Facebook recently released their redesign of the profile page. The details of the new design can be found here. To me, the most interesting piece of the redesign is the tweaked display of your friends, which amounts to little more than a bait to get users to indicate the strength of their relationships through lists (which Facebook has been trying to get users to do for some time, to no avail). Let me explain.
The old Facebook design displayed a list of a few friends that truly appeared to be random. I never saw a high density of friends that I was particularly close to. However, a user could click on the pencil icon in the upper right corner to control exactly who appeared in this section and how many friends were displayed (see below).
The new Friends Display is quite different. The display now pops more than it used to. This is in part because the left sidebar is more streamlined, there is more white space around the displayed friends, and their full names and networks are shown. It also isn’t constrained by a blue header, and is no longer underneath basic information like birthday and current city.
What’s fascinating is who Facebook has chosen to display. Like the old design, each time I reload the page, I have a different set of friends displayed in the space. Right? Well, almost.
What initially caught my attention was the high density of friends displayed that really were my closest friends (my sister, girlfriend, college roommate, and high school best friends, to be exact). It seems that as I reload the page, it persistently shows me (or any of my friends who view my profile page) about 4-5 friends that I am actually very close with along with 4-5 friends whom I haven’t communicated with in years, if I really ever knew them at all. The latter group is made up of people who I never see in my newsfeed, have never communicated with on Facebook and with whom I have few mutual friends. I can assume with fairly high confidence that Facebook knows I have a low strength of relationship with these people.
Which brings me to my hypothesis: in the UI for this new “friends” sidebar, Facebook intentionally is sprinkling in among people you do care about, people who you don’t care about. In essence, they are taking your top 5 strongest relationships and putting them next to your 5 weakest connections.
When I continually see people that are my real-life best friends in this space, I am pushed to believe that this is the where people I am closest to should appear. It is reinforced by the fact that the person you are in a relationship with has a dedicated space in this sidebar, as does your siblings. However, when I see a mixture of people I am very close to positioned next to people I hardly know, the juxtaposition triggers a subtle voice in my head tells me something isn’t right - and I feel a nudge to correct the mistake. And this is exactly what Facebook is trying to get the users to do, click that little pencil icon in the upper right hand corner to edit this section.
Users would be forgiven to believe that clicking the icon will allow them to edit who is displayed here. This would be too easy, right? I’d just make a few quick adjustments, remove friends I don’t care about, add friends that I do, and be done with it.
Alas, this is not the case. There is no way to alter the people that are displayed in this space. Yes, the same icon does a different thing in the new version than in the old. But wait, there is a consolation prize! When I click this icon, I am prompted to make new lists! Classic bait-and-switch.
So how am I to get rid of the visual prominence given to these “hardly-knows” on my profile? Well, I can create new lists that trump the auto-generated list “friends.” The more I make, the further down on my page these people go. And that is exactly what I am driven to do - create relationship lists.
So part of what this redesign is about is baiting users to create priority lists. From this, they can solve a number of problems, including determining the context in which certain people are important to you and others are not, as well as solving the whole “I have 800 Facebook friends, but I dont care about 700 of them” problem.
It seems in this design Facebook has employed the best tactic known to compel a user to action: display something publicly about a user that is incorrect (or in this case, slightly off, but enough to be unsettling). I see 5 people I barely know position next to my 5 best friends in my featured friends list, and I want to do something about it. It is quite clear that Facebook knows who my top friends are, but they choose not to display it to me all at once! Likewise, they have a sense for whom I am least connected to, and they do choose to display these people.
This also highlights the idea that the best way to get a user to do something is to make it prominent in the UI. Though not a particularly novel idea, it is one that many web services seem to forget. If featured relationships are prominent, I’ll update them. If my job, current location and hometown are prominent, I’ll keep those up to date. Heck, I don’t know of anyone who initially indicated on Facebook the languages they speak, but I’d bet a large portion will now.
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