Most Consistent, Least Astonished

I was duped. Tricked. Conned. I was not going to join the zombie Facebook hordes, but it happened anyway. But I am not here to whine about the fact that I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into the 2000s from the dark ages of the late 1990s. Facebook is actually kind of cool. It’s like Twitter, except everyone is using it instead of just the dorkiest people you know. My main problem with the system is that they have designed it so I never see the same thing when I load the main page, even when nothing has changed.

Coming from Twitter, my assumption was that the News Feed supposed to reflect a stream of updates from two sources: me and my “friends.” For the first week or two of use this assumption held up. Stuff came in from the people I knew. I posted stuff and it sat on the home page until new stuff replaced it.

But lately I’ve noticed that the news feed is not what it seems. I would post things and sometimes I’d see them and then sometimes they would disappear, and then sometimes they would come back. There was little rhyme or reason to how the content on the home page behaved.

What I imagine is going on is that the News Feed is using some complicated and no doubt extremely clever heuristics to show me content that I “want to see.” In general, unless you are google, you are going to get these heuristics wrong and occasionally the system will either show me something I’m not interested in or it will fail to show me what I actually wanted to see. This is OK as long as the behavior is predictable. But whatever Facebook is doing on their front page is so complicated and so clever that it has failed in two ways. Not only does it not do what I want, it also does not let me guess what it’s going to do so you can work around its failings. This illustrates the second most important principle of user interface design:

If you are going to try and be smart, be sure you always get the answer right. And if you can’t get the answer right, at least get the answer wrong in a consistent way.

Astute readers will recognize this as a version of the “principle of least astonishment.” What I am asking for is something slightly different though. I don’t care if I am initially surprised by how a system works as long as I can eventually deduce what the correct behavior is supposed to be. The only thing that is really unacceptable is non-determinism.

Luckily, all is not lost. Whoever built the Facebook client for the iPhone knew what they were doing. It also doesn’t show me exactly what I want. It seems to show me my most recent post but after that only posts by my friends. This is not ideal but I can live with it because at least it is consistent. Every time I load the main page it shows me the same thing, so I know what to expect.

I encourage for the developers of the News Feed feature on the front page talk to their cohorts on the iPhone team so that its behavior is more predictable. Meanwhile I’ll just pretend that the feed is never supposed to show anything that I post, since it usually doesn’t anyway. At least then I can be happy in my imagination rather than just constantly confused.

Now if I could only figure out why my posts also disappear for other people I’d finally be able to sleep at night.