Usability is generally trumpeted as a major consideration in website design. What is often ignored are the results of a website losing its usability – or, indeed, its familiarity. Yesterday, a number of users were unable to log on to Facebook. Why? Because they weren’t actually on Facebook.
What happened was that, for a couple of hours, Facebook slipped off the top Google rank for the search “Facebook login”. Instead, a blog called ReadWriteWeb (an excellent read, by the way) slipped into first place. Not noticing the change, users simply clicked on the top link anyway and were taken to a ReadWriteWeb article about Facebook, which looked entirely unlike the actual Facebook page.
Logging in to the wrong site
Unfortunately, it got worse. Many users did not notice their mistake, and scrolled down to the only part of the page that looked like a log in area: the comments section. As luck would have it, this offered them the chance to connect with a Facebook account. Which, of course, is exactly what they did.
There are now hundreds of comments on the article, mostly along the lines of “I don’t like the new facebook” and “when can we log in?”. The blog was forced to post a message in the article with the actual Facebook link and instructions on how to use bookmarks.
Not simply user error
It is easy to suggest that this all down to ‘user error’, and there are some very entertaining articles round the internet along these lines. However, there are deeper problems here. Facebook has a propensity to continually redesign their homepage. These users, directed to a page that looked almost entirely unlike Facebook, still entertained the possibility that they were on the site. Facebook, it seems, has lost its familiarity. People don’t expect it to look like anything in particular.
Facebook Connect, too, is a problem. Theoretically, Facebook Connect is a way of only having a single login for multiple sites and blogs… except that people evidently don’t understand how it works or what it does. This is Facebook’s fault. It needs to be better explained.
Dealing with users who are not technically minded
Facebook is not a specialist blog. Its users are not all technically minded – indeed, for many users, Facebook is basically ‘the internet’. The site has been getting gradually more and more complicated, and it seems that now the site is losing track of its core audience.
This was a strange situation, and everyone came out looking more than a little stupid (except, of course, ReadWriteWeb, whose traffic is presumably looking very healthy at the moment). However, we can take a couple of key lessons out of this:
- Changing your home page is fine, but don’t confuse your regular readers with too many big changes. They may simply begin assuming that problems are actual design changes.
- Connectivity with other sites (such as Facebook Connect) is all very well, but it can be confusing – especially when it’s not explained properly to the people who use it. This is something Google could stand to learn as well, with the recent advent of Google Buzz.
- Functionality is great, but only if people understand how it works. If they don’t… is it necessary?
- Search Engine Optimisation works. Facebook effectively lost several hundred users for a couple of hours because a blog’s SEO was better than theirs.
- Think your page is as simple and usable as possible? Think again. It’s not.