In 2005 Sean Parker, co-creator of Napster, a music-sharing service, visited a design firm to discuss a new company where he’d recently taken up the role of president. Parker, who was handling the startup’s brand identity, brought along its founder: a 21-year-old called Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg began the meeting with a sceptical question: “Tell me...guys, what is ‘design’?”
Today Facebook is the biggest social network on the planet, with any number of employees dedicated to its look and feel. Zuckerberg has pushed design into a realm far beyond branding. On Facebook, it’s a machine to keep users sharing.
The row of icons at the top of the Facebook app is the main menu for navigating the site – and like much of Facebook, in conventional terms it is badly designed. The icons are unlabelled and low contrast.
It’s not clear what the difference is between “friends” (represented by two figures side by side) and “profile” (represented by one figure in a circle). That makes it awful to use. But usability isn’t the point. These dull icons are mere background for something more important.
Suddenly, a tomato-red dot appears, the brightest thing in your sightline. This dot represents a Facebook notification, and it functions like a prize in a video game, a status reinforced by the refresh motion – swiping down the screen – with which users check if another dot has arrived. From a technical perspective, the gesture is redundant – apps can refresh themselves. But the motion’s creator Loren Brichter admits that “pull-to-refresh is addictive”. “To maximise addictiveness,” says Tristan Harris of the Centre for Humane Technology, “all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward.”
If someone tries to retreat, they are confronted by a different type of game: a maze. In May 2018 a new European privacy law required websites to give users greater control over their personal information. Facebook offered two choices: “manage data settings” or “accept and continue”. Anyone who chose the former was presented with a long series of clicks, with no progress bar to indicate how many there were still to go. On the desktop version of this form, some campaigners for data protection claimed to see fake notification dots, which made it look as if Facebook was trying to distract users by suggesting they had new messages waiting. A study of Facebook users showed that, over time, people try to protect their privacy on the site. According to researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Facebook’s design “countered such privacy-seeking behaviour”, often by stimulating feelings designers usually try to avoid: frustration and confusion.•