Facebook's Big Facelift

The social networking site's coming redesign will be marked by a cleaner, more organized look to appeal to its vastly bigger, more diverse user base

Facebook's designers want to cut the clutter. The Palo Alto (Calif.) social networking site is readying an extensive overhaul of its core profile pages in an attempt to bring back the sleek aesthetic that helped fuel its early popularity. Executives say the redesign should hit the Web browsers of Facebook's 70 million worldwide users in the next few weeks.

The moves come in reaction to Facebook's becoming "more cluttered and harder for users to parse," according to Katie Geminder, the site's director of user experience and design, who oversees the design team working on the project. As such, the redesign represents a major simplification. Elements currently displayed on one crowded page—personal information, photos, the continually updating news feed, and the "wall", where users can post comments, for example—will probably be divided between separate pages and accessible through distinct tabs. The new design also collects and sidelines independently developed applications, such as games of Scrabble or the chance for users to rank the "hotness" of their friends.

"People are starting to feel that Facebook is quickly becoming like MySpace," says Adam Ostrow, editor-in-chief of Mashable.com, an online social networking news site. He's referring to the fact that News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace has allowed its more than 100 million users to create wildly different looking pages, replete with neon backgrounds and blinking text. In contrast, Facebook's design had been praised for being clean and tidy. But now, with the proliferation of viral applications that are simply "spam in disguise," according to Ostrow, things have gotten messy. So in February, Geminder and her team set to work. The same team, which includes people from engineering, graphic, and user interface design, will also analyze usage data and process user comments once the changes launch.

New Ways to Arrange the Info

The makeover itself is more than skin deep, though many critical elements of the site's identity remain untouched, including its typography and color palette. "They're not questioning the visual identity of the brand," says Christopher Fahey, a partner at New York's Behavior Design. Instead, designers are focusing on the site's wider architecture and on ways of displaying and ordering the information. That, says Fahey, could give users more options without radically altering the look and feel of the site. As Fahey points out, this belief in a company's fundamental design language has worked well for companies such as Apple (AAPL) and Amazon (AMZN) and signals a sense of C-suite confidence in the product at large.

That confidence will come in handy as Facebook deals with maturing from a scrappy campus startup into a corporation valued at $15 billion, thanks to the $240 million investment made by Microsoft (MSFT) last October. The new design, template, and architecture have to keep pace with the site's growth—U.S. membership has jumped 71% since last March, according to comScore (SCOR)—and with the increased diversity and desires of its user base. Of course, off-loading some features onto new pages could also increase page views, a critical metric for advertisers looking to spend their marketing budgets online.

Facebook's designers have been open about changes, publicizing their proposals through the company's developer blog and wiki. Designers also created a Facebook Profiles Preview group within the site, which has about 55,000 members who are monitoring the redesign and commenting on new features as they are developed.

It's an obvious response to a series of public missteps, such as the introduction of the news feed feature (BusinessWeek.com, 9/8/06) added in September, 2006, which drew immediate animosity from users. In March, co-founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized for missteps associated with last fall's launch of the Beacon advertising platform (BusinessWeek.com, 11/28/07). "In this round, we are focused on listening to users, gathering feedback, and giving users more control," says Geminder.

Designers to the Fore

Still, the site's designers are facing a milestone. A quintessentially Web 2.0 product, Facebook was an early cohort of sites whose growth has been characterized by developers and designers' willingness to heed users' desires when creating new features. Now the site may have reached a point where designers need to listen to themselves as much as the users. "Sites like this have evolved depending on how people want to use them, but Facebook is [so big it] may need to slow down and formalize its process," says David Armano, vice-president for experience design at Critical Mass, which has created sites for the likes of NASA and Mercedes-Benz (DAI).

"In many ways, the hallmark of the Web 2.0 movement is users' belief that 'this is our Web,'" adds Bruce Temkin, vice-president and principal analyst of customer experience at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., who says listening to feedback could be as important as asking for input ahead of launch. For her part, Geminder says Facebook's designers are engaged in the process, preparing smart changes rather than simply foisting them on an audience without allowing them to interact or push back. "Sometimes," adds Fahey, "a designer's job is to interpret carefully what may lie behind even cantankerous feedback." Users, in other words, may not appreciate all the ramifications of their requests, and designers must sort through the responses and apply what's appropriate.

And, as Temkin points out, it's hard for the designers of a social network to formalize too much of the user experience. While designers of, say, an online banking application can make changes purely in the name of usability, Facebook's designers must strike a balance between the site as a form of entertainment, on the one hand, and a useful tool, on the other. "If you take the fun out of Facebook, you've got a big problem," says Temkin.

In the end, the moves today could provide a blueprint for future high-profile redesigns at the company. In fact, if the site's designers pull it off, restoring simplicity while maintaining popularity, Temkin says the move could even become a test case for "what happens at the next level of maturity for a lot of Web 2.0 companies, writ large."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.