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Why Facebook will cut the Timeline in half

Facebook is experimenting with a one-column Timeline instead of two. Here's why that matters.

November 3, 2012 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Facebook is testing a new design for its Timeline interface. Instead of two columns of updates, the experimental interface has just one.

Half the columns makes it twice as nice.

I expect Facebook to implement the experimental layout, or a variation on it, systemwide.

The reason is that Facebook's current, multi-column stream is amateur-hour design that subtly irritates and frustrates mainstream users.

In fact, serving up a design that features undifferentiated multi-column stream layouts is the easiest way for social content stream companies to limit the broad appeal of their product.

Facebook's one-column experiment

Facebook timeline
Facebook's experimental Timeline layout uses one mainstream column instead of two. (Image: Inside Facebook)

Pulse page
A news-aggregator app called Pulse is one of the worst violators of good, linear design.

When you click your name in the upper left corner of the current Facebook interface, you're taken to your Facebook Timeline.

The Timeline has two columns of equal width and "weight," or visual emphasis, separated by a blue line.

A mostly algorithm-selected list of reverse-chronological user posts begins top left. On the right are "modules," such as "Activity," "Friends," "Photos," "Likes," "Places" and apps.

When the modules run out, the Timeline fills in the space with more Timeline posts.

As you continue to scroll down the page, you see two equal columns side-by-side all the way back in time to your birth, theoretically.

From a design perspective, the current Facebook Timeline is a train wreck.

The new experimental design makes a lot more sense. It gives more emphasis to the left column by making it wider -- it spans about 60% the width of the page, leaving about 40% to the "modules." And when the "modules" end, the space is left blank.

This subtle change doesn't entirely "fix" the Timeline's busy structure, but it improves it a lot.

If I was grading the design as a teacher, I'd give the experimental layout a solid B, and the current design a D-. Users will enjoy Facebook more once the company rolls out the redesign.

Where non-linear streams come from

The decision by Facebook and other companies (below) to both ignore centuries of content design best practices and the entire history of online content streams exposes the hubris of Silicon Valley, which favors change -- any change -- over the status quo.

It also reveals a decision-making process by a certain type of Silicon Valley company. I've worked with many valley startups and I've occasionally encountered software developers who reason that because coding is "harder" than anything else in the company, programmers are "smarter" than their co-workers. Because they believe they're smarter, they reason that they are better able to solve design, marketing and other problems better than specialists in those areas.

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