Ray Valdes

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Ray Valdes
Research VP
9 years at Gartner
30 years IT industry

Ray Valdes is research director in Gartner Research, where he is part of the Internet Platforms and Web Services team. Read Full Bio

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Facebook Freshens Profile Pages

by Ray Valdes  |  December 6, 2010  |  1 Comment

Today, Facebook released an update to the design of its profile-related pages. The company scored a huge PR coup in making the announcement via a segment on the Sunday evening 60 Minutes news show. The details have been covered elsewhere on the Web, but in a nutshell, the update includes:

  • a top-level synopsis of user’s information across the top, right next to the profile photo, below which is a horizontal photo-stream of recent images
  • gathering additional information in the Info section about interests and experiences (sports, books, films), presented in a more visual manner than before.
  • an expanded Friends page that makes it a lot easier to navigate and browse lists of friends
  • a new Friendship summary page for each of friend connection, presenting shared experiences, events attended, wall posts, comments, and shared Likes.

These changes are positive, and some of them address long-standing annoyances and shortcomings. By themselves, these improvements are not a game-changer, in terms of competitive dynamics with challengers such as Google. However, the changes demonstrate, yet again, that Facebook is able to iterate more rapidly, on more fronts, than competitors, and strengthen its position as the leading company in the Social Web.

Although there will likely be the usual volley of complaints whenever any change gets made to the Facebook user experience, I expect less complaints this time, because of the way Facebook is handling the rollout: through an opt-in mechanism, not a forced upgrade. Plus, there is a quick five-step tour to orient users who make the switch.

The initial feedback from users that I’ve seen is positive. The synopsis and photostream are a quick and easy way to get the gist of someone you might be meeting online for the first time. As an example, see the synopsis below my name next to the profile photo in the screenshot below:

The Friendship summary page is a big improvement over the previous mechanism — which in the past forced the user to navigate a potentially long list through an inconveniently small popup dialog box. The new Friendship summary is an expansive vista by comparison, and provides information that you might have forgotten about a relationship.

Facebook product manager Peter Deng, when he briefed me last week in advance of the announcement, emphasized that there’s no change in privacy policy or settings. Any photos and information that you enter into Facebook are disclosed according to configuration rules you’ve specified in the Privacy settings page. The implication is that this is a situation of old wine in a new skin — your content is now presented in a clearer and more usable manner.

However, Facebook’s new profile design does encourage users to add new wine — for example, to populate the synopsis section with updated info. When seeing some gaps in my synopsis, I filled them with details, such as my hometown, that I had never bothered to add before. Also, the Info page elicits additional data from users that was not previously captured: experiences and more detailed preferences. This new information could help Facebook target ads better, and also perhaps enable new kinds of third-party applications built on the Facebook platform.

In updating my profile, I noticed more detailed questions about work and career — not just employment history but also projects (duration, and who with). Over time, if users fill in this information, this data could have a big impact on LinkedIn, and not in a good way. The folks over at LinkedIn should start losing sleep over this, but not tonight, because when I tried to add a project details, I got an error (see screenshot).

No worries. I’m assuming this will get fixed shortly, perhaps by the time you opt-in.

Facebook’s redesign shows that there is already a lot of good wine (worthwhile information) stored in an old skin, now revamped. The new design presents content in a clearer and more accessible fashion. I think most users will see the value. However, Facebook is not the only game in town in terms of presenting your profile information.

There are two browsers, Flock and RockMelt, that retrieve and present information from your social networks — not just Facebook, but also Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, etc. And if you’re in the mood to only view information from Facebook, in a visual style that is 180 degrees different from Facebook’s familiar subdued blue-on-white, then you might want to consider the Facedeck app:

This Silverlight Client for Facebook was originally built by Microsoft to demonstrate the power of its RIA technology, over a year ago. It languished a bit, but was recently handed off to Telerik, a vendor of user interface technology. I have been using it on and off since it was demonstrated, and found that it showed me information about friends that was normally buried with the standard Facebook UI.

For those who prefer a minimalist approach, check this out:

This is Facebook’s mobile web version, that can be accessed from any Web-enabled smartphone, (or desktop computer, for that matter). Just point your browser to http://touch.facebook.com.

I bring up these examples not necessarily because I’m convinced they are better, but to show the range of possible user experience designs. For any given design, your mileage will vary — users will have different preferences and requirements. For me, the Silverlight client is almost on target, but the type is too dark to read. As far as the mobile Web version, I often find myself using mobile versions of a site — not just from a smartphone, but from a desktop computer. I choose this because I can get my task done more quickly with a simple and straightforward user interface. Mobile versions of sites avoid the complexity and superfluous matter that burden standard Web sites. For my taste, mobile sites that work better than the full-size predecessors include the iCaltrain site (commuter train schedule), UsableNet’s version of the Amtrak Web site, and even Gartner’s own mobile version of our conference events site. But I digress.

Circling back to Facebook’s revamped Profile, I think they have moved the ball forward using their traditional strengths: a small team (in this case, about 10 engineers) working rapidly to provide a cohesive social experience that meets user needs while at the same time supporting Facebook’s monetization goals. In the past, a high-quality user experience proved decisive in Facebook’s battle with (and eventual triumph over) MySpace. Facebook has managed to sustain the quality of UX, despite piling on new features. Eventually, this mountain of features could creak under its own weight, as has happened in other cases where there are successful products that dominated a market by broadening their scope (Microsoft Word, for example). For the moment, Facebook continues to advance its cause.

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