Today, Facebook announced a redesigned News Feed—a radical makeover of their core product at the heart of their homepage. The big changes are easy to spot. The feed is now a unified design between desktops and mobiles, its images are bigger, and every bit of information is more personalized at the user’s end. But what you might not notice is that the stakes of the redesign are quite high.
This makeover is crucial for Facebook. While no one can deny the platform’s ubiquity, the company needs to formulate a secret sauce to balance monetization and engagement. (They need to make money without boring us too much in the process.) Because despite user accounts continuing to grow, engagement is down. No doubt, that may be related to the News Feed’s new sharing algorithms, which have come under scrutiny for allegedly putting your posts in front of fewer eyes…unless you pay to promote them. Facebook denies they’re hiding posts from anyone, but either way, whatever Facebook has done to date hasn’t worked.
From their latest update, it seems like Facebook has a tacit thesis: Fixing the engagement problem will fix the monetization problem, so let’s just make all content more engaging. Here’s how they’re doing it:
The biggest update you’ll notice are the bigger images. As Facebook joked on stage, "They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and today’s feed is more like 500." Thanks to liberal text overlays, the photos have been enlarged, filling wasted nooks and crannies in the UI. But all of the smaller images are bigger, too. When you like a person or business, your friends will see a preview of that person or business’s timeline. When you share a story, that shared story now features a larger thumbnail than your avatar. And these changes makes sense. Your friends already know who you are—that’s not the engaging part. The engaging part is what you’re doing, saying, and sharing. So Facebook doubled down on all those elements with pretty pictures.
But alongside these larger images, Facebook found a few ways to actually squeeze in more data. The best example of this new phenomenon might be what happens when many of your friends independently share the same story. Now that piece of news shows up in your feed, and just to the left, all of your friends’ thumbnails are there, too. By highlighting each friend, you can see the conversation that’s taken place within their feed. So rather than keep up with a single thread on a single story, users can view conversations occurring through all of their social circles.
Similarly, check-ins used to be signified with text and a boring link. Now, check-ins will add a map to your post, along with thumbnail of wherever you’re visiting. This extra data is exactly the kind of attractive information that might lure a user in to learn more about a restaurant or music venue.
Of course, none of this would matter much if Facebook didn’t quell an increasingly valid argument of its users—that because of algorithmic curation, they didn’t have the ability to explore what they wanted to explore (you know, like their own friends and family). So Facebook added extremely specific feeds that operate somewhat like sections of a newspaper (their metaphor). One feed shows all of your friend’s posts in chronological order (just like Facebook used to). Another feed shows you just the images. Another shows just the music. Another shows the businesses and movie stars you follow. Through this redesign, Facebook let up on the reins a bit, giving human interest the chance to dig through content in a flexible way.
The only problem with these feeds becomes, how does Facebook leverage its big data to entice us to engage with the things we didn’t necessarily know we wanted to engage with? That’s an issue Facebook deals with, in part, through the data richness of multiple sources, mentioned above. Another tactic is sheer curation of news. Now, if you’re a fan of NPR, you won’t just see a single story in a feed that’s popular. You might see a collection of stories you’d be interested in reading, based upon the data Facebook’s collected on you and people like you. And this same curated presentation is also used in events that are coming up. (Of course, in sharing three stories at a time instead of just one, Facebook also increases their odds that they’ve spotted a story that’s right for you.)
From a pure design standpoint, there’s a lot to like in Facebook’s updates. You’ll notice less clutter, prettier pictures, and the option to home in on just the things you care about at any given moment. Plus, this facelift unifies the interface between desktop and mobile devices. But for a company like Facebook, a design makeover is particularly salient. They’re not just a data company; they’re a data curation company. All of the information in the world means nothing if users don’t want to interact with it. And it seems that Facebook is very much acknowledging that fact.