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How to design for the Facebook Platform



Now that the initial frenzy has died down a bit, it’s becoming clearer what the Facebook Platform is good for — and hopefully how to design a Facebook app that will be worth the considerable development effort. Perhaps more intriguingly, it’s becoming clearer what the app “platform” is NOT good for… which is a surprisingly large set of possible use cases.
The most popular and effective Facebook apps seem to share the following characteristics:
* Graphical rather than textual
* Interactive rather than display
* Auto-updating or otherwise offering fresh content
* Very simple functionality

Put these criteria together, and you essentially come up with an awful lot of cute “poke” and “wall-writing” apps — basically better versions of existing Facebook functionality — and very little else. (Including, speaking of cute ways of poking, Renkoo’s Booze Mail app, which attempts to appeal to a topic of universal interest for the Facebook demographic.) Apps that fail to meet these tests seem to fall by the wayside rather quickly, as more attractive alternatives arise and/or “app staleness” leads to summary deletion.
To be fair, when Facebook Platform was originally rolled out, none of this was clear. It seemed at first that “More about me” apps would be the most popular. For example, a very high percentage of my friends (who are admittedly not the normal Facebook demographic) installed the Compass app. However, they all uninstalled it pretty quickly too. Same goes for a myriad of other apps that merely:

* Displayed pre-packaged content
* Let you display more info about yourself
* Gave your friends something fun to do that you would never see/share
Basically any widget that just sits on your profile page without facilitating interaction between you and your friends seems headed for the ash-heap of Facebook Platform history.

Another issue that has emerged since launch is the extremely limited functionality that can be realistically supported by the Facebook Platform — not for technical reasons per se, but due to subtle usability limitations. For instance, I was initially very excited about Roshambull… but it quickly became apparent that the functionality is just too awkward to achieve gracefully within Facebook, with no JavaScript or Flash (exacerbated by the stupid best-of-three format). I’m guessing Facebook will eventually be forced to support richer interactions but for now the Platform is about as dynamic to use as Yahoo circa 1998.

Similarly, the Flixter Movies app is one of the most fully-featured in the whole system, but it inadvertently ends up proving how difficult it is to shove a lot of functionality into a small space effectively. The Movies app also demonstrates one of the key truths of Facebook: the users won’t write anything longer than a sentence, especially in the limited space of the Platform apps. Compare the length and depth of reviews on the main Flixter site with their counterparts on the Movies app — half of my friends’ “reviews” devolve to the single word “Okay” — to see exactly how difficult it will be to get even semi-decent content OUT of Facebook users.

One fascinating side-note of the Facebook Platform is how much users seem to want to turn it into MySpace… which the platform actually now makes mostly possible. Despite all the complaining about how junky and cluttered and fugly MySpace is, when given a choice an enormous number of Facebook users seem to want music, video, top friends lists, and blinged-out horoscopes. Of course this negatively impacts the carefully cultivated minimalist design of Facebook — but whether users will care in the long run remains to be seen.

In sum: once you get over the hype about Facebook Platform, you need to seriously consider whether a “non-interactive” app which might only attract a few thousand users will be worth your company’s development and maintenance costs. The apps list now has plenty of examples of what works and what doesn’t — some really big names with good ideas have surprisingly small userbases. For Renkoo, helping users get their drink on with friends is part of our core mission so Booze Mail was a good step for us; but if your business does not involve helping people toast each other, the Facebook Platform might not deliver the ROI you have been expecting.good result.
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