A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
Facebook got some criticism from prominent users over the past week as it introduced a Stories-like feature called Messenger Day into its Messenger app. The blowback was somewhat surprising, because the equivalent feature in Instagram has been a huge hit over the last nine months or so, and has been blamed for Snapchat’s slowing user growth in the second half of last year. However, I would argue that the rollout of Messenger Day within Messenger is a symptom of a broader problem afflicting Facebook at the moment: It’s trying too hard, especially when it comes to new features.
Caution in 2012 over mobile ads
Back in 2012, as Facebook was readying for its IPO, some investors were worried that Facebook hadn’t yet figured out how to monetize its growing mobile audience. It had just begun to serve up ads in the News Feed on the desktop site, but hadn’t yet begun to do so on mobile. The reason appeared to be an abundance of caution over spoiling the mobile user experience. In March, Facebook did introduce mobile ads for the first time, but with both the News Feed ads overall and mobile ads in particular, Facebook remained very careful not to overload users with ads or overwhelm them with unexpected new experiences.
During this period, and for quite some time afterward, caution was the watchword. It served Facebook well, as mobile ad revenue went from zero in 2011 to 11 percent of ad revenue in 2012, and 84 percent of ad revenue in 2016. Though both the numbers of ads shown and the revenue they generated rose quickly, they did so in a way that didn’t break that fundamental rule of not ruining the user experience. Above all, Facebook seemed committed to prioritizing the user experience over all else, including its strategic objective to drive mobile advertising revenue.
Live video: The first sign of trouble
I would argue the first signs of trouble over this apparent rule at Facebook came with its rollout of live video. That feature itself wasn’t overly intrusive at first but, over time, Facebook appeared very keen to get users to engage with the feature more, whether posting their own videos or viewing live videos created by others. That meant increasingly obvious and arguably more intrusive indicators of live videos in users’ feeds, in picture-in-picture videos that popped up in the corner of the app and eventually in the dedicated video tab. That last was particularly egregious in its use of notification-like red numbers which indicated there were new videos available to watch even though users hadn’t turned notifications on, and there was, in fact, no way to turn this feature off.
This was the first time Facebook appeared to sacrifice the user experience to a strategic objective, contrary to how it had handled the early rollout of News Feed and mobile ads four years earlier and, to some extent, it broke an unspoken commitment it had made to users. In this case, of course, there wasn’t even a direct financial incentive for Facebook to do so (unlike with its rollout of ads in 2012), and this was really just a case of Facebook saying the user behavior it wanted to see was more important than what users were actually doing in the app.
Messenger Day follows the same pattern
With the launch of Messenger Day, Facebook is arguably repeating this same pattern, sacrificing the user experience for a strategic objective. That’s particularly sad because the Instagram Stories rollout was so successful. One of the best features of Instagram Stories is how unobtrusively the new feature was added, with tiny circles that appeared at the top of the screen when you first open the app and then disappear as you scroll down. When there are new Stories, and even when Instagram itself chooses to use the format to notify users about new features in the app, the notifications are subtle and not distracting.
The rollout of Messenger Day, by contrast, is massively distracting and obtrusive. First of all, Facebook took over the camera button with a sun icon in the first day or two, messing with a core feature of the app. Secondly, the Messenger Day stories from friends are far larger and less in keeping with the overall design of the app than their Instagram counterparts. There’s also a prominent invitation to post to your day right in the middle of the app screen at launch.
The stupid thing here is Facebook didn’t have to do any of this. Instagram Stories was so well received precisely because it added useful functionality in a way that didn’t detract in any significant way from the existing experience of the app. You could use the app entirely as you always had without having to scroll past distracting new content or user interface elements. You weren’t accosted with invitations to share your own Stories, and yet, if you chose to view Stories shared by others or to post your own, the experience was great. That, in turn, drove significant usage by the base and made the feature a hit.
Extending the feature to Messenger is absolutely logical. It worked in Instagram, and Messenger feels like another natural home, given Stories inventor Snapchat’s focus on messaging. But, of course, the Snapchat experience is divided into multiple screens, with the messaging interface separate from the content interface (which is where Stories show up, alongside Discover content). Swipe right from the camera to reach Chat, swipe left to find Stories. The Messenger app, by contrast, is entirely dedicated to messaging — all the content is in the core Facebook app, now an entirely separate experience. So, if anything, Facebook needed to make the Messenger Day feature even less intrusive, rather than more so, in Messenger.
A breakable pattern
This pattern isn’t set at this point — though we’ve now seen two examples of Facebook breaking the user experience to promote a feature it cares about more than its users, it hasn’t gone too far to turn back. It can still revert to its previous strategy of treating the core user experience as sacrosanct and only adding features in ways that preserve the experience while subtly introducing new features or functionality. It needs to get back to the ethos that guided its careful introduction of advertising back in 2012, and dial back the hard push for adoption of new features.
Facebook is simply trying too hard to drive user change that will come naturally if the features are compelling enough and presented unobtrusively enough to feel compelling rather than obnoxious.
Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.