Two Very Different Approaches to Changing the User Experience

Internet giants Google and Facebook both rolled out changes to their user interfaces over the past couple of weeks. In my opinion, one of them did it the right way, and the other continued its penchant for doing it the wrong way.

Google issued its first significant change in a long time to its widely popular Gmail email platform. Specifically, they added tabs to the inbox. Gmail’s inbox now shows up to five tabs: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums. The first three are active by default, with the Social tab collecting all your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn emails, for example, and the Promotions tab capturing all your emails about sales and products. The Primary tab collects everything else, including any conversations you’ve flagged as important by “starring” them. I found the tab feature immediately useful. Instead of having all my email – work, Facebook, special offers – all mingled together in one place, Gmail now segregates these different kinds of mail. The result is a less crowded, clearer picture of the email that matters, and I didn’t have to do anything to get it.

Facebook also introduced changes. Specifically, it has a new feature called “Graph Search” that, to be honest, I haven’t figured out yet, even though it keeps bothering me periodically to “take the tour”. To make room for the search bar, it moved the notification icons that show new friend requests, new messages, and new updates from the left side of the page to the right. It sounds trivial, and I’m even ashamed to claim this in writing, but the fact that I have to look in a different location to see if I have updates really annoys me.

I know, this is a classic “first world problem”, but, as a software developer, I question the wisdom of Facebook’s user interface designers. This isn’t the first time they’ve consumed valuable screen real estate with features nobody asked for. The creepy ticker that shows everything your “friends” are doing on Facebook comes immediately to mind. Surely, though, they must know that most of their users look at those icons to determine if there is anything for them to check out. Why move them?

And so, with these new rollouts, we have excellent examples of why redesigning user interfaces must be done carefully. Google added a really helpful tool for its Gmail users and placed it where it could be easily accessed and doesn’t distract anyone. Facebook added a poorly explained tool of questionable value and arbitrarily decided to move a staple of the Facebook experience to the opposite side of the page.

User interface design is hard. Just ask Facebook.


About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

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