Thesis exercise: Draw the Facebook news feed.

This week, we were asked to create a Joseph Cornell-style shadow box as an exercise in visualizing our thesis project. I decided to use the assignment as an opportunity to test out an idea I had about user experience design, memory, and Facebook.

I wanted to use the analogy of a city to understand the process by which users make sense of opaque processes like algorithms. Cities, like algorithms, are massive and hard to wrap our heads around.

According to one article I read, “City planner Kevin Lynch developed design principles for urban design by asking city dwellers to sketch maps of their environments from memory. In so doing, he learned what features of a city are more or less memorable in support of a ‘cognitive image.’ Based on an assumption that easily ‘imaged’ cities make for better cities, he then moved to develop design recommendations for urban planners.”

I decided to apply this exercise of drawing from memory to the Facebook algorithm. I asked 6 friends to draw their Facebook News Feed from memory (without looking at their Facebook page). Here were the results:

Some observations:

First, I noticed that 4 people drew the browser version of Facebook and 2 people drew the Facebook mobile app. I hadn’t specified in my directions and it was interesting to see which version they jumped to first.

Second, I noticed that there were certain UI features people tended to remember more often. Here’s what was most visible/memorable:

  • Upper right bar (notifications/menu/home) (6/6)
  • Friend updates (6/6)
  • FB logo (5/6)
  • Advertisements (4/6)
  • Events (4/6)
  • Trending news (4/6)
  • FB chat (3/6)
  • Comments/likes (3/6)
  • Status prompt, “What’s on your mind?” (3/6)
  • Search bar (2/6)
  • Friend live updates (2/6)
  • Sponsored posts (1/6)
  • Birthdays (1/6)
  • Left sidebar options (1/6)

Here’s what wasn’t visible/memorable:

  • Lower right hand Search (0/6)
  • Upper right hand question mark/help (0/6)
  • Create a Post & Photo/Video Album (0/6)
  • Photo/Video & Feeling/Activity prompts (0/6)
  • Public vs Private sharing option (0/6)
  • Left sidebar Shortcuts & Explore & Create options (0/6)
  • Stats & info about pages for which they’re admin (0/6)

It makes sense that what we most remember is first the overall architecture of the site and second, the things we engage with first. Most of my participants remembered the notifications, their friends’ updates, news, events, and the right-hand advertisements.

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