Thursday, 25 September 2008

Why Some People Are So Pissed About the Facebook Redesign

For the last couple of months there has been some fuss and furor over the Facebook redesign. Some love it, most don’t care, but a vocal, petition-waving few really, really don’t like it. Frankly, I think it’s a pretty good redesign. Most importantly for me, it cuts through the haze of humorous/cutsey/unused applications, placing them under a noncommittally named “Boxes” tab. Good move, I think. The majority of Facebook Apps remind me of the bulky, holstered PDAs that dangled predictably at every MBA’s hip a couple of years ago: a clumsy accessory masquerading as an interesting device. Of course, that’s what Facebook Apps really are, but I guess it’s just not for me.

Anyway, what interests me is the vehemence of the reaction and what it says about the idea of usability and the nature of design lock-in. In particular, the furor highlights the inadequacy or partial irrelevance of “objective” standards of classical usability. Obviously a considerable number of people feel that increased effectiveness, efficiency, learnability, etc. – whatever items comprise your favored usability checklist – isn’t an adequate rationale for changing a design mid-use. Nor do the measurable usability improvements seem to add up to satisfaction. Usability as preached by the industry is clearly distinct from the preferences that arise within the dynamics of actual use.

That last sentence is a mouthful, but it’s really just an observation that “usability” in the real world (i.e. the perception of comfort, effectiveness and satisfaction with some system) is as much about familiarity with arbitrary, usually suboptimal conventions as it is with traditional human factors issues. Given a choice in a non-laboratory, not “controlled for” situation, people generally choose what they know and understand over what’s new but ostensibly optimal. No matter how much the new one latches on to the tested realities of the human perceptual/cognitive machinery, people prefer what they already know.

So, one must ask, what was the assumed gain behind redesigning an interface with a familiarity base of 100 million? Hard to say, but usability in the wild is obviously as much about familiarity as optimality. Just because something has been and continues to be done in a particular way – just because coordination of goals and means has been achieved and internalized in some fashion – people become invested in that way of doing it regardless of whether or not it’s the best way. They have an unreasoned emotional response to change even though the change they’re reacting against is ultimately beneficial. From their perspective, any change represents a move from comfortably non-reflective “know how” to a comparatively frustrating re-investment in “learn how”. It’s bitterness over the perceived loss (insofar as they couldn’t vote on the switch) of time and attention spent internalizing the old system. And as research and common sense show, we hate losses.

Looking at it this way, we see why most of the detractors’ gripes are couched in terms of usability, without forcing us into a battle of intuitions about what constitutes “usable”. The usability issue is most likely just a salient rationalization. By most “objectively” recognized usability standards the new design is superior. People are really griping about the fact that they’ll have to reinvest or re-learn something and that the standards that determined the value of the change weren’t the standards by which they evaluate the site’s functionality. In other words, something not clearly broken was fixed without explicit agreement of the stakeholders, in effect forcing a new investment without due consideration of past investment.

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