some thoughts on Facebook’s recent changes, from the perspective of an application designer

There’s a lot to like about the recent changes to Facebook, but, as an application developer, many of the changes are a mixed bag. Changes to navigation and to interaction points between Facebook and applications are problematic, while new application privacy features are a good start but seem incomplete.

Navigation to Apps
Formerly, the application dock made it easy to access an application from anywhere in Facebook. One click to get to a bookmarked application; two clicks (without waiting for page loads) to get to other applications. In the new homepage, this has been removed.

Not so with the new design. If an application doesn’t have a tab on your profile page, the only way to access it is from the home page. From my profile or someone else’s profile, this means: click to the Facebook home page, wait for the page to load, click the app icon (or, if the application is not one of your top three book marks, click more and then click the app icon). Yes, this is only one more click, but it requires waiting for an entire page load, and it’s worse for non-bookmarked apps: one click to the home page, wait for it to load, one click to the application dashboard, wait for it to load, one click for “see all of your applications,” wait for that to load, and finally click on the application.

One possible remedy might be to add an “applications” drop-down next to the new notifications, requests, and messages icons.

At the end of the month, Facebook will turn off the ability of applications to send notifications. This is a method I’ve been using to send reminders in Three Good Things, for both automatically generated reminders and user-to-user reminders.

3GT Notifications

3GT Notifications. Left: system generated reminder. Right: user-to-user reminder.

I like that the notifications are less invasive than email reminders. Some 3GT users appreciated their subtlety, though they may have been a little too subtle, at least when they appeared at the bottom of the screen, as many of 3GT users we interviewed never noticed the notifications they received. More importantly, they allowed notifications at the right time. Rather than sending someone a reminder to post — a reminder that might interrupt their other activity or would at least require them to visit the website — the notifications appeared when a 3GT participant was already logged into Facebook, when it was likely convenient for them to post a “good thing” in our application. B.J. Fogg, a champion of persuasive technology, calls this right-time, right-place notification kairos.

I understand that notifications have gotten a lot more intrusive with the addition of push notifications to the iPhone app, and that some app developers have used them more than some Facebook users would prefer. Facebook has also added additional integration points. On the balance, though, I think notifications are going to be an unfortunate integration point to lose.

Application Privacy
Along with some others building health and wellness applications for the Facebook platform, I’ve felt fairly strongly that Facebook needs to give users and developers enhanced privacy controls for applications. At a minimum, this should include the ability to hide one’s use of an application from friends (i.e., not appearing under “friends using this application” in the application’s profile page).

With the recent updates Facebook’s designers and developers appear to have recognized some of these concerns. Application developers are able to set an application as “private,” causing one’s use to not appear in the new application dashboard. This is a good start, but it feels incomplete for a number of reasons. First, users, not developers, should have control of privacy. What’s to stop a developer from later reverting to a more public setting, instantly and completely changing what user activity is revealed? Currently, users do not have any way to remove this information once it appears, either.

Second, this level of privacy does not extend far enough. Friends who use private applications still appear on the application’s profile page under “friends using this application.” Furthermore, the model of application use and content being either private or public is insufficient. In health and wellness applications, for example, participants may benefit from sharing and interacting with other participants in the intervention as well as their friends or family members on Facebook, while also wanting to keep their activity private from coworkers.

This is something that Facebook has already discovered and addressed with the newsfeed (now stream) content, but application content does not enjoy the same privacy controls. To share with only a subset of one’s friends within an application, however, application developers must implement their own social graph features and users must built a second network within the application. Enabling privacy controls similar to those for the newsfeed for application content and use could help people to feel more comfortable using health wellness applications on Facebook while creating more possibilities for designers. A user could only allow an application to be aware of relationships in one or more friend lists or networks, or to select some to exclude from the application while allowing the other connections to remain visible. Assuming a user had created the necessary friend lists or that their privacy preferences mapped to their networks, this would allow someone to filter out their coworkers or to allow only close friends to see their participation.

Update: As of 17 February, Facebook has added a privacy argument to calls for publishing methods (e.g. Stream.publish that gives applications much more control over shared content.