How Facebook’s Poor Usability Led to Missed Messages

by on 12/12/11 at 1:35 am

If you use Facebook, you could be a victim of missed messages. Some of these messages could have little importance, but some could change your life. However, most Facebook users will miss these messages because they’re not easy to see the navigation.

How Facebooks Poor Usability Led to Missed Messages

These messages are found in the “Other” folder under Messages. This folder is only visible to users when they click Messages. And to actually see their messages, they have to click Other, which many users fail to do. But it’s not their fault. Facebook’s interface does a poor job of displaying information to users.

Interfaces Should Organize, Not Judge Information

Facebook created the “Other” folder so that users can better distinguish their friend messages from mailing lists, broad distribution groups and messages from people who aren’t friends or friends of friends. While it’s useful to distinguish the types of messages a user receives, the way Facebook executes this relies too much on their judgment and not organization. By relegating non-friend messages to the Other folder, Facebook’s interface design is essentially saying that friend messages are more important than all other messages.

Here’s a statement from a Facebook representative about the situation:

It seems wrong that an email message from your best friend gets sandwiched between a bill and a bank statement. It’s not that those other messages aren’t important, but one of them is more meaningful. With new Messages, your Inbox will only contain messages from your friends and their friends. All other messages will go into an Other folder where you can look at them separately.

On paper, this seems like it makes sense. The messages you get from your friends are more meaningful than the messages you get from people who aren’t your friends. But is this always the case?

Apparently not. Many users have missed life-changing messages that Facebook thought weren’t “meaningful”. Here are some comments from a few frustrated Facebook users who have been affected by Facebook’s poor usability:

  • Extraordinary! Why would it be hidden like some spam email folder!? I’ve just found some stuff from bands and similar that I follow and a hello from a very old friend! Tried contacting me 4 times in a year and I hadn’t seen the mesges! – Jim Breeds
  • I’m a little pissed, yes. I used to receive every single communication from facebook in my email, and rarely, if ever went to my notifications on facebook itself. Now, they have made it impossible to receive all communications (forcing engagement I suppose) and make things even worse by hiding messages. There was a lot of good stuff in there, including scholarship deadlines, messages from friends I thought were blowing me off for whatever reason, the list goes on… – John Howard
  • Thank goodness I checked mine! I am an online merchant and sell items at several sites. I almost missed out on three sales because people were sending me questions and offers about some of my merchandise. The latest one was a very important call from the Oprah Winfrey Network that want to put me on a new TV Show starting in January. If I hadn’t checked those “Other” messages, I would’ve completely missed out on an opportunity of a lifetime! – Thomas Tucker Jr.
  • OMG!!! I just checked mine. I’m a recruiter and I have about TEN messages in there from friends of friends who were interested in positions I am recruiting for. So not only do I lose business, I look like a beyotch to the friends who referred them to me. Actually explains why one person has been giving me the cold shoulder lately… - Melissa Zentgraf
  • I lost my wallet a month ago, and as soon as I read this, went to my Other folder and lo and behold, there was a message from over a month ago saying that someone had found my wallet. UN FREAKING BELIEVABLE. I just hope he had the heart to hold on to it for this long. - Michael Stafford Gelberg
  • SInce April 2010, I have lost my 20-year-old daughter, both my parents and a sister. There were over 60 message from old friends and relatives that I never saw. Stop treating us like children, Facebook. Epic Fail. – John Beaty
  • I knew there was something up with their messaging system. I ended up looking like I had completely ignored what was to be my future roommate because facebook didn’t tell me I had gotten a message and just put it in other. I’ve also missed a message from someone who was interested in purchasing my couch. This system really is flawed and it needs to be fixed asap! - Breann Wasson

One article details how difficult it was to recover a lost laptop because of Facebook’s poor usability: Furious at Facebook Again!

It seems that some of the most meaningful messages can come from people who you haven’t friended on Facebook. These messages can range from new job opportunities, business-related questions, missed connections, recovering lost items and so on. These messages that Facebook thinks isn’t meaningful could change a person’s life. Clearly, they do not belong under “Other”, and should get more of the user’s attention. Facebook’s interface should let users decide what’s meaningful to them and what’s not. The interface’s job is simply to organize information in a clear and understandable way.

Fixing Facebook’s Usability Problem

There’s no need for an “Other” folder in the first place. ”Other” doesn’t describe the content in a clear way. It doesn’t tell users what’s in the folder at a glance. If users don’t know what’s in it, there’s no motivation for them to click it. It’s also placed in the navigation at a sub-level which users can easily overlook. It doesn’t even show itself until the user clicks the Messages folder. So when users view the navigation at a broad level, they can still miss it. There’s no icon next to it either. And the text indents between two higher priority items making it difficult to spot.

The solution to this interface problem is an integrated messages area that organizes the messages by their source. All of the user’s messages, no matter where they come from, belongs in the Messages folder. Putting them all in one place makes them easier to find. Users don’t have to click or look in two different places to get their messages.

