Facebook Home isn’t a mobile operating system. But normal users who buy or download the Home experience won’t know or care. They’ll suddenly have Facebook phones that look, feel, and behave totally different from Android phones.
And the answer to the question “What kind of phone do you have?” will be “Facebook.”
“In a lot of ways, this is a totally new type of phone,” said Facebook product designer Justin Stahl via email.
“Traditionally, phones and operating systems were designed with apps and tasks in mind. With this, we wanted to recreate the most social device you have around people.”
In a roundabout way, Facebook has gotten into the mobile OS game without actually building a mobile OS.
It’s kind of like what Google did with Chrome OS. They took a browser — a downloadable piece of software — and stuck it on top of an open-source operating system (Linux). They then distributed it on hardware, making it difficult for normal folks to see or use the core OS underneath their own software.
Now, Home doesn’t block a user from getting to the parts of Android they’re expecting to use. It just makes it a little bit more difficult. But the extra layer of software between the user and Android is significant enough to make it, in the eyes of the non-technical beholder, an entirely different animal.
In a recent interview with VentureBeat, Facebook product director Adam Mosseri said most users will think of Home as an OS, but this doesn’t matter too much (as it shouldn’t).
“It’s important that people understand it’s software, and they’ll understand because they can download it,” he said.
“We didn’t think of it as being in the mobile OS game. People and content should be first, and we thought that needed to happen at a really deep level. Apps get in the way.”
So rather than a UI/UX paradigm that’s all about opening and closing apps, Facebook is serving something totally different. “If we can be a homescreen, we can get all that content and bubble up what’s most important to you,” said Mosseri. “It’s a new way to organize the information on your phone.”
And from the user side, all that new, beautiful organization, while it’s not technologically divorced from its less-organized roots, counts as a new operating system, if only from a look-and-feel perspective.
“Phones and computers have been designed for tasks and apps for decades, so we were thrilled to have the rare opportunity to shake things up, to build something personal and fun,” Stahl said.
An OS for normalcy
When designing Home, Facebook’s designers, developers, and product team took the product into the real world for massive amounts of testing, making sure the interfaces and navigation controls would hold up under pressure.
“We looked at a million different use cases and tried to figure out the best way to solve each,” said Stahl. “What if you had only a few minutes while standing in line somewhere? What if you needed to quickly launch an app?”
While Stahl said that a lot of Home will be familiar enough, close enough to traditional mobile design, other elements will require users to abandon their comfort zones — row of tiny app icons, complicated widgets.
To compensate for Home’s departures from typical Android UIs, Stahl said, “We’ve tried to fill Home with moments of delight. The navigation is streamlined and intuitive, people get it right away. Immersive photos of you and your friends fill the screen. Objects move naturally and organically.”
And Stahl and Mosseri both pointed out how intentionally playful the interface and all its little details can be.
“We wanted to add an element of whimsy in there,” said Stahl. “Take Chat Heads, for instance. It allows you to keep conversations with your friends close at hand, but it’s also kind of delightful to move them around or fling them across the screen. We want this product to be as fun as it is useful.”
And for those moments when you encounter something too new, there’s Blues Clues, an internal name for coaching prompts that help new users find their way around the UI.
“They’re little tips to show you what you want to do,” said Mosseri. “This is something that grows on you, the more you use it the more you like it. We call it contextual help.” And, he said, the more features Home gets, the more clues you’ll see to guide you along.
Getting out of the way
The most interesting thing about Home is that it’s not, as others have called it, a lock screen. The phone it unlocked the minute you tap its button, and you’re immediately swimming around in your Facebook News Feed — but it’s bigger, brighter, prettier, and better than ever before.
There is no OS, there is no menu, no navigation. Just you and your friends and family, sharing jokes, pictures from the day, funny links, important moments.
“I love the moment you turn on your phone because it lights up with something amazing,” said Mosseri. “Having something meaningful show up the second I turn on my phone is by far my favorite part of the experience.”
Mosseri continued that since he started working at Facebook six years ago, minimalism has always been a guiding design philosophy: to get out of the way and let users find and enjoy their stuff.
“Now, back then, that meant small type, small icons, thin blue bars, and the content was a larger percentage of the page, but it wasn’t big,” he said. “Then our interfaces got more and more complicated. Now, we want to go back to those roots, to make content big and beautiful.
“And we want to take care of content better, to respect that content. Poeple care about people, not about Facebook. It’s an aesthetic but it’s also a design value.”
As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said over and over through the past few years, Facebook’s core goal is to connect the world, to make it more open to connections.
“That means pushing ourselves to design the best mobile experience across all platforms, to everyone on every phone,” said Stahl. “We’ll continue to innovate and create immersive products that speak to our core value of putting people first.”
Home isn’t just for phones
For our interview with Mosseri, we were sitting in a small room at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. The announcement of Home had been made some seven hours before. He was slated to do mini-chats with press and bloggers all day in a junket format and had been talking and talking, answering the same slew of questions over and over for hours on end.
But even that natural fatigue didn’t dim his obvious enthusiasm for the product he’d put so much time and effort into. In fact, he said, he is looking forward to seeing elements of Home popping up on non-mobile screens soon, as well.
“It’s a new step, a step forward, and you’ll see us move our other products forward as well.” He thinks of Facebook’s mobile side, which updates its apps every month or so, kind of like Facebook’s iTunes. “Every time Apple releases a new version of iTunes, that will influence the design of their other desktop apps,” said Mosseri. “There’s a lot of value there.”
So, what Homey touches can we expect to see in other Facebook experiences?
“Chat heads would be awesome in the Facebook app,” Mosseri said. “A lot of the design values — less chrome, better physics, bigger images, the way everything moves and feels natural — everything should feel this fast and fluid and simple, really. And so we’ll do it more and more.”