A lesson from Facebook’s 2008 redesign

In 2008, Facebook launched a new redesign for users’ profile pages. There were a bunch of interface changes: the first intermingling of status updates and wall posts, tabs along the top to replace the profile’s array of boxes, and a few others. Facebook planned to launch all of these changes at the same time, and to help users deal with this big change, Facebook gave users the ability to switch back and forth between the old and the new. This backfired and alienated users for a couple of reasons:

1. Changes to your interface should be imperceptible. Think of your product as a robot, and your interface as the robot’s face. If several things change all at one, your user’s trustworthy robot friend will be less recognizable, more foreign, and the user will be alienated and confused by this interface that is no longer quite as familiar and trustworthy.

2. When Facebook gave its users the option to switch back and forth between the old and new profile layout, users thought¬†the switching itself¬†was a new feature. Users spread the word to their friends that “now you can choose which layout to use.” In some ways, the ability to switch back and forth was indeed a new “feature” that would soon be removed from the site, and users then got upset that this feature was removed.

Facebook’s well-meaning designers thought they were giving users something valuable: the power to choose, and the chance acclimate themselves to the new interface before it would be forced upon them. But their mistaken assumptions were that users want to make deliberate choices, and that users only want to be familiar with an interface before using it. This isn’t the case: users don’t want to exert any conscious effort to become familiar to something new: they want the new thing to already be familiar. The only way to ensure that is to prevent them from detecting that the new thing is different at all by making changes very gradually.