"The very first version was a little like a wiki page...You could go in and completely change your friend's profile," said Chris Hughes today at a leadership and innovation series at the New America Foundation in New York City. He's talking about an early iteration of Facebook, the company he helped found as a college sophomore at Harvard.
Although he's long since left Facebook (he stayed in Boston when co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz dropped out of school to move to Palo Alto, Calif., and officially left Facebook in 2007 to work on Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign), Hughes applies the "tweaking" model used during the creation and development of Facebook at his current job as editor-in-chief of The New Republic.
In the beginning, Facebook (or, back then "The Facebook") was "totally different," said Hughes. "It was just for college students, there were no photos…the very first one didn't even have messages." Eventually realizing that a Wikipedia style model wasn't the right approach, the founders changed the layout to allow people to leave posts on their friends' pages. Over time, Hughes said, they noticed that most people were using the site exclusively to post, so the comments section was moved up and featured more prominently.
"How people use technology, and how they are going to respond to changes is incredibly complex," Hughes said. "We were just beginning to sort through a lot of these problems."
While running a social media network and a 99-year-old magazine are two very different enterprises, Hughes pays careful attention to how users are interacting with The New Republic's website, and adapts accordingly. Key issues (like design layout and presentation) are tweaked and then tweaked again.
When the website went through a redesign this past January -- with an emphasis on a single cover story and image in the place of dozens of links -- Hughes quickly realized it was the wrong decision, stylistically. Using analytics to measure readers' responses, it was clear that "people wanted a lot more choice on the homepage." The magazine's core audience was visiting the site for a range of reasons: there were the political junkies, readers interested in the op-eds and essays, and those who just wanted to find the latest review of Homeland. Suddenly, everyone was struggling to find what they were looking for.
Even though the big redesign had just dropped, Hughes changed the layout again. "We still have one big cover story, but where we used to have five headlines, we now have 23 and there's an internet scroll so you can keep going." More alterations are inevitable as users adapt – and respond -- to the new format. "It's a work in progress," he said.
Currently, the media company is trying to strike a delicate balance between offering users a customized experience (essentially a website filled with the headlines they are most likely to click on, a la Gawker and Business Insider) and a universal one (where the headlines are the same for everyone, like The New York Times).
"We struggle with, and experiment with, a lot of different tools, so we can carve out some place in between," Hughes said.
Whatever balance is eventually reached, it's likely that it will be re-worked (and then re-worked again) as Hughes continues to respond to user feedback.