by Matt Kapko

Is Facebook still an innovative company?

May 13, 20154 mins
FacebookInnovationMobile Apps

It may not always seem like it, but the pace of innovation at Facebook is as swift as ever. Today the majority of the company's most significant improvements relate to its 'family of apps.'

Facebook has been somewhat quiet in recent days, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t innovating. 

It’s been a year since the company last stirred up controversy when it turned off the messaging functionality in its mobile app and forced users to download a separate Messenger app. The related backlash simmered down dramatically during the past year, and the cadence of change remains relatively static. Facebook is still innovating at its Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters at a rapid pace, but the company is now more methodical about how it introduces changes to the 1.44 billion people who use the service each month.

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“Users don’t always know what they want,” says Nate Elliott, vice president and principal analyst, Forrester. “In the great tradition of Apple deciding for itself what people want to buy and what they’ll appreciate, I think Facebook’s always taken its own approach to deciding what’s going to be best for users.”

Elliott says it’s impossible to discuss user reaction to Facebook’s innovation without recalling the community-wide protests of the News Feed feature during the fall of 2006. Today, there is the occasional debate about how and why Facebook continues to tweak the algorithm that dictates what shows up in users News Feeds, but the feature is now core to the Facebook experience.

Constant — but quiet — change at Facebook 

Facebook constantly changes its platform, and if the tweaks go unnoticed by users, it’s because the company introduces them in a different way, according to Brian Blau, research director, Gartner. In fact, Blau says Facebook told him that it strives to update the main site twice every day. And as is the case with most social networks, many of the most significant changes are related to mobile. “The [mobile] changes are harder to notice … because there’s less screen space,” Blau says.

Facebook told Blau in 2013 that it conducted as many as 4,000 surveys a day, and the company uses A/B testing to evaluate new features, Blau says. Many users may have noticed slight changes one day that were gone the next, because Facebook is constantly updating and modifying its service.

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It’s easy to understand why Facebook doesn’t want to rock the boat as much as it did, or had to, in the past. At the end of its most recently closed quarter, Facebook had 936 million daily active users (798 million on mobile) and 1.44 billion monthly active users (1.25 billion on mobile). The majority of those users are satisfied and accustomed to using the platform regularly. So if it isn’t broken, why fix it?

“That’s part of the maturation of the business,” says Blau. “You’re going to see [Facebook] expand horizontally.” 

Innovation focus is on Facebook’s ‘family of apps’ 

After more than a decade of existence, the core Facebook platform is mature, and much of the company’s innovation has shifted to what CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg calls its “family of apps.” As such, many recent improvements focus on smaller parts of the user experience and aren’t new features or functionality for the big blue app, according to Forrester’s Elliott. 

“I don’t think you’re going to see any kind of massive new features introduced within the legacy Facebook app at this point,” Elliott says. “They’re at a point where if they choose to introduce a major new piece of functionality, they’re much more likely to do it in a separate app than they are to do it within Facebook.”

Although less noticeable, these small improvements — tweaking the chat feature and notification functionality on the desktop version, for example — are still very important because they ensure the site is usable, functional and enjoyable, according to Elliott.

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Blau thinks Facebook is effectively diversifying its business with the burgeoning family of apps, as well as many other projects that are in the works, including, Oculus and Facebook at Work. “By this time next year, it’s really going to look like a bit of a different company, not just the social networking piece.”

Facebook caused its fair share of controversy during the past decade, and again, it hasn’t been that long since the company faced its last backlash. The time that has passed since the brouhaha over Messenger is about right in the context of the company’s history, and it won’t likely be the last such incident, Elliott says. “Have no fear, the great tradition of Facebook constantly introducing new features and functionality and people constantly complaining about them lives on.”