Facebook's Most Overlooked Design Change

By Kyle Wagner on at
Facebook showed us its new News Feed last week. It's as pretty as anyone could have hoped, and a wonderful update to the design. But lost in the big images and new feeds was a pretty major change that actually started weeks ago: The first thing you look at on Facebook's page has moved.

When you log into Facebook, your eyes shoot up and to the left. That's where Facebook has kept the module with Friend Requests, Messages, and Notifications since 2009, and it's shaped the way you look at the Facebook page. Always the same. Up, and to the left—like a social-media Zapruder film. It's so central to Facebook that it's turned that top left portion of the page into some of the primest real estate on the web. Now it's on the far right.

Replacing it is the newly revamped (though still not fully rolled out) Graph Search bar. Graph Search is important to Facebook. It's a way to monetise, or at least commodify, the globs of information Facebook has about you—which is important to everyone, not just Facebook. So replacing the most-used control element on Facebook (as well as removing the homepage-navigating logo) with a search bar seems like Facebook's best chance to make Graph Search catch on, even if it means making everything else a little more inconvenient for you.

Jon Dobrowolski, Director of Product, Mobile & Tablet at Refinery29, Inc., agrees that could be the case: "I can't say I've ever thought of a re-architecting like that, but they very well could have," he told Gizmodo. "Placing the biggest tentpole where people have been trained to look. Not a bad hypothesis, though I feel like that almost qualifies as a 'dark pattern'."

Facebook's Most Overlooked Design Change

A dark pattern is, essentially, any part of an interface that's designed to trick you into doing or using something you'd otherwise prefer not to. And it's not like Facebook has been above tactics like that in the past. That said, there are other reasons to make a change like this as well. "I think that moving notifications/messages/etc to the right was to clearly separate the navigation from the actions users can take to filter their content feed," Dobrowolski says. "I also think taking the cues from the mobile drawer here was more for scalability of content than anything."

There's further upside here, too. Zach Szukala, Creative Director at NoPrintCode, says, "Drawing attention to search is a absolutely a key outcome of these new changes," but sees the change as fairly bold, retooling the way the site is navigated around search.

"Top left is, historically, prime real-estate, and it always will be," according to Szukala. "And moving anything away from that sacred ground is risky, especially with millions of users of different skill levels interacting with the site every second of the day... The other thing you have to remember is that friends/messages/notifications live in two states: inactive, and look-at-me-now!, with strong red numbered callouts. You aren't going to miss those, whether they're on the right or left... my hunch is that users will come to actually use the site more, because what matters to them is rather easy to find and parse."

Facebook's Most Overlooked Design Change

There are some other complications to moving the important features like Feed filtering and notifications to the right side of the page—traditionally the province of ignored Facebook ads and birthday spam.

"I'll be curious to see what what people think of the News Feed controls—this primary mechanism—being off on the right and stacked with faces and ads," Szukala. "You already dismiss the third column now because of ads, and then we have this control set nestled in there. It's also a massive piece of filtering to that leaps to life and causes a dramatic page shift that could be disorienting or viewed as just another menu that I have to learn to use."

With that, Facebook seems to be betting that putting the important stuff on the right will make you look at the ads over there more. Or that its new humongous News Feed ads will numb you to advertising in general, and you'll stop ignoring whole swaths of the page. Or at the very least maybe the non-search upside is just that you'll always ignore the right side, but putting the controls over there draws your eye across a feed full of big and interesting images for you to click on.

Whatever the reasoning, it breaks down to this: The new Facebook is beautiful, but it's also carefully engineered. And if those calculations make your day slightly more of a pain? So be it.