Facebook Paper and the Irony of the Digital Hoity Toity

Many have remarked that Facebook Paper is out-of-touch with the experience of the "average Facebook user". I think Paper is actually targeted at the very people who are making those remarks.

February 4, 2014
Jonathan Libov

When the Facebook Paper product demo video first hit the interwebs, one of the common observations was how distant this product seemed from the average Facebook user's daily experience.

I have precious little knowledge about Facebook's product strategy, but that doesn't prevent me from speculating on who Facebook is really targeting with Paper. Contrary to the tweets above, I don't think it's actually the proverbial average Facebook user1.

Paper targets the artisans of the app world, the types who agonize over the nuances of iOS 7 and "ooh" and "ah" over the latest feats in interaction design. These are people who obsess over the quality of their coffee, read stuff on Medium, and take HDR photos. People who are otherwise bored with Facebook. Hoity toity app people, like me.

We snicker (on Twitter nonetheless!) about how discrepant the demo video is from the average Facebook user's experience, but do you really think Facebook made this video for the average user? I don't think so. It's targeted at hoity toity app people like us, who are the only people that watch product demo videos carefully anyway.

Criticizing the demo for being too pristine, or maybe overly aspirational, is like criticizing a high-end fashion show for being too out of touch with the average shopper. It's not what that thing is for.

A lack of comfort

Jared Sinclair just wrote an excellent post about his own app, Unread, which includes a very poignant notion about making his app "comfortable":

I really like the idea of an app being comfortable. Comfortable means always knowing where you are. It means not worrying about making a mistake.

Paper is everything but "comfortable". I'm a fairly advanced app user, and I can barely remember where to swipe and how to navigate back-and-forth. Yet still there's a lot to like. Some interactions in Paper are so cool that I want to learn them and hope that they become so widely adopted that the gestures become second nature. When that happens we'll break out of the nav-bar-driven paradigm we're stuck in.

Good on Facebook for experimenting, for pushing the envelope. It might not result in the next great Facebook app, but the discussion around it benefits us all as app makers. As for Facebook, they can take the best interaction elements of Paper to make a better flagship Facebook app of tomorrow.

Welcome to the Lab

Given how radical the interaction design is in Paper, it's a safe bet that as a product it's not ready or even intended for prime-time. After all, Paper is the first product out of the new Facebook Labs, which suggests that it's merely an experiment.

Whenever a company appends a "Labs" label to its brand, it communicates, "Don't fault us if this product stinks because it's just an experiment" and "We're not banking on the success of this product". We might have judged Facebook Home less harshly if it came under the "Labs" banner. It's a low-risk, high-reward approach.

And by releasing an ambitious app like Paper under the banner of "Labs" and not watering it down for the masses, Facebook gets to recruit an incredible array of participants in its experiment: fussy, thoughtful artisans of the app world who are more than happy to share their opinion with whoever will listen. Just as I am right now.

1"Average Facebook user" is a terrible, condescending term. I feel bad every time I utter it or see someone else utter it.