Why does Facebook keep redesigning?

E. A. Vander Veer, author of "Facebook: The Missing Manual," weighs in on Facebook's pattern of reinvention

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Facebook is rolling out what seems like its 30th redesign. Judging by the reorganization in the site’s latest look, the user backlash should be on par with past overhauls.

I asked E. A. Vander Veer, author of “Facebook: The Missing Manual,” for her take on the frequency of Facebook redesigns. She also weighed in Facebook’s dominant position and the willingness of its users to “retrain” themselves.

Mac Slocum: From what I can tell, Facebook has rolled out an annual redesign since 2006. Is that a reasonable frequency?

E. A. Vander Veer: “Reasonable” is a hard one. Facebook is in line with most software upgrades, which are in the one-to-two-year range. The goal from the company’s perspective is balancing what they want to accomplish — in this case, making the site pay off — with members’ willingness to retrain themselves every several months.

M.S.: How big a factor is “retraining” in Facebook redesigns? The word itself doesn’t have a positive connotation.

I don’t know anyone personally on the Facebook design team, and I don’t have any Facebook moles. But I used to work in software development, and I can tell you that typically users aren’t considered at all when it comes to software redesigns. I wouldn’t have believed this if I hadn’t seen it in action on countless projects in several different companies! The attitude is, “We’re the experts, we know what you want and need, our redesign is making it better, and it won’t take more than a few minutes for you to get up to speed.”

Redesigns are typically driven by what the company wants. For example, to showcase features they think will drive revenue. They’re also driven by competitive factors; companies think they need to redesign every year or so because all the other companies are doing it and they don’t want to risk looking old fashioned.

M.S.: Each Facebook redesign has a backlash. Some of that is inevitable, but do you think Facebook is undermining itself with updates?

E. V.: Anecdotally, I know people who simply stopped using large portions of the site — and even stopped logging in altogether — after the last redesign because they couldn’t figure out where anything was. They were cheesed they had to go hunting. But overall, the numbers of registered members has continued to rise, and by some estimates the average site usage per member of under-25s is a few hours a day. Meaning: redesigns aren’t putting off a lot of folks.

M.S.: Do you think Facebook’s position and its continued growth give it leeway with redesigns?

Absolutely. They’re riding high right now, and there currently isn’t any alternative site positioned as a close competitor. And, honestly, most people will retrain themselves. Facebook has a significant user base that cut its teeth on computers — folks who think it’s normal to have to deal with a new interface to perform essentially the same tasks over and over again.

M.S.: Looking over the latest redesign, does anything jump out at you?

E.V.: The motivation for the redesign is unquestionably in line with the company’s goal to monetize the site. The value of the site lies in members’ interactions, and these features — friend requests, messages, etc. — have been grouped together and placed in the upper-left corner.

M.S.: Are Facebook’s recent designs — 2009′s and this most recent one — about expanding user engagement rather than attracting new users?

The recent redesigns focus on two things: supporting users’ real-world relationships and extending them online. So attracting new users is still a goal. Witness the new position of the “friend requests” feature [top left corner]. But what Facebook really wants is to make it easy to get people to categorize and describe themselves — by “liking” certain posts, fanning certain pages, etc. — and to interact heavily with each other. These are the keys to monetizing the site.

M.S.: Given the sheer amount of time users put into Facebook, do you think the user base can claim a de facto ownership stake in the service? I know that would never hold up legally, but I wonder if that lies at the heart of the anti-redesign criticism that flares up.

E.V.: Yes, absolutely. The last couple of generations, in particular, think that using something — rather than creating something — confers ownership. Witness the attitude toward the ripping of music and movies: kids talk about “our” music while they express outrage when the actual musicians attempt to control their work! This attitude is understandable in a culture where passively consuming media from birth is the norm and less emphasis is placed on personal ownership and creativity (less arts education, falling science and literacy scores, less funding and visibility for small businesses, etc.)

I liken a site redesign to waking up in the morning and finding that someone has moved my toaster and changed all the knobs and slots, so it takes me 10 minutes to figure out how to find and work it. Some people are going to deal with that once, and that will be it. They’ll opt out. But a sizable user base (particularly under-30s) believes that joining a “I hate the new Facebook” group is both useful and meaningful. These users will grouse for a while, feel as though they’ve contributed to some sort of public discourse, and then continue to use the site as usual.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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