Touch Areas - Facebook Mobile

Facebook Android app – a UX minefield

I’m sorry. This is yet another post1 on more UX/UI mess that keeps bothering me.

Starting with something I recently started using after 8+ years – Facebook. FB earned a reprieve from the tech press after its change of heart on native smartphone apps. But their Android app is still way below par for what is the primary user interface for vast proportion of their users.

Here are 2 bits that bugged me right away…

FB Issue #1 – In-post touch areas

Touch Targets - Facebook Mobile
Touch Targets – Facebook Mobile

Facebook states that stories/posts that are posted natively get shared more widely to the followers, compared to those posted as links. Yet, the mobile interface makes it practically impossible to click-through to read those very natively-posted long posts.

See the example post in the image above.

  1. The bits highlighted in yellow all link to screen #1 – comments & likes. This includes the big block of (incomplete) text – the most non-intuitive bit. When I touch the incomplete text, I expect to be shown the full text, not the comments!
  2. The green highlight bit leads to the photo, which is as expected.
  3. That tiny, hard-to-reach-in-even-3rd-attempt red highlight bit saying ‘Continue Reading’ – it opens the rest of the post for reading.
    Yes, a miniscule touch area, sandwiched between 2 huge touch zones, will let you read the post! If you can get to it.
    I’ve actually given up on reading some posts after unsuccessfully trying to get to the full text.

My understanding for this horrible UI is that it was just copied over, without a single thought or UX test, from their desktop web UI. On desktop web, that small ‘continue reading’ link is how the full post text would be usually linked. But when the UI was moved, the excerpt text before that was linked to the ‘comments & likes UI’, instead of the ‘full post UI’.

Likelihood of correction: Low

Why won’t Facebook fix it?

Because comments & likes matter more than the full post content.

Comments & likes are metrics that both advertisers and common users care for, and pay for. Promoting that, even at cost of bad UX is an understandable business decision.

Also, Facebook knows better than anyone: It’s a photos and videos sharing network, where you like before you see. No one cares about text posts on Facebook!

FB Issue #2 – Hard to find ‘Settings’

The first issue may be a legacy problem – outcome of moving from a feature heavy desktop website to a constrained screen-estate environment. This second one can’t be blamed on legacy, it’s just horrendous app design.

For most modern smartphone apps, the ‘settings’ button is normally placed directly in the overflow menu – two touches away from the app’s main user interface. Look at examples of two other ‘social’ apps, Twitter & Google+ below:

Easy access settings - Twitter & Google+
Easy access settings – Twitter & Google+

Quick and simple, isn’t it? Not so easy on Facebook.

The settings buttons are hidden:

  • on the final (5th) tab,
  • about 4 screen lengths down,
  • in a long list of grey icons, preceded by a longer list of attention-grabbing, colourful icons.

Facebook really doesn’t want users to change their default settings! Even the logout button, though hard to find by itself, is slightly easier to locate than the settings (by virtue of being the last button).

What about the usual overflow icon (the 3 vertical dots on top right of most apps)? That’s been taken over to show a drawer for FB messages. But it doesn’t do anything in reality, other than direct you to FB’s separate messenger app. If you don’t use the app? Hard luck! That drawer stays there occupying valuable screen real-estate.

Facebook settings - Hard to reach
Facebook settings – Hard to locate

While the first issue may have its origins in a desktop legacy, this one seems to be a conscious gift from the growth (retention) hackers & user-data gatherers inside Facebook. Users finding settings easily may tighten their privacy, and reduce data that FB’s advertising partners can access.

Likelihood of correction: Nil

More, on Facebook’s Android app

Before I joined Facebook, I used to wonder how the app might have been structured given the wide variety of feature offerings that their desktop website has. It would have taken a lot of data and a strong will to narrow down the website to a tiny set of delightful, high-involvement features that they’d showcase as the mobile app. Separation of Messenger into a standalone app gave hope. It was not to be.

Facebook’s Android app feels like a mess – an attempt to fit the whole desktop website onto a smaller screen. I’m sure they had loads of data to guide them in which features to exclude, just not enough will-power to say No to a lot of big, powerful Product Managers.

How do others do it?

Google+ – the social network that has been pronounced dead by media once every quarter for years – is my favourite, going just by the app interface. Specially in the latest incarnation.

Google+ - Simple UI
Google+ – Simple UI
  • The main UI is just the *home* stream of update cards
  • The drop-down arrow helps visit other streams – specific circles, communities (groups), collections, events, etc.
  • The overflow menu leads to settings

The two non-stream, but popular, supplementary features – Photos & Instant Messaging (which are both way better than FB’s versions) – have been moved out into independent apps. If only it had more active users!

Twitter‘s app2, though nowhere near as good as it should be for such a linear service, is still way better than the Facebook app.

Twitter - Clean, but should be better
Twitter – Clean, but should be better

The mess in Twitter’s app is a reflection of the mess that their management is in, confused over which direction to take Twitter in. Yet, despite the confusion, they managed to produce a better app than Facebook.

Chris Basha's excellent redesign of Twitter Android app
Chris Basha’s excellent redesign of Twitter Android app

How much better can Twitter do with their app? They couldn’t find a better starting point than this excellent post by Chris Basha.

Conclusion: Facebook’s Android app is a horrible, mess, with too dense a UI, and terrible UX. Without the captive audience of 1B users locked in to their network, an app like this would be rotting, forgotten, at bottom of app marketplaces. The reason for this horrible app may be a combination of a desktop legacy,a weak UX team, and political power of marketing & non-mobile product managers. However, for a company with their size and ambitions, this is a woeful representation of their primary user interface, and needs to be urgently shored up.

The initial draft of this post had a few more, non-Facebook, UI/UX points. However, given this one is already long enough to require a tl;dr, I’ve moved the remaining points to a new post.

  1. Last few posts on UI & UX:
    – App Splash Screens – The Good, the bad and the ugly (read)
    – Improving Fenix for multi-account users (read)
    – Trello label upgrade – UI fine tuning (read) and followup, Trello labels – UI delight! (read)
    – A caution, while redesigning the old, boring credit card form (read)
    – New user sign up – do it later (read)
    – Thoughts on Google’s new Inbox (read
  2. I’ve personally never used Twitter’s own app on the phone, always preferring 3rd party apps that provide a much cleaner, and customisable experience.
    – My current favourite is Fenix.
    – Before it was Plume, till developer decided it was not worth developing it anymore given Twitter’s new user# restrictions
    – That was preceded by Tweetdeck, till Twitter bought and killed it. (Related)
    – And the first one was Gravity, which lasted till I moved to Android in 2010. 

2 thoughts on “Facebook Android app – a UX minefield”

  1. Any insights on why the networks with the most number of users (Facebook, LinkedIn) have the worst UI? Do most people not care about these things?

    1. Prime examples of downsides of monopolies. Neither of them has any practical competition.
      Users are locked in, with no competition, so little incentive to spend on improving apps.

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