Elgan: Why you'll love Facebook Lite

The social network's new design is brilliant, but will it spark a revolution? I hope so

Facebook Lite became available to members in the U.S. and India this week. Facebook Lite was reportedly developed for people in countries with slow Internet connections, but Facebook noticed that American beta testers loved it, so they rolled it out here.

Facebook Lite loads much faster than the regular version. The HTML is optimized, so there's less code for browsers to download. The new version has fewer and smaller ads and pictures.

The Lite version works beautifully on smart phones. It's ideal for netbooks and the coming generation of smart books. It's better for laptops and mobility in general. And I think it's better for full-size, large-screen desktops, too.

Here's an incomplete list of differences in Facebook Lite:

  • Smaller type
  • No way to get to "applications" and "pages."
  • No way to "chat"
  • "Groups" is gone
  • "Events" and "birthdays" appear in a single line above the main feed.
  • Fewer and smaller ads
  • Profile photo removed
  • Left navigation bar removed
  • "What's on your mind?" bar removed

I asked my Facebook friends and Twitter followers how they like Facebook Lite, and everyone who responded said they prefer it to the regular version. But why?

I pointed out back in May that "every massively popular new way to communicate in the past few years has shared the attribute of perfect linearity." (I'm talking about e-mail, instant messaging, blogs and others.) I wrote that "linearity imposes clarity on information, and puts the user's mind at ease ... People love linearity." What Facebook has done with Lite is to make Facebook linear.

The difference between Facebook Lite and regular Facebook perfectly illustrates the superiority of the Lite approach.

Normal Facebook is mildly stressful to use. The page has multiple "points of entry," to use a phrase from the print publication design world, which means more than one place to start reading. It has three columns, and each column has multiple categorized boxes of content. In a nutshell, there's "stuff" all over the place and options galore. It's a nightmare.

Facebook Lite, on the other hand, has exactly one "point of entry" -- the top item on your linear "Top Stories" list. It simply feels good to use. Dave Winer, an influential software developer, writer and entrepreneur, summed up Thursday how many of us feel about the new Facebook Lite by posting on his Facebook page: "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh."

Facebook Lite's linearity is precisely why Google beats Yahoo, and why Twitter is growing so fast. It explains why iGoogle isn't popular and why the iPhone is preferred over Windows Mobile devices.

Facebook Lite will prove massively popular. But will it trigger a revolution in site design? It should.

Who needs a 'Lite' version?

The lesson here for just about every Web site that displays content is that minimalist linearity rules. Here are the sites that could really use the Lite treatment:

Yahoo Lite

Yahoo's main home page is a riot of options in three columns. Yahoo Lite should keep the search bar at the top and the left options bar, but lose the right column. The main column should shed boxes and tabs and present new information in a Twitter-like feed that auto-refreshes. Users should be able to customize by eliminating categories of content.

YouTube Lite

The YouTube main page tries way too hard to pitch options and videos and advertising. By emphasizing everything, YouTube emphasizes nothing. YouTube Lite should offer the search bar at top, then present everything -- even advertising -- in a single, newest-item-first listing. Go ahead and concisely categorize these items with the existing nomenclature: "Most popular," "Featured," etc., but present them in reverse chronological order, rather than all at once, all the time.

Craigslist Lite

When you enter the Craiglist home page, you're greeted by more than 400 links on a single page. That's at least 350 links too many. While Craiglist should keep the regular version because it can be fun to browse, the Lite version should enable you to choose which city and categories you want to know about and let them stream as posted.

You get the picture. Other sites that should get the Lite treatment include the BBC home page, Google News, CNN, eBay, the Internet Movie Database and many more.

Lite versions make content sites better for mobile devices, which are the future of mainstream Web browsing. But most importantly, they thrill users.

I hope the industry learns from Facebook's brilliant new design: People want to go Lite!

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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