Designing for the lowest common denominator

Written by Yaron Schoen March 28, 2014

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When it launched around a year ago, the new Facebook feed design looked like a fresh approach. Large photos, great typography, engaging modules… I was actually really excited to start using it, as I felt that the concept of the “feed” was ready for a visual tweak.

A few days ago I finally got the new Facebook UI, but it wasn't the one I saw being presented a year ago. It was a somewhat “dumbed” down one (at least in my mind). Small photos, a huge sidebar with a ton of options I don’t use, and small typography. It wasn't the end of the world, but I was kind of disappointed.

Today I read a wonderful article by Facebook’s Design Director Julie Zhou where she explains their thinking. Look, I totally get it. I worked at Twitter. I know what it’s like to have to design for EVERYONE. I clearly understand the benefits too. I also know that designing for EVERYONE is the new black. It’s cool. It shows your chops as a designer/organization/team/whatever. But if we really stop to think about it, we're “dumbing” down our design to cater for the lowest common denominator.

Thanks to Ethan and the RWD movement, we now plan our designs to match any size screen, whether it be 40” plasmas or 2” screens on a fridge using media queries. Great. What a headache. Thanks Ethan. I’m kidding, it’s glorious. But we don’t stop at screen size. We now also design native apps for different mobile platforms. Those designs are tweaked to match each platform’s unique environment. They are faster, more responsive, and account for the platform’s unique interactions. It’s a ton of work, but for now, the benefits are clear.

So why are we still designing for one type of user? Why can't I, as a power user that has a powerful 27” computer, enjoy the previous Facebook UI with the glorious images and large typography? I'd definitely use it more.

I am quite aware of the fact that this mindset can lead us into an endless rabbit hole, but perhaps it’s worth thinking of? We are at the age of digital products that cater billions of people, but we are not all alike. If that‘s the case, perhaps our UIs shouldn't be either?

Just a thought.

I use “dumbing” down, but I don't like that phrase and I don't actually mean everyone in the world is dumb. Obviously. I’m just blanking and can't think of a different phrase to describe what I mean. Let me know if you do and I will update the post.

This is by no means a critique of Facebook’s new design or design team. Ton of respect to them. This is just me thinking out loud.

Written in New York. © 2012