on Tumblr... and I chose its spare design from a number that Tumblr made available to me, for free.)

Tesla is an excellent example, that Bruce Mau often cites, of something smart that's also beautiful. The car's performance is exceptional, and the physical beauty of the thing is a big part of why people want it. If we could make things as beautiful in form as they are in function, then we'd likely be heading towards a better place.

Gotta go and trash some unsuspecting artist. (Just joking.)

Thanks everyone for joining us! A very interesting conversation....

Thank you Blake for including me in this conversation. It's fun to be a part of something that stirs so much passion.

In This Chat
Blake Gopnik
Blake Gopnik is the chief arts critic for The Washington Post.
Paddy Harrington
Paddy Harrington is design director of Bruce Mau Design, whose culture-savvy clients have included New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Disney concert hall in Los Angeles.
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