Reflecting on product design: Facebook

There are not many people who have a simple relationship with Facebook. More often there is a love-hate dynamic which incites a level of passionate discussion only matched in intensity by conversations on which Game of Thrones character is the best.

However, unlike that discussion where the answer is obviously Arya, there is often some ambiguity amongst people, and within oneself, about whether new features are delightful and useful, or disruptive and the last god damn straw.

I have chosen to focus on Facebook, a somewhat unoriginal choice, because of this inner emotional conflict it causes people with its features and because it is the only product that I can say I am somewhat ‘addicted’ to.

I will look at 2 questions.

  1. What makes Facebook such a successful product, and
  2. Where does it potentially fail in product design.

Why so popular:

Useful: Facebook started as a platform for college students to stay in touch. It was simple and did what it was supposed to do well. It is informal enough that you can add people you want to stay in contact with but aren’t close friends with, fulfilling that gray area of connection that Linkedin enables on a professional basis, but that nothing else really fulfills on a purely social level. It now enables a broad range of activities from one place. It stores and shares your images, creates events, you can create and join groups and promote your business. You have the ability to share content to a huge selected group of people.

Easy to use: Despite its users coming from all different backgrounds, everyone can set up a profile with relative ease. Some people have multiple profiles. They are also always making it easier to access your profile, giving you the option to just click a picture on your mobile and connect with people, enabling messenger. It is easy to set up a profile, easy to add friends, easy to update your relationship status, easy to quickly upload your whole life on to your page sometimes making it the only record of some of your most treasured memories. This in turn makes it indispensable, which in turn relates to my next point.

Addictive: Because of its usefulness and ease of use many people use it as their prime platform to share information. Constant new material on your feed means you are rewarded with new content whenever you go back to check it.

Price: The only cost is an emotional one.

Where does Facebook fail in product design:

This is often highly subjective. In my opinion, it has lost a lot of its appeal by becoming increasingly visible rather than staying in the background as a non-emotive platform. It wishes me good morning and good night, sends me videos celebrating friendships and my year and suggests I share them, it makes suggestions to talk to certain people I haven’t talked to in a while. I think this goes way beyond its function, and takes control away from the user.

In fact this is my main gripe with many of the features I find frustrating. The loss of control. Read receipts are often controversial. For some they are helpful, for others a source of stress. To me it’s usefulness is not out-weighed by the loss of control to the user.

Facebook: breaking hearts with new features.

Facebook has had incredible success in completely embedding itself in the lives of people all over the world. It’s a platform that despite having a lot of features people don’t like, sometimes for serious reasons such as privacy violations and a lack of control over their own image, is nevertheless a platform many of us find hard to live without because of its functionality and ease of use. I’ve had a lot of friends show up on my feed dramatically announcing they are quitting to focus on nurturing real life relationships, and going outside to walk in meadows. They then share their email address as their new form of contact.

He’ll be back.

Some of the stronger ones last weeks before I notice them quietly pop back up again in my friends list, but more only last a few days. Email just doesn’t have as broad an application, the ease of use or the informality that Facebook has. It succeeds in its core function so well it is hard to break away. I sometimes wonder what Facebook would have to do that would turn away users.

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