Facebook will roll out a dramatic redesign of its member profile interface next month and much attention is being paid to the details and to how end users and developers will react.
It's hard to argue against the idea behind the redesign: to reduce profile clutter. One of Facebook's trademarks has been its clean layout, which many of its members value over the often visually strident MySpace profile pages.
Still, as Facebook has grown to about 70 million members and developers have created over 25,000 applications for the site, member profiles have become very busy with comments, graphics, lists, alerts and the like. And this even though Facebook members have limited ability to alter things like fonts and colors.
The redesign will attempt to unclutter the profiles by redistributing their components to different tabs. Current plans call for four main tabs -- for the activity feed, basic member information, photos and applications. Members will be able to add more application tabs.
In addition, the activity feed tab will feature a new authoring control panel, called the Publisher Box, for creating and posting content. Meanwhile, the profile will have at the top a new horizontal navigation line with drop-down menus for its core features.
IDG News Service had a chance to talk this week with Mark Slee, the Facebook product manager in charge of the redesign. He explained why Facebook thinks the changes will be good for both end users and developers, and how Facebook is trying to ease them into the transition to the new profile interface. The following is an edited transcript of the interview:
IDGNS: Could you explain what the Publisher Box is for and how it works?
Slee: Today in Facebook there are a lot of different actions you can take and content you can create and it happens in different places across the site. For example, to upload photos, I go through the Photo application. If I want to write on someone's Wall, I do it through that specific box on their profile. If I want to SuperPoke someone, I have to do it through that application.
So we're looking to pull all those into one unified element to let users take all of these actions in a consistent manner so that it's more clear what the options are and what effect they'll have. Facebook's own applications will move towards this model: the Wall posting will take place through here, as well as writing a Note or adding Photos. The Publisher Box is also an integration point for third-party applications. So all developers will be able to provide their own user interfaces that'll tie into this element for whatever applications they can come up with.
IDGNS: So it's like a control panel on which you're consolidating the ways to perform various actions and create content?
Slee: Yes, that's correct. Part of the rationale behind this at a philosophical level is that we're watching what the trends have been on the Internet around content creation and what we're seeing is that users across all sorts of sites are spending less time making big single pieces of content. Instead, they are making a lot of little pieces of content, like status updates, writing messages on Twitter, uploading single videos to YouTube. This is the paradigm we want to capture with the publisher, where it's really easy to frequently communicate with these little pieces of information.
IDGNS: So is this an internal authoring tool for members or an external-facing feature for friends, or both?
Slee: It's both. The Publisher Box is integrated directly into the profile so it's right there on the Feed tab of the profile and you'll be able to use it in both ways: for when you're on your own profile, to add content onto it, and also you'll be able to go to your friends' profiles and you'll still see the publisher interface to let you take actions to communicate with them, with like Wall postings. If I want to post on a friend's Wall, that'll be done through a Publisher.
IDGNS: Are all these changes going to take effect at once or will you introduce them gradually?
Slee: We're phasing the rollout of this. This week we're setting up a sandbox for developers to give them access to the new functionality and they'll be able to begin building against these new integration points. In a few weeks we'll do the same for users, so they can opt in to try out and see the new functionality before it's fully rolled out.
IDGNS: So for end users you'll provide for a while the ability to toggle between the new and existing profile designs?
Slee: Yes, that's our current plan.
IDGNS: Will you give people the option to stay on the old design or will there be a cutoff date when everyone will be on the new design?
Slee: The current plan is to fully migrate over to the new design but we're in a dialogue with users about this so as we roll it out we'll try to get a lot of user feedback.
IDGNS: And you're shooting for some time next month to do the full changeover?
Slee: Yes, that's correct. We're looking at June.
IDGNS: Do you think that people's natural resistance to change will be a problem with the acceptance of the new design?
Slee: We've really been focused on communicating very proactively with users about this. We have a page set up on Facebook that we've been running for over a month now that has previews and screenshots and we've been updating that weekly with the most recent changes.
IDGNS: When you were having the first internal discussions about this, did you consider sticking with the single-profile page concept?
Slee: There are a lot of things and different ideas we've considered. It boils down to what the three main goals we have for this are: To make the profiles simple and clean; to give users control; and to let them emphasize the most recent and relevant content. This is what we've come up with as the best way to accomplish those goals.
IDGNS: Some developers are concerned the new design will reduce visibility of their apps. What's the counter-argument to this?
Slee: We're really focused on creating more value for users that developers can tap into with these new integration points. We're introducing a few new distribution points for developers. One powerful example is this Publisher interface that will be at the very top of the profile. All applications will be able to tie right into that. We think that's a huge opportunity for developers. The second one is the ability to have an entire profile tab dedicated to applications, which is a new concept that we think is going to be pretty exciting and let developers build a rich and deep experience that can take advantage of more space than has ever been provided on the profile.
IDGNS: Will applications have to be tweaked for the new profile layout?
Slee: The changes are all fully backwards-compatible. There are new integration points that developers can take advantage of, but all of the things they have built to date will continue to function.