We have all seen Facebook chipping in new features from time to time. Be it the much-hyped and (unbelievably) criticized Timeline feature for your profile page, or the planktons of tweaks with your chat boxes – Facebook ensures that you never get bored with the blue-and-white interface and have something new to try out. But how do they do it? How can this bunch of engineers at Menlo Park possess such Godly powers to foresee the future and tell what people will like and what not?
How do they do it?
Well, there is nothing to get spiritual here. It is nothing but a part of their perennial process to introduce and test new products on a small group of Facebook users before releasing it for everyone. Everyday hundreds of tests are run on the social network and their effect is gauged through various parameters. For example, when you find friends on Facebook, the page used to contain maximum no. of names and faces of probable buddies to minimize scrolling. A test was run in which the number of people showed per page was reduced by 60% but each person was given more space and a larger button to engage with. And the statistics showed a 70% increase in friend requests! Given a more consumable interface, people were more able to find people they wanted to connect with. Hence this new feature was right away incorporated. This is just one instance out of many where user response determines the fate of a test feature.
Given that there are hundreds of tests running simultaneously, how is it ensured that they do not collide with each other? For it, Facebook uses a sophisticated and flexible tool called gatekeeper that prevents such a mishap. Hence, this allows things to get rolled out slowly and improvements to be made along.
The story of the chat bar
Would you like to know how the new chat bar came up? Facebook testers normally apply tests to a group of random users and wait for the feedback. But this was not the tradition around a year back. As Mr. Boz, Director of Engineering at Facebook recalls, “In our research, we found that the vast majority of chats from any individual on Facebook are to a relatively small group of their friends.” So, instead of displaying all the names in alphabetical order, they developed a chat bar that showed the names of only the closest buddies on the right. This was tested internally on employees, but the results were not at all encouraging. When after a month long debate nothing could be finalized, Boz’s team decided to ship the feature for everyone. And voila! The system recorded a 9% drop in chats which going by numbers was quite large. So, the team sprang into action and within a week they made a new chat bar that displayed all online friends and not just the closer ones.
The lesson learnt was quite meaningful. “This is what we mean when we say ship early, ship often. It means that when we’re able to iterate, people on Facebook get better experiences sooner than they would otherwise”, Boz writes. That’s what they do every day, again and again, bringing out features and testing them. And the users (us!) become an integral part of the process. So from next time if you notice something fishy, thank your luck lords that you are ‘a part of the testing team at Facebook’.