Facebook's Paper App & Its Undesirable UI Direction
A Review from a Dormant Facebook User
For someone who doesn't regularly use Facebook (as in: next to never), I'm going to proceed to tell you what I think of its recently released app, Paper. The reason I cared anything at all about Paper was because I'd been a fan of its lead designer, Mike Matas, since his days running Push Pop Press. Back then, he was straight out of Apple, building a company that was intended to go on to produce really cool eBooks (but only ended up developing one, Al Gore's Our Choice). As per usual, he was gobbled up by Facebook's deep purse and sent to work on what the social media giant likely hopes is the future of their main app's design.
On a number of levels, this should be exciting -- Facebook uses a great team to develop, in isolation, a new app that is a radical departure from traditional mobile design. It's rare for a company that big to invest significant money and resources into something that may not live long beyond a test. As it ended up, this effort manifested into a kind of hybrid of sorts: a news reader that happens to also present your Facebook news feed. Yeah, one of those news readers. Again.
Everyone seems to want a piece of the news-consuming action, but no one has been able to successfully pull in mainstream audiences to it (the New York Times has recently dipped into this with their new NYT Now product). A few of us had to flock somewhere new after the Google Reader fiasco, but mainstream Internet users probably don't even remember what that was -- or even know what RSS is. So Facebook is trying to tackle challenge no one asked for: bridging Facebook news feeds and regular news feeds into one mega app.
To address this challenge, the app has been designed with a two-panel layout: the upper panel is a large square housing rotating media (mostly photos) from either your Facebook feed or from headlines from one of the news sections. The lower-half of the design is dedicated to a horizontal carousel of updates -- e.g., Facebook posts or news articles. Flick upward on a card, and it zooms into the whole screen for a summary. Flick again on any shared content in the zoomed-in card, and you will pull up the entire referenced content. The animations are smooth, clever, and neat. There is a clear approach to this design that requires very few visual cues. It's intuitive.
But after having popped it open on occasion over the last few weeks, I can say that neither the design nor the intended features have met my satisfaction. And more importantly, I think this new design paradigm is a poor direction for a user interface shake-up (for which it was clearly intended).
Design & Usability
As with this design team's previous efforts, the design of and interaction with the app is a high-class experience. Everything runs smoothly, including the very impressive zooming, stretching, and flipping that can happen in rapid succession.
But performance is only one part to the whole package -- usability is another thing entirely. And this is the area where Paper falls short: The horizontal slider is the worst idea for Paper's main method of navigating through an endless news stream. By the tenth swipe, my thumb is utterly cramped. You would think this would have been tested time and again by regular users, but I don't believe it. It is not superior to what works right now, and by trying to push a new interaction paradigm, Facebook overstepped their bounds with style over function.
Paper also idiotically handles one of its most commonly shared media types: large-format, widescreen photos. When holding a mobile device vertically, you must tilt the device to "pan and scan" the entire image. This didn't work with VHS's terrible ruination of film in the 80s and 90s, and it still doesn't work in the 21st century. Having to pan across a large photos sucks the life out its composition. Again, this isn't an improvement; it's a side-step to nowhere.
The news feed and "editorial" curation from Facebook's team of -- what, engineers? Curation experts? -- just isn't my thing. I could care less what they think I'm interested in, especially when the content buckets are such lumbering seas like Politics, Tech, and Headlines. I have my own RSS process for curating content I want to read and from whom, and I have never liked anything via Facebook, so they have no idea what I would care about anyway. Again, other folks might find it useful based on their involvement with Facebook, but it seems half-assed and a "has been" compared to other comparable services.
I've also never once posted anything to Facebook -- aside from when it originally came to my college in 2004 and I posted stupid shit on people's walls -- so I can't say much about the posting and editing functionality of the app. It does, however, look to be the best-implemented feature. You simply pull down on the entire canvas of content to view your actions. You have a link to your profile, you can create a post, edit your feed sections, or go directly to the app's settings, which also appear to include privacy settings and shortcuts for your Facebook profile. Flicking up to dismiss this area of the app easily brings back your main two-panel view to get back into things.
Paper tries to strike out a new path for app design and interaction, but it seems only surface-thick. With actual usage, I can't imagine anyone preferring the miniscule horizontal swipe carousel over the traditional vertical swipe of every other app. Horizontal carousel work well for small bits of navigation (let's say four to five items in a shopping app, for instance); as the main way to view a constantly updated, infinite stream -- not so much.
Re-engaging with Facebook on these occasional spurts of Paper use also reminded me why I never visit the site other than for "work" -- it is a horrifying place worthy of no one's time.