Facebook needs to learn when to stop screwing with things

Once more, Facebook proves that volatility in a user interface is rarely a good thing. It's an object lesson everyone can learn from

If there's one thing that really galls me about Facebook, it's the site's habit of  changing the user interface without warning. Poof, everything looks different, and things that used to be in one place are now in another. Some functionality is gone, some new features might be there somewhere, and all in all, it feels like getting slapped in the face.

The most recent change is particularly annoying. The new "news feed" appears to have put Facebook in your Facebook so that you can Facebook while you Facebook (hat tip to Jesse Costello and Xzibit for that one). It's pretty ridiculous.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Take a tour of Facebook's greatest missteps in the slideshow, "Facebook's biggest faceplants." | Get the latest news and insight on the tech industry from the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

Naturally, every time Facebook does this, millions of users get very upset and post petitions and start viral status updates with "_____ sucks, change it back." However, Facebook ignores them and continues to muck around with the interface. Yet Facebook is such a social addiction for many -- and a very useful marketing tool for others -- that it's managed to slap its users around like redheaded stepchildren for years without negative impact on the bottom line.

Now, there's definitely something to be said for keeping fresh and current and for updating stodgy designs and user interfaces. Staying in one place is a good way to get run over. But zip around in traffic and you'll likely get smooshed -- which Facebook may discover the hard way.

For one thing, my Google+ interactions have grown significantly since Facebook's most recent changes. Also, my Facebook feed has been inundated with people complaining about the changes and other people recommending ways to switch it back to how it used to look. One of the more popular suggestions is to change your language to U.K. English, though I've heard mixed reviews. In other words, everyone seems to be groping for the undo button. I'd wager that the ratio of people who hate the changes to those who don't is about 12:1.

Then there are the folks who've invested time into tuning Facebook as much as possible. They spent hours creating custom lists and assigning friends to those lists. For example, a musician friend collected his friends into groups separated by geography; when he was touring in their area, he could easily inform them of where and when he'd be playing rather than blast meaningless messages to friends who might be on other continents. One sudden Facebook update blew all those lists out of the water -- talk about frustrating.

At the very least, when changes like this occur, there should be ample warning and the ability to opt out, at least for a while. You know, like Google and others do: "Want to try our new beta version? Click here -- you can go back to the traditional view later."

But there's virtue in the status quo when the status quo works. Google's default main page today is almost identical to the Google main page from 10 years ago: simple, elegant, focused, functional. If you like, you can sign in and see more options, then clutter your main Google landing page up so much it makes Yvette's Bridal look like an exercise in minimalism (sorry if you clicked that). That choice is up to you.

In the end, Facebook's fumble transcends websites and even tech itself. It's al about knowing when to stop screwing around with something and let it ride. Add a few more brush strokes and you ruin the painting. Tighten that bolt too much and you snap off the head. An extremely valuable and often overlooked skill is knowing when to stop.

That's a lesson Facebook might need some help with. It simply can't continue to play fast and loose with an interface that's used by hundreds of millions of people. Eventually it will tighten that bolt just enough and break the whole thing.

This story, "Facebook needs to learn when to stop screwing with things," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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