Users are great for helping you tweak products, but don’t ask when you want break through ideas

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(credit: HelveticFanatic, Flickr, [CC])

Robert Scoble has jumped into the debate over the new interface design of Facebook. Scoble’s piece expresses an insight I believe is too often missed by those who confuse the concept of “pleasing the user” with “creating breakthrough ideas.” In his post, Scoble does a tremendous job of describing why “like” is the breakthrough idea that is the foundation of the new Facebook design. Of course, the whole “like” idea is not Facebook’s idea (more on this later), but making “like” and “comment” central to the idea of what Facebook is is (to quote a former President).

Scoble (and I) are fans of Kathy Sierra, creator of O’Reilly’s Head First book series and a presenter extraordinaire. Over the years, in evangelizing what software developers need to do to create “passionate users,” she has addressed the need to create “breakthrough ideas” instead of merely better products. Last week in Austin, I was able to catch Kathy presenting to 1,500 of her fans and was reminded once more of how she can explain in a polite, yet explicit way, that focus groups and user research has its place, but that place is not in helping you design great software. It helps you tweak software, she says, but it’s no help when you want to create breakthrough ideas.

Another incredible discussion thread that is bouncing around the tech blogosphere this week about “research-driven design decisions” vs. “break through ideas” was started with this essay by Douglas Bowman, in which he announced his departure as the lead visual designer at Google. Design, of course, is merely one aspect of breakthrough ideas, however, the process of design at Google, as Bowman describes it (and as revealed in recent profiles of Marissa Mayer), seems obsessed with research into iterative changes (as in, what shade of blue gets more clicks) rather than creating something that changes everything. Bowman admits (who wouldn’t?) it’s hard to question anything Google does, as they have the users and money to prove they’re right and everyone else is wrong. However, as someone who uses Google products to the point of considering turning everything over to them (heck, even moving this blog to Blogger.com), I’m more impressed by their ability to make products solid and simple than with their ability to come up with anything new. (And, frankly, to me making web applications solid and simple is a breakthrough idea.)

I say all this to emphasize that I agree with Scoble: What Facebook is doing is not necessarily original, but it is building on a foundation they have that will help create the opportunity for breakthrough ideas. While most of the analysis I’ve read has compared the new Facebook design to Twitter, I believe that comparison is wrong. To me, it seems obvious the benchmark for “the new Facebook design” is FriendFeed. (As those who’ve made it this far likely know, FriendFeed was created by some Google alumni and is one of many services — but the most popular among the A-List geeks — that aggregates ones creations, comments, jestures or expressions from across all the social media he or she uses (i.e., sharing a photo via Flickr, favoring a video on YouTube, reviewing a restaurant on Yelp). If you’re reading this on my blog (vs. via an RSS reader or on Facebook), over on the right you can see a sidebar box (widget) that displays the headlines from my FriendFeed account, something I call jokingly, “The River of Rex.”

While the FriendFeed creators seemed purposeful in not trying to replicate or compete head-on with Facebook (Exhibit #1: The service has no user profile page), they obviously served as a proof of concepts that didn’t go unnoticed by Zuckerberg & Co. Concept #1: You don’t need lots of complicated “invite and display” applications to get users to aggregate every social media thing they do. Concept #2: Those “like” and “comment” fields make every tidbit of content a launchpad for conversation and insight.

Unlike past attempts by Facebook to change the service in ways that violated principles of trust or privacy, I believe the new design will actually be of great benefit to Facebook users — after they get over the whinning. So put me in the 5% group: I like the new Facebook design. I believe it serves the user (rather than screws them like the previous changes). In fact, I like it a lot.

However, I think soon the word “like” will be as confusing as the word “friend” is today.

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