Once they’re all in the same folder, users should see all their messages organized by source. Messages from friends, non-friends and groups should all go in separate containers on the page. Here’s a wireframe illustrating how this would look:

How Facebooks Poor Usability Led to Missed Messages

With a single glance, users can see the different types of messages they can receive. They see the three most recent messages in each message container. They also see the total number of messages in a message container. If they want to see more than the most recent three, they can easily click the ‘See All’ button that takes them to another page to see the rest of their messages. This design doesn’t hide anything from the user. Once users enter the Messages page, they see everything from a high level. From there, they decide where they want to go.

Missed messages isn’t a problem caused by the user, it’s a problem caused by the interface. When information isn’t organized in a way that users can easily understand, usability problems will come up. If you have to explain to users what something on your interface is like Facebook does: What is the “Other” subfolder under my main Messages folder?, that’s a sure sign that you’re designing your interface more for your understanding than your users.


How Facebooks Poor Usability Led to Missed Messages How Facebooks Poor Usability Led to Missed Messages

Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

11 Responses to “How Facebook’s Poor Usability Led to Missed Messages”

  1. Moldován Eduárd

    Dec 12th, 2011

    Hey Anthony,

    Great article, keep is up!

    One thing crossed my mind when reading your article. What Facebook did is a bad implementation of a great idea. All of us would love to trust messaging systems, be they e-mail or anything else. But this is not so easy to implement. I feel that companies should approach it some other way. For example, teaching “the system” would probably be a good approach. A later step could then be to organize messages as the user wants.
    It sounds a bit like what Google is doing with Gmail, but I think that actually works.

  2. DK

    Dec 12th, 2011

    I think, separate inbox messages as you did – it’s not good idea.
    To read all the messages, I should go in each folder separately – this option is not the most convenient.

    More optimal solution – give users all the messages in main folder and just add filters to mailbox – “friends”, “groups” and “non-friends”.

    I tried to reflect it on the sketch – http://1000psd.com/trash/face.jpg

    • anthony

      Dec 14th, 2011

      The whole goal of what Facebook is trying to do is to not mix all of the different messages together into one inbox. Your design doesn’t meet that. In your design, the user has to click each filter link to see if they have any new messages, which is extra work for the user every time they check their messages. Also, by adding those filter links at the top, you risk cluttering the top area where the search box and New Message button is, further taking up more room and making it difficult for users to spot. If the user doesn’t see or click a filter link, they will miss their messages completely, which brings us back to square one.

      I think a broad-level view of the inbox is a good one because you can see, at a quick glance, any new messages you have in each inbox without clicking a thing. If the user doesn’t have any new messages, why go into that inbox? The design organizes the user’s messages in a clear and understandable way all on one page without mixing the messages together. It also conveys a hierarchy of priority by putting friend messages first, non-friend messages in the middle and group messages last, without hiding anything from the user.

  3. James

    Dec 12th, 2011

    You think missing important messages from non-friends is outrageous? How about missing a message from my close cousin (Facebook friend also) about how he’d been diagnosed with diabetes?

    What’s even more ridiculous about this message getting put in the ‘Other’ tab is that I was the one who started the message thread! How the fuck does a message thread that *I started* with *my cousin* who is also *my Facebook friend*!?

  4. Ali Salem

    Dec 13th, 2011

    Finally, someone writes about that miserable messaging system!

  5. Josh

    Dec 13th, 2011

    IMO, Facebook’s interface as a whole is mediocre at best. For a billion dollar business and the largest social network, you would think they would hire an entire team of UI/UX specialists to help develop the interface and interactions.

    They are most likely trying to avoid the “noise” that a plethora of emails blasting your inbox can do. However, some ideas are only good on paper and not in a real case use.

  6. Niklas

    Dec 16th, 2011

    WOW when I first read this article, I was thinking ‘well, yeah, it seems like kinda poor user interface design, but not a huge deal, right?’
    THEN i checked my ‘other’ folder, which I didn’t know existed either, and guess what I found?!? A MESSAGE FROM A NICE LADY WHO HAD FOUND MY WALLET THAT I LOST MONTHS AGO SEARCHED FRANTICALLY FOR AND SHE HAD IT THE WHOLE TIME BUT I DIDN’T KNOW BECAUSE OF THIS STUPID ‘OTHER’ FOLDER!

    Sorry about that. I now stand fully behind the message of this article.
    Also, thank you for posting this article, without it, I still wouldn’t have known about that message from the person who found my wallet!

  7. Chippy

    Jan 14th, 2012

    My word, alot of frustrated customers out ther regarding the usage of “Other” folder on facebook.

    I’m so glad i possess a home address and am lucky to have a phone number that I find is useful if someone needs to send me a “life changing” message.

    Do the people above manage to wipe their arse on their own or do they rely on a “folder” to inform them how to do it?

  8. Morgan

    May 23rd, 2013

    OMG this happened to me a couple of months ago. I had no idea this folder even existed! So I go to read these long lost messages and all of the sudden I read this message that a guy had sent to me saying he had found my lost iPhone! I was pissed that I NEVER saw this and could’ve gotten it back.

  9. patos

    Dec 13th, 2013

    is there a petition we can fill or something ? im tried to message hot chicks that i dont know and im getting filtered obviously.

  10. thomas

    Mar 15th, 2014

    I found out the hard way just there now :( I had a message that is 4 months old and it was of vital importance it would have changed a big part of my life if I had of read it back then but I saw it now 4 months on

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