Facebook's ambitious plans to redesign its news feed in the vision of a personalized newspaper have been scaled back dramatically. The company backtracked on most of the major changes it announced nearly a year ago, instead settling on minor tweaks that won't rock the boat of engagement.
Facebook is now characterizing its previous plans for a complete redesign as an "experiment," adding some perspective to why so much of that effort ended up on the cutting-room floor.
"Our goal was to retain the parts that users really liked about the redesign such as the modernized look and feel and consistency with mobile stories, and remove the parts that people found disruptive, such as changing the navigation," a Facebook spokesperson told CIO.com.
The Facebook That Might Have Been
In the complete overhaul, the left-hand column was organized in a dark gray background that displayed the different features available on Facebook, including games, events, groups and and so on.
The column to the right side of the news feed included a new drop-down menu that gave users the capability to filter through different feeds based on the content source or type. Chris Cox, vice president of product at Facebook, described the new design at the time as an attempt to get "Facebook out of the way as much as possible."
Most users will never see those changes. The reversal indicates that most activity in the news feed, the primary venue of engagement on the site, is driven by the cluttered all-encompassing approach it was trying to move away from. That vision laid out by leading designers and engineers at the company was mostly scrubbed in favor of the status quo.
"We ran multiple tests to understand which parts of the current feed and the redesign people liked and did not like and created a best of version that we're rolling out to everyone," the spokesperson adds.
And You Get ... Bigger Photos
The new design being rolled out to users over the coming weeks keeps the layout and navigation untouched. At most, you will now see bigger photos appearing in your news feed.
You may not recognize or even care about the new font, but you might appreciate Facebook's decision to at least tighten up the layout in the main column and change the white space in the background and side columns to a light gray. Photos claim up to 30 percent of an average user's news feed, so Facebook still wants to put those photos front and center.
As the default homepage for every user, the news feed has been the ultimate sandbox for developing and introducing changes to Facebook. The company has plenty of ideas for how to make the news feed better, but it appears this latest years-long effort was too much and too soon. There is a gap between what users expect of the news feed and what Facebook wants it to be -- a conflict that understandably swung in favor of the company's 1.2 billion users.
Even the new look Facebook introduced last March was a far cry from what many inside the company had envisioned, according to various reports. Still, that redesign which eventually made its way to a single-digit percentage of users appears to have run into engagement problems rather quickly. The company set itself up for big expectations at its unveiling last year, so this major stumble could hang like a dark cloud over its future plans for years to come.
Compartmentalizing users' news feeds was a vision CEO Mark Zuckerberg described last year as "a foundation for the best personalized newspaper." The goal, simply put, was to make it easier for people to find the content they want quickly without necessarily pushing more into the home page.
Personal Newspaper Not Yet in Circulation
"Our goal is still to show you the best personalized newspaper. Overall, we want to connect people with the content that's most interesting to them," says Facebook's spokesperson. "We're getting better at showing people the stuff they want to see -- if you're a gamer, you see more games stories, if you consume a lot of news, you'll see news more prominently. The changes announced today are visual updates and do not affect how we surface content to people, nor do they change how stories are ranked in the news feed."
While the end result of Facebook's news feed redesign indulges the lowest common denominator, other complementary projects within the company like its recently launched Paper app could become the vehicle for larger leaps in design and experimentation.