Listen to Customers or Innovate? — Lessons from Facebook Redesign

Facebook underwent a redesign of its site in March 2009 for which it drew a lot of flak. Despite of the negative from users, Facebook stuck to the new design; and eventually users also got used to it. Facebook continued its phenomenal growth even after the severe criticism on new design. This post talks about what can one infer from this event.

On March 11th this year, Facebook went for a redesign. The new design drew a lot of flak across the web. A Facebook polling application on the new site layout had 800,000 votes in 1 week, of which a resounding 95% gave it a Thumbs Down (link). We had users thrashing the new design with comments like “I hate it and if it doesn’t change I will only check it once in awhile.”

So what should have been the result? A fall in traffic for Facebook; or a mass exodus (or reduction in usage) of these disappointed and angry users. But what we are seeing instead is continuous and explosive growth in traffic and user-base of Facebook. In fact since March 2009, Facebook user-base has only grown (check the graph below). Facebook blog suggests that its registered user-base has grown from 200 million in April 2009 to 250 million in July 2009!

Facebook Unique Visitors Traffic
Facebook Unique Visitors Traffic

And for all the theories of “listening to customers” and the like, Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg actually sent out a mail to his employees reacting to this criticism for the new design implying “companies are stupid for listening to their customers”and “the most disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers” (link).

Does this signify pure arrogance and complete apathy towards customer feedback on part of Facebook? Facebook is a social networking product and a conversation among its members is the key offering. How can then Facebook risk disapproval of the very channel and way in which these conversations are taking place and getting shared on its network?

Or on the flip side, does this hint at how well Zukerberg knows his customers. Zukerberg knows why his users come to the site, and also at the same time perfectly understands why they would stay with Facebook. There is always a resistance to any change (whether good or bad), and when it is change to something as routine as Facebook has become for millions across the world, it was bound to create some noise.

Never has customer come up and told an innovator what innovation he needs. Back then in March, Facebook had just made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire Twitter for $500 million. This new design was an attempt to make the user-generated content more sharable. The wall posting on profile page had given way to “What’s on your mind?” status messages. Sharing external link or multi-media became easier. ‘Highlights’ on right hand column allowed popular and sticky content in your network become more prominent.

Public memory, in India and everywhere, is short. The huge uproar against the new design died out silently, and now everyone seems to have adjusted to it and is at peace with it. Facebook knows that it has crossed way back the critical mass barrier every social network faces. Its members have created huge networks on Facebook and viral effect of this network is bringing more and more members to the network. Content (user-generated) is sticky, and gets updated on regular basis. So unless you utterly mess with the design, users will be happy with what they have.

What is your take on this?

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