When Facebook released their Home launcher app on April 12th, predictions were rife. It would end up on every smartphone, with the average user not knowing the difference between Home and their phone’s OS. It would destroy Google’s strategy with Android, encouraging users to use Facebook rather than Google services. It would track every move users make, removing all concept of privacy. It would show investors that Facebook had turned a corner, and now understood mobile. It would… be a massive flop?
Recently, EE announced that the HTC First, the mid-range Android phone with Facebook’s Home launcher pre-installed, would be delayed in the UK while Facebook makes Home a bit more engaging, and might even be canned altogether. This is hardly surprising given that in the US AT&T first lowered its price to $0.99 on a two-year contract, then discontinued it altogether following reports that only 15,000 had been sold.
Of course, the fortunes of the HTC First don’t equate to those of Facebook’s launcher app, which is available as a free download from the Google Play app store. Surely it would be easier to get users to download a free app than to purchase a new phone? The app has over a million installs but an average rating of just 2.3 out of 5, with the modal review being 1 star; and with over 9,000 1 star review compared to 3,400 5 star reviews (the second highest) it’s clear something has gone terribly wrong (NB: statistics taken from Google Play and correct at time of writing).
Identifying exactly what has gone wrong is rather less obvious. The particularly interesting part is the fairly binary nature of reviews: the two most common ratings are 1 star and 5 stars, suggesting this is an app and phone concept which has polarised users rather than being a complete flop. I find it interesting that this seems to be a trend in technology at the moment: take a look at reviews of Google Glass or Windows 8 and what really stands out is that users either love it or hate it.
Perhaps it’s just a reaction to the frenetic march of technology in our lives; a sense of powerlessness created by constant change or just that we are getting the impression that changes are being made in order to show us more ads rather than to make us more connected and productive. Regardless, it’s clear that a major concern with Home is the way it turns your phone into one big Facebook feed.
This isn’t limited to Home locking users into Facebook (more precisely, making it difficult for them to find other apps), but because of concerns over the way it just shows your home feed, all the time, and there is no way to police it. This is a recipe for information overload, even worse when the excess information also seems irrelevant.
Meanwhile, other users found that rather than too much Facebook, it provided too little. That’s too little of the actual Facebook experience; Home had fallen into the trap encountered by so many “mobile sites” of providing a cut down experience that removed what they liked in the first place. In this case, that includes the ability to see updates like notifications. Which rather removes the “conversation” aspect that underpins social networks in the first place.
Then there’s the actual architecture and design of the app, which is nothing short of a user experience disaster… and an eminently avoidable one. Facebook Home doesn’t support Android widgets, which are mini-apps which run on the phone’s homescreen and provide shortcuts and updates. These are one of the best-liked Android features so it was puzzling to see that Facebook didn’t provide much support for them.
The reason is that Home was created by iPhone users (the iPhone doesn’t use widgets) and these developers didn’t take the time to learn the various ways Android is different, or research how Android users like to interact with their devices.
Users are also concerned about the data and battery use of Home, and as Facebook is reportedly working to fix these problems it would appear that they stem from the app’s design. Once these fixes are made, Home should provide a more compelling case for users who would like this deep Facebook integration on their phone, but Home’s struggles highlight that users aren’t going to accept a half-baked experience.
Comparisons with Windows 8 (especially the Metro interface) could possibly go further, to explore how users relate to a shell on top of an OS. Both Facebook and Microsoft struggled to really articulate what these are: either that or they remain deliberately vague fearing a user backlash against the truth.
In both cases, the additional piece has a clear concept behind it; Facebook Home tries to make your phone centred around people and interactions, not apps; so does Metro with its live tiles. And both have been a flop: Facebook Home is being urgently redesigned; Windows 8.1 is being driven to an early launch; and Windows 8 apps are rarely used even on tablets. The two services provide a pair of important lessons to the industry.
First, when people get a new thing, an “upgrade”, what they want isn’t a totally new experience; instead they want exactly the same experience, just better. They want the little bugs ironed out. They want the things that get in the way of their workflow removed. But they want it to innovate on their terms, not those of the service provider, and especially not when said provider is suspected of wanting to farm them to ad agencies.
Secondly, users really like having a perfect, polished experience. They want to feel like you’ve invested money and time in making it perfect, for them. They want to pick it up and feel like it belongs. A couple of years ago it seemed like Android was doomed to be a mass market, cheap alternative to the iPhone, which brought the smartphone experience to users on a budget. Now, the HTC One has been reviewed as possibly the best smartphone on the market. The reason is that in both software and hardware, the One feels as polished as the iPhone.
So in conclusion, it would seem that the concept behind Facebook Home, of a custom launcher that displays updates that you are interested in, in a very attractive way, and lets you interact with your friends even more easily, is a good one. However, the limiting factor of Home is your Facebook friends: if they post images you don’t want to see, don’t share your taste in news or simply aren’t very interesting (surely not!) then it won’t be very interesting. However as various commenters have said, once this becomes available for Instagram it will become a very interesting way to interact with your mobile.