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Facebook Home Breaks The Fourth Wall Of Mobile Design

Facebook Home sets itself apart from Android and Apple by taking full advantage of a layered UI. It’s about time.

Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design (illustration)

Inside Apple, Jony Ive is pushing designers to rethink iOS, the software that runs on the iPhone and iPad. Apple’s new direction? Like Microsoft, which has distanced itself from skeuomorphic design, Ive has been pushing "flat design" in Apple’s mobile products. But just because Apple and Microsoft are embracing flatness, don’t let that fool you into thinking the future of mobile user interface design will also be shallow.

To wit: Yesterday, at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook Home, the company’s next-gen mobile product. Built on top of Google’s Android platform, Home is all about layers of immersive content. Instead of forcing users to jump in and out of apps, Facebook’s new experience integrates services on top of one another, enabling users to slide seamlessly from one piece of content to the next. There are no separate home windows or lock screens to enter or exit. What you see on your screen—whether a status update, news feed, or Instagram photo—is Home. Facebook has woven traditionally disparate content and services together into a single, unified experience. "We’re building something much deeper than an app," Zuckerberg said.

"Deeper" is an appropriate way to describe Home, because the key to Facebook’s new mobile paradigm is depth. Consider traditional navigation on Apple’s mobile products. Before, if you wanted to meet up with a friend somewhere, you’d likely have to open the Safari app on your iPhone and search for a location; then, upon clicking the address, bounce over to a map application to find directions; and finally, hop to a messaging app to text your friend the best time and place to meet: three separate apps to deliver three separate experiences.

In Home, Facebook has combined these separate experiences and apps. You can chat with your friends while searching for an address, looking up directions, or changing a song—the messages will be overlaid on top of your other content. You can also stay up-to-date with notifications like check-ins or missed calls while sitting through Instagram photos. Facebook has even combined the home and lock screens, eliminating the traditional steps of having to turn on your phone, go to the home screen, and open apps to see content. Essentially, content, services, and notifications are forever humming in the background, ready to be surfaced to Home without disrupting your experience. "It’s all right there as soon as you look at your phone," Zuckerberg explained.

Various screens from Windows Phone 8

Historically, most mobile operating systems are modeled like 8-bit side-scrolling video games. They’re based on x- and y- axes, where users can move up and down, or in and out, of apps and content. The z-axis has been the untapped part of the user experience. "If you think of x- and y-[axes] as ways to sort larger buckets of information, and using z- to go in deeper to information—that to me is a unique use of a truly digital experience, which breaks from the tradition of reading books or scrolling or panning on the digital experiences that we’ve known up to this point," Dan Kraemer, creative director at design firm IA Collaborative, told me not long ago. Kraemer was impressed by the strides Microsoft had made with Windows 8 and Windows Phone, but he saw the potential for far more novel experiences, which would "leapfrog" over current paradigms and "do things that are even more immersive" and potentially more "spatial."

ChatHeads is a perfect example. It’s not an app but rather a new messaging component of Home that Facebook integrated to other services. It allows users to respond to messages without quitting other applications. "We’ve all had this experience where you’ll be watching a video or playing a game or in the middle of writing something, and someone sends you a message, and then you have to make this decision: Do I completely stop what I’m doing and switch to a different app just to read the message? Or do I just ignore my friend?" said Facebook designer Joey Flynn. "Both of those are bad experiences. Your friends shouldn’t be siloed off into these apps." The conversations are overlaid on top of whatever you’re doing, and extremely flexible. "With a simple gesture, I can swipe the conversation up and it would collapse it," Flynn said. "It’s so lightweight."

Indeed, we heard Facebook’s designers flick at the weight and malleability of these experiences throughout the presentation. Facebook product director Adam Mosseri called them "thin, light, in-line," as if they just float on top of other experiences when needed, and slide aside when not. "It feels physical and real," said engineer Cory Ondrejka, before Zuckerberg touted "how natural and smooth the interactions are." Even the app launcher, which is a more traditional app screen, is surfaced with a quick swipe rather than having to quit an app to go to a different screen. When present, the app screen simply rests on top.

So does Facebook Home represent the paradigm shift Kraemer anticipates? Not completely—the app launcher still feels molded after traditional mobile experiences—but it’s yet another step in that design direction. Only months ago, we saw BlackBerry head down this path with its new operating system. BlackBerry 10, its mobile OS, features BlackBerry Flow and Peek, two experiences which eschew what CEO Thorsten Heins referred to as "the in-and-out paradigm." He called it a "blended" experience where users don’t have to leave the camera app to shoot a video, don’t have to exit work services to get to personal ones, and don’t have to quit game apps to get social updates. Everything is layered.

Vivek Bhardwaj, BlackBerry’s software head, described the philosophy at the time: "It’s about moving between applications, not about home buttons, opening and closing…This is real-time true multitasking…All of my applications are running real time. I’ve never left the experience—nothing is paused; nothing is compromised. It continues to operate, fast and fluid. You’re not looking for a settings menu buried under certain controls—it’s very easy to just move between both of these spaces."

Facebook takes this one step further. "You don’t need to do any swipes or gestures in order to see this content," Zuckerberg said. "It’s a new category of experiences."

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