Facebook offers a primer in effective site redesign planning

The Facebook redesign will no doubt inspire many complaints, but they should be smart enough to use such feedback as an opportunity to further fine-tune its product offering

Drop-down menus. Tabbed browsing. A content management tool. Come on, people: it's not like Facebook is reinventing the wheel here.

As the social networking service prepares more than 70 million users for a site redesign, many people are bracing for a backlash. What the outcome of such a backlash will be is less certain. Will users delete their accounts? Not likely. Will they move over to a more cluttered competitor, like MySpace? Doubtful, since they have that option already. Although the redesign will no doubt inspire many complaints, Facebook should be smart enough to use such feedback as an opportunity to further fine-tune its product offering.

I have been involved in Web site designs for portals that attract far less than .05 per cent of Facebook's install base, and I can tell you that people can become particularly vehement about the placement of a navigation bar, a logo or even a copyright notice. In Facebook's case, it is dealing with the kind of problem a lot of IT managers would like to have: it has come up with a Web-based application that people actually love, and the trick now is to increase its functionality while making it easier to use.

For developers, obviously, there is a chance the redesign will mean reduced exposure of their applications on member's main pages. Boo-hoo! Talk to the many ISVs who wonder why customers don't take better advantage of the tools they get for free in packaged software applications. (I don't think IDC or Gartner has ever bothered, but it would be interesting to how the percentage of unused features in a program like, say, Microsoft Word compares to the percentage of unused applications on Facebook.) The key to Facebook's redesign will be whether it offers users an easier way to search or be alerted to the applications that would be most appropriate to them, rather than inundating them with options.

What Facebook really provides is the consumer equivalent of an executive dashboard - status updates, the ability to add or peruse new information and to organize and communicate with their network. Instead of business intelligence, it's social intelligence, but dashboards aren't effective if they can't be browsed at a glance. Facebook will never have the stark simplicity of Google, but it needs to make decisions about how people prefer to manage their data, just as those involved in a corporate portal project have to adjust their templates accordingly.

The great thing about Facebook's redesign is that it's so public, and the company is making a wise move by keeping the redesign as open and transparent as possible. It has created a group on its own platform to discuss the changes, and will be giving users the ability to toggle back and forth between the old version and the new one once it debuts. That's a lot better than what most office employees are offered, which is a forced-fed redesign of their Web sites or applications without consultation and little preparation for the transition. As case studies go, this should be a valuable one. Facebook became successful by connecting us to our friends. Now it needs to do an even better job of it - without making too many enemies.

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Shane Schick

ComputerWorld Canada
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