The problem with timeline

Welcome to Timeline, another “worst update ever” from Facebook. As with every tweak to this social epicenter, it’s difficult to distinguish real user disgust from reactionary resistance to change. It seems that every Facebook rollout is greeted with pitchforks and torches until the next version bestows on it a sainthood as “the good old Facebook we knew and loved.”

I myself am not immune to this resistance to change. An upgrade aversion was instilled in me long ago and reinforced through repeated software and hardware frustrations. I learned it as I suffered through the initial OS X wasteland when literally no printer or scanner was compatible with my Mac. I learned it when half of my plugins stopped working after upgrading my audio editing software. And I’ve learned it repeatedly through Apple’s relentless changes to monitor ports and interfaces over the years, when buying a new computer always meant buying a slew of new cables, adapters, or even a new monitor.

So it’s not by chance that we users are averse to change. It’s a learned behavior, and not just from past frustrations but more importantly because these updates reset our learning. They force us to go back and retread steps that were already behind us. Through use, we learn to use software without seeing it. We navigate not by reading and chosing, but by muscle memory and reflex. We develop a blindness to ads and interruptions and learn to see the content in a world of clutter. And when interfaces change, the software becomes visible again as a barrier to the content we’re there for.

Learning to see

I remember stumbling through my first day of Facebook. It was something I’d heard about as a sort of online yearbook, but as someone who was past college age I hadn’t seen it in use. Shortly after it was made public, Banksy came through town on his post-Katrina trek through the deep south and dropped a mural on an abandoned gas station. Several of my friends heard about it and were able to go see it firsthand before it was painted over and ripped off the next day. They knew about it because someone posted it on Facebook, and feeling left out of this momentous event trumped the hatred I have for creating new social networks. I joined Facebook that day.

Instead of the rich and amazing new world I’d imagined it to be, I was greeted with a lifeless jumble of disorganized text that was about as thrilling as reading a stock ticker. There was no visual heirachy, no real contextual clues as to what was going on, and no visual separation to make the content scannable or in any way pleasurable to read. It was a mess, a disappointment only eclipsed by my first viewing of Reddit.

But as the months passed, I developed that type of extra-sensory perception we all do as interfaces come into our favor. By then, I could read as much of Facebook as I cared to in about 4 quick scrolls down the page. I had developed a rapport with the interface that allowed me to sort the usable content from the clutter instinctively. We all do this. We learn to quickly find the information we’re after in an environment littered with information we aim to ignore. And every change puts the ignorable content right back into our field of view.

Which brings us to Timeline

Timeline’s Don Draper Carousel-inspired video and Gmail-style selective rollout made it the new it the “it” thing on the internet. As a concept, it’s brilliant. We do live our lives online. And Facebook has become the conduit for a tremendous amount of our social engagements. We don’t call or write, we post on walls. We don’t send photos, we upload and tag them. Though it reeks of hyperbole, Facebook really is our record of life. And creating a repository for the content we generate as a record of our existence is a great idea. Our online social engagements have a permanence that telephone calls and face-to-face conversations don’t. I love looking back on my Twitter, Instagram, (and to a much lesser extent) Facebook and seeing where I was and how I’ve grown. It offers a stepped-back view of our day-to-day that tells a story of who we are and where we’ve been. As a personal record, It’s fantastic, and I often wonder how history would read if these online social environments had existed all along. Imagine Bob Dylan’s Twitter, or DaVinci’s Facebook Timeline, or Neil Armstrong’s Instagram.

In concept it’s brilliant, but the execution is a mess. Why? For a lot of the same reasons I initially found Facebook so off-putting–there’s no content heirarchy and it’s not scannable–and for one major new reason–the two-column layout completely undermines the linearity that’s fundamental to the Timeline concept. If this is my record of life, it ought to look better than this.

The fundamental problem with Timeline is its two-column layout. Sure, there’s a line inbetween that marks points on a linear path, but the content barely correlates to those points and the timeline itself is relegated to an afterthought that only serves to brand the jumbled, non-linear layout as something it’s not. Imagine trying to read a book whose story switched randomly between multiple columns depending on the availability of vertical space. That goes against a lifetime of learning about how a page flows. While Timeline’s two-column layout is a great way to use the screen real estate, the constant reading adjustment it requires creates confusion and completely undermines scannability.

But the two column layout isn’t the only crime against readability. The content itself has no visual heirarchy. Titles and headings would be nice, but not really appropriate for most Facebook content. With those out the window, much should be done to make the content the centerpiece of the page. As it stands, the post content is smothered by the meta area with bold, colored text and an avatar, and the comments area, which is backgrounded and has text with nearly the same visual weight as the post content. This makes the actual content of the post block appear to be on-level with or even below the meta data and comments. Add to this content-smothering the near absence of padding and negative space within each post block and what you get is a page that’s not scannable at all, and rather abusive on the eyes to read. Squint your eyes or step back a bit and what you’ll see is a page of randomly placed avatars and images, with content that just creates blocks of interference on the light blue background.

This lack of scannability is magnified by the complete absence of content heirarchy. Post content, check-ins, friend adds, app content, events and mentions all shift aimlessly from column to column without distinction, obscuring the actual post content and giving the page the appearance that its filled with ignorable content. If Timeline is designed to serve as a permanent record of who I am, there must be some distinction between my deliberate posts and lesser content like my associations, locations, and activities. Sure you can learn a lot about someone by this secondary content, but in an environment of guilt-friending and random requests, and where you’re taggable by anyone in any thing, a user’s deliberate content has to be held in higher regard that the content that is generated by the Facebook environment.

A better Timeline

Again, I think Timeline as a concept is brilliant. But as it currently exists, it falls short of its aim. So now that I’ve outlined its shortcomings, let me show you some improvements that would make it a much better interface and be truer to the Timeline concept.

A better Timeline starts by fulfilling these three objectives:

  • Create a more linear layout that better reflects the Timeline concept
  • Provide a clearer separation between post content and generated content
  • Provide a clearer separation between owner-generated content and association-based content

And here’s a concept that aims to achieve those goals while sticking to the established Facebook aesthetic and design patterns.

The post content is relegated to one column, which not only makes it much more readable but also brings it in line with the timeline concept. Secondary content is minimized and contained in a sidebar which keeps it out of the way from more intentional content. This makes both types of content much more usable and actually allows for more content types to be displayed (you’ll see that I also have app-based content shown in the sidebar of the mockup above).

While it would be fun and fascinating to take this experiment further, at some point it becomes reimagining Facebook from scratch, which is not my intent. The point here is to resolve the fundamental problems with Timeline. Sure there’s still plenty of room for additional improvement, but Facebook has a development team for that.

3 thoughts on “The problem with timeline

  1. Loved the post! Great thinking and a good description of what social media has become and what it could potentially be. Thanks for addressing this issue.

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