Facebook’s Relevance-Filtered Chat Buddy List, or, Why Users Don’t Know Who’s Online

Since the Skype Video Calling and Chat redesign launch a month ago, you may have noticed something missing from your Facebook home page. The Facebook Chat buddy list now only shows you the online status of a subset of your closest or most recently interacted with friends, around 20 on a screen of average size and resolution. You can only determine if the rest of your friends are available to Chat by searching for them one by one.

The redesign makes a bad tradeoff. Quick access to Chat with best friends is helpful, but search is far too inefficient a method of determining the online status of other friends. It’s unlikely that users will ever strike up a casual conversation with anyone outside of the buddy list. This is unfortunate, because it’s the ability to stay in touch more distant acquaintances that makes Facebook special.

Update: Facebook has returned the ability to view the online statuses of all friends by adding a “More Online Friends” section in Chat.

We asked Facebook why Chat has been redesigned like this, and Director of Product Peter Deng told us, “The goal of the new design is to give more people faster access to the friends they message most. Looking at the early data of how people are engaging with and using Chat, things are moving in this direction.”

Sure, people spend most of their time Chatting with close friends or people they frequently need to exchange information with, such as co-workers or teammates. The new design makes it very easy to start talking with a friend whose wall you recently posted on, profile you’ve been perusing, or that you Chatted with yesterday.

The intelligent sorting algorithm isn’t perfect, though. For example, I see friends I haven’t interacted with in months, while best friends, people I frequently see in person, and those who’ve recently Liked my status updates remain hidden. With time the algorithm could improve, but now if I’m visiting New York City and want to ask several local friends where I should go for lunch, searching one-by-one to see if they’re online is a ton of work. I’ll probably forget to search for someone who might have the recommendation I need.

A quick glance at the unfiltered Chat buddy list on one of Facebook’s mobile apps reveals the friends that are missing, that I might have asked for advice or invited to dinner if it wasn’t so difficult to figure out if they were available to Chat.

The relevance-filtered buddy list is an especially big problem for users with abnormally high friend counts. Facebook says the average user has 130 friends (though we hear it’s closer to 180 now), and for those people perhaps only a handful of online friends don’t appear on the buddy list. If a use has 500 or 1000 friends, though, the number of missing friends is much more significant, recalling names from such a large set is difficult, and searching one friend at time takes far too long to be feasible.

Its these power users and early adopters that are posting updates, tagging photos, and driving total time on site for Facebook. These are the same people that could lead their graphs to another social network if they got fed up with Facebook, so it’s in the site’s interest to keep them happy.

Facebook should implement a combination of the relevance-filtered and complete buddy list, similar to how the news feed has tabs for Top News and Most Recent. The site has considered ways of eliminating the tabbed news feed because some users never leave the default Top News tab, but the buddy list is not an endless stream, it can be easily displayed in its entirety.

By default, the tabbed buddy list could show users the relevance-filtered list, so the most frequent Chat use cases wouldn’t require any buddy list scrolling to initiate. Then let users click to view their full buddy list. Search could be left in to help those with massive buddy lists, or scrapped for a cleaner design.

With a global user base topping 750 million that includes social butterflies and grandparents just looking to share with their kids, pleasing everyone is no simple task. More options make things more complicated, so in most situations, design that work for the majority are best. But when sleek, algorithmic-focused design creates more friction than it removes, one extra link or button may be the answer. In this case, I hope the answer is “See all online friends”.

Update: Read how Facebook fixed this issue with Chat by adding a “More Online Friends” section to Chat that allows users to view the online status of all of your friends.

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