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Facebook Timeline as the New QWERTY?


Warning: Conspiracy Theory Ahead

Something hit me the other day when I was looking at Facebook and their new-ish timeline layout. No, it is not the usual “I hate the new Facebook timeline!! Why did they ever change it??!! Grumble, Grumble, Grumble, Goo!!” Although I am not a fan of the design, or the usability of the thing, the insight was a little deeper than this. That is, I wondered, quite seriously, if Facebook timeline had been purposely designed to slow you down. Much like the legend of the QWERTY keyboard design originating from the need to slow typists down to the speed constraints of the mechanical typewriters, I wondered if the Facebook timeline had been intentionally designed to slow one’s pace through their Facebook updates.

Albeit a conspiracy theory, this made a lot of sense. Mostly because the best parts of Facebook are the updates. For most people, they are posting text updates far more often than photo updates, and as such, text updates make up the majority of consumed content on Facebook. But even so, when all updates are formatted in a vertical column, like they used to be in the old “News Feed” view, the content is very skimmable. And, as people use the system more, they start to immediately know which/whose updates can be completely glossed-over and skim through them so quickly they don’t even read them. As they skim more and more they become better and better skimmers. Now, going on Facebook is something to get done, not really something to enjoy, and the faster they can get through it, the better.

This mentality, though, is not a good thing for Facebook, mostly because it is not a good thing for their advertisers. Facebook has long touted the metric of how long users stay on the site, which gives a semi-reliable figure for overall user engagement. However, I imagine Facebook was seeing skimming as a threat to this metric, thus they went about to do something about it.

From my own experience, what I think bothers me about Facebook timeline is that it mixes viewing content on the horizontal and vertical planes, which makes it much less usable. This up and down, back and forth reading is maddening because it feels like it is going slower than the old way (with everything in a vertical column). It almost feels like my brain needs to down-shift to change direction, which makes it feel slower. Also, there is not a continuous visual hierarchy of the updates, unless you look at them relative to each other (two updates at the same time). To me, often the vertical separation is so close that I have to look at the updates side by side to see which one is newer.

But, by being slowed down, I feel like I notice the individual updates more (whether I want to or not). This keeps my engagement on the site up (good), but makes my frustration with Facebook go up faster (bad). Plus, I find that I get update fatigue from having to have by eyes dart back and forth across the screen (while I am scrolling down), which makes me want to check updates less. And, since I am checking less, I usually get through less when I do check it because I get too tired/frustrated to continue.

Now, this might all be nonsense. Merely the inept ramblings of a Facebook-hater, and anti-progress curmudgeon. But to me, there might be something to this. That is, how do you keep your users on your website as they get better and better (that is, faster and faster) of getting through what they need to? If you are skimming past the content, you are probably skimming past the ads too, which is bad for Facebook. And, as a designer, if I was asked to come up with a way to slow people down, I would like to think I could come up with something as smart as the timeline. I am not sure I could, though, because it works for this purpose really, really well.

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