What Facebook's revamped News Feed should teach developers about iterating

Shane Schick

Leave it to Facebook to teach developers how to stay friends with users--or at least avoid making any enemies. 

The redesign of the social media giant's newsfeed late last week is probably the biggest UI overhaul to happen on a major platform so far this year, and as usual, it will undergo a lot of scrutiny. Facebook, which has dealt with the fallout from these sorts of efforts several times before, seemed to try to get in front of any criticism with a blog post that explained its approach:

"The updated design has the best of both worlds: it keeps the layout and navigation people liked, but offers bigger images and photos, as well as a new font. The current design on mobile remains the same," the company said. "These changes are visual updates and do not affect how we surface content to people, nor do they change how stories are ranked in News Feed. Though in the new design all images are larger, both organic stories and ads will be the same size — similar to the way images appear on mobile."

Notice how the word "mobile" keeps coming up? Facebook is clearly trying to put to rest any notions that it remains stuck in a desktop-centered world. Of course, most app developers are free of this kind of legacy burden. Their products started out on smartphones and may never be used by someone with a laptop, Mac or PC. Yet there are some things about Facebook's News Feed worth remembering as developers continue to iterate their own UIs, whether it's an incremental change or a full-blown re-imagining of an app experience. 

Be transparent about your process: Facebook admitted in its blog post that its first stab at the updated News Feed wasn't entirely successful. This time around it has incorporated the feedback and it was specific about what that feedback was (i.e., there's no such thing as an image that's too big on social media).

Own the comparison game: When many mobile apps are redesigned, the designers seem to want consumers to forget what their old UI looked like. Facebook, on the other hand, showed both a "before" and "after" picture that was quickly shared all over the Internet by various media outlets. It takes only a few seconds to see what's different, and users don't need a lot of detail to understand why it looks better. 

Reinforce consistency: Facebook's post was as much about what's not changing in its News Feed. With this feature specifically, there long have been questions and confusion about what we see on there, and from which friends. The company hasn't necessarily explained all that, but it is reassuring loyal users it's not going to get more complex. Similarly, the one thing to turn off both desktop and mobile users are ads, and Facebook has immediately dismissed notions that these will take priority in the UI. 

Finally, Facebook is showing that even in an era of responsive design, there can be different needs across form factors, and the end goal of UI is not merely to scale everything down to a smartphone screen. You do what's best for the user, and content should drive form. Whatever developers serve up in their app in terms of updated content, Facebook's News Feed will probably continue to be one of the things that sets the bar.--Shane