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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Facebook is the New Windows

How Facebook’s hacker culture disconnected it from the needs of users.

  • February 28, 2012

On countless surfaces in Facebook’s open, bullpen-style offices, the word ‘Hack’ is scrawled, spraypainted and stenciled. The message is simple: This is a company focused on the particular flavor of experimentation native to Mark Zuckerberg-style geeks. And not much else.

What is this, Windows 95?

Since the beginning, this has been apparent in the visual style of Facebook. Even after the recent redesign, it retains the inoffensive color palette of its earliest days.

At first, this was a welcome departure from the chaos of MySpace. But now it feels corporate. It feels like something that came out of late-90’s Redmond.

The general feeling of blah extends to Facebook’s unnecessarily tortured UX.

Compare Facebook’s “resharing” functionality to the “repin” feature on Pinterest, a site whose stripped-down interface is in no small part responsible for its success.

On Pinterest, there’s no decisions to be made: Everything gets a caption, there are no choices about thumbnails, I don’t have the choice to remove the source of the link, etc. Pinterest asks me to navigate one dropdown and a single (not optional) caption field.

Facebook, meanwhile, throws me two dropdowns, one of which has critical consequences for privacy, an optional caption field that kind of breaks the site’s UI if I leave it blank, a superfluous (grayed-out) URL, a description field whose auto-filled text is always inadequate, a choice of thumbnail (and, inexplicably, grayed-out thumbnail choice buttons when I have no options – why not just leave these out?) as well as a separate checkbox for leaving out a thumbnail all together. Whew.

Where have we seen this kind of feature creep before? Oh, right, Office:

via Coding Horror

So why does Facebook continue to expand at such a rapid clip? Simple: network effects. Like Windows before it, it’s good enough, and since everyone else is using it, you kind of don’t have a choice.

The irony here is that after many years of stagnation, Windows 8 indicates that Redmond may finally be figuring all this out, or at least the design side of the equation. That doesn’t mean that both companies aren’t ultimately vulnerable to disruption. In the case of Facebook’s weirdly corporate, hospital-waiting-room user experience, that day can’t come soon enough.

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