Will Facebook Finally Recognize the Virtue of Simplicity?

Published on May 24, 2010

Facebook has grown from a dorm room project intended for university students into a massive network of over 400 million users.  This is an astounding achievement when one considers that Facebook’s user base represents approximately 25 percent of all individuals on the planet with access to the internet.  Any network that grows this rapidly over such a short timeframe is bound to be controversial.

In recent months, privacy advocates have criticized the company for exposing personal information to the public and to advertisers.  Today, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg responded to critics in a Washington Post op-ed.

This particular quote from Mr. Zuckerberg’s article is revealing:

The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information. Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex. Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark.

The “Cool Feature” Curse

It seems clear that Facebook has been the victim of the “cool feature” curse that afflicts many software developers.  From the perspective of someone who is writing code for a living, additional features of the type Facebook added are perfectly logical.  They provide granular controls that empower the user to manipulate the behavior of the system in any conceivable way.  Each combination of security attributes can yield an overall profile that provides just the level of external visibility that a user might like and nothing more.

Of course, the problem is that very few “typical” users of Facebook had a solid grasp of the granular controls that were provided.  The impact of making changes to security settings was not immediately apparent despite Facebook’s attempts to show users what their profile would look like to others.  The basic problem is that too much complexity was provided to users who simply want to see security settings that, in plain language, explain what information will be visible.

“Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

Facebook’s programmers did not add the granularity because they wanted to confuse users.  They obviously believed that granularity would quiet the critics by allowing complete customization of profile visibility.  However, this is of no value if the majority of users cannot understand the settings.  Therefore, Facebook must find a way to simplify their security settings in a way that satisfies the security desires of a vast majority of their user base while allowing “advanced” users to retain granular control.

The problem for Facebook could be that the demographics of their user base shifted over time.  When the network was newer, the vast majority of users were either college students or younger people, all of whom grew up with a high degree of familiarity with the internet and manipulating software.  As Facebook’s audience grew to a broader demographic, the software designers failed to see that they had to satisfy a very different group of users with different requirements.

Fortune recently published an article describing how Mark Zuckerberg resisted the temptation to sell his business for substantial sums early in its development (he was offered $10 million only four months after founding Facebook). Based on the long term vision Mr. Zuckerberg demonstrated in building the business, it seems very likely that he will safely navigate through Facebook’s current problems.

The author of this article worked in the commercial software industry for 13 years and subjected many ordinary software users to “cool features” that only a programmer could love…

Will Facebook Finally Recognize the Virtue of Simplicity?
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