The Problem With Paper

Facebook’s Paper, launched Feb 3, is the most refreshing and immersive take on the Facebook experience yet. Like Home before it, Paper expands individual Facebook updates into full screen experiences, includes curated magazine content, and introduces a completely new, minimalist UI that makes heavy use of gestures over labels.

The naming controversy aside, reactions have been mostly positive. The Verge called it the best Facebook app ever and gave it an 8.5. Engadget concluded that the new app puts the old Facebook UI to shame, while CNET gave the app 4*, calling the new UI delightfully touchable

Paper as a Replacement Facebook App

It’s easy to get caught up in the undeniable prettiness and gesture-driven modernity Paper brings to the table, especially when viewed alongside the cluttered, relatively ugly regular Facebook app. In use however, the new UI introduces some fairly serious flaws that neglect basic ergonomics.

For starters, the card strip is awkwardly placed for most users. Scott Hurf wrote an excellent post on the topic:

…for the ~90% of right-handed phone users, the default thumb position is a hook. Try performing the thumb hook 10, 20, or 30 times in a row. Now try it faster. Ow.

While adjusting the height of the card strip would mitigate that issue, there are deeper problems with the card strip UI.

Eye-Movement-to-BrowseFor instance, when swiping through the card strip, the user’s thumb obscures 50-80% of the content. Even when the content is in view, the eye is forced into an uncomfortable M-shaped reading pattern (across, down, back up) rather than the more comfortable F-shaped pattern. Because the cards have no fixed position, the eye must constantly adjust in order to read them.

These issues aren’t present in the regular Facebook app and make Paper feel like a step backwards.

Thankfully, there is a workaround – once swiped up or tapped the card strip expands to a full screen view. The user can still swipe horizontally to move between stories one at a time, an interface which is infinitely preferable to the default view and encourages more considered consumption.

Indeed, this is what users who have stuck with the app seem to be doing:

For one, I’ve been discovering more content. Even though it’s the same News Feed that would be shown in the original Facebook app, the full-screen card layout means that I’m more likely to stop and consider what someone has shared. I open more links, browse more photos and generally consume more. — Jason Summers, The Next Web

Unfortunately, the issues with Paper’s user interface don’t end at the card strip. It’s hard to escape the feeling that using the app feels like hard work. While a lot of the blame for this has been placed on the extensive use of unfamiliar gestures, this doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny.

As capacitive touchscreens have proliferated, new gestures have frequently entered the lexicon without similar controversy. From the original iPhone’s pinch-to-zoom to Android’s pulldown notification bar, WebOS’s swipe-to-dismiss activity cards and the Twitter’s pull-to-refresh, users have shown a willingness to learn and adopt new gestures provided the interface as a whole is intuitive.

As I wrote on twitter last week, the real problem with Paper is that the navigational structure of the app itself is too difficult for the user to internalize as a mental model:

Mental-Model

The gestures contribute to this complexity partly because they are used so inconsistently. For example:

  • The top half of the screen is presented as a carousel, complete with images that cycle on a time delay and dots which seem to indicate position in the sequence. But swiping left or right is how the user changes the Section (from Facebook stories to e.g. Technology or Design). The only way to see more images in the original sequence is to wait. Swiping right or left on the bottom half of the screen cycles stories within the current Section.
  • Swiping up on a story in the card strip expands it. Swiping up on a story in the top panel does nothing.
  • Single pictures expand and tilting the phone pans the picture. If a photo that is part of a sequence is expanded in the same way the panning gesture is unavailable.
  • The app’s menu is accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen while on a Section homepage. The interface does not in any way indicate to the user that this is possible.
  • Once a linked story is open, the user must initiate a swipe from the top 1/3 of the screen to close it. A down swipe anywhere else scrolls back up the page. The gesture also replaces the established iOS gesture of down-swiping to access the iPhone’s Notification Center.

Most of these issues can be fixed. As with Facebook Home, it’s likely that successive iterations will improve the basic Facebook experience to the point where Paper becomes a viable replacement for the regular Facebook app.

Paper as a Magazine

Paper’s boldest innovation is a bolted-on, Flipboard-style content stream curated by Facebook rather than your friends.

In use, Paper’s curated stream feels like a poor imitation, a side project destined to fail precisely because it attempts to compete with Flipboard on its own terms. Flipboard has refined its product over successive iterations to present a finely-tuned mix of curation and discovery, not to mention a best-in-class reading experience, in a single app.

By comparison, Paper borrows far too heavily from existing social network conventions. Each story is presented as a full-screen tweet with an embedded link to the full article, an approach which works in the context of a Twitter feed but is dramatically low-density in a magazine-style app. Flipboard provides superior context by bringing the article itself into the feed.

The image below makes the contrast between the three apps apparent:

Tweet-Side-by-Side

As a Flipboard competitor, Paper’s greatest sin is that it is in no way uniquely Facebook-like; it fails to leverage Facebook’s vast accumulated knowledge of our friends, interests and social interactions to evolve the basic Flipboard experience in a uniquely Facebook-like way.

Here’s one suggestion. How about using the curated content to connect me with people in my network who share common interests and give us a reason to talk to each other? I’m friends with a number of designers on Facebook. Why not show us all the same design-related news story and allow for a private comment stream, much as if one of my friends had shared the article to a Facebook group? Anyone can provide a public comment stream; only Facebook can bring me closer to my network.

The Best Facebook Yet?

While presenting Facebook in a more visually attractive way will drive marginal improvements in engagement, it doesn’t create new reasons to invest in Facebook’s ecosystem as a whole and reduces Facebook-enabled apps to competing with emergent experiences like Snapchat on their own terms. The curated content feed is a good example – it may appeal to some, but Flipboard and Twitter offer me far more; in a week in I’ve gone back to using those tools to discover and consume new content.

At its core, Paper is still the same old Facebook we know and tolerate. It’s a subtly re-imagined way to consume updates from friends, the same basic activity that’s dominated Facebook since the News Feed was introduced in 2006. As with previous moves before it such as extending Facebook functionality such as liking and commenting onto other websites, investing in mobile or enabling socially-enhanced casual gaming, it expands upon but does precious little to fundamentally redefine the core Facebook experience.

Paper might well be the best Facebook app yet. It’s also a missed opportunity.