Why Facebook is pinging annoying

Old phones from mistersjrobinsonltd.wordpress.com

Old telephones were specially designed to irritate everyone in the whole house. Is this kind of user experience really a good idea for Facebook?

Some of you may have noticed that, a short while back, Facebook added a new ‘ping’ sound to notify you when you receive a post. It sounds like this

The chord the notes play is Fmaj7, and it’s made up of the notes F, A, C, and E, and spells the word ‘FACE’. Apparently, this is a happy accident. It’s actually based on the ring-tone of an old-fashioned (ie analogue) telephone.

Here’s what Everett Katigbak, an early brand designer for Facebook, had to say about it on Quora http://www.quora.com/Facebook-1/How-much-research-has-gone-into-developing-the-Facebook-ping-sound#

“The intervals are 2 major thirds, F-A, and C-E. The major third trill is what is used on old school telephones. There were several iterations on this, but the first instance where the chord was used, was as the video calling inbound ringtone. It is the base arpeggio in two pulses: F-A-C-E, F-A-C-E. We went with the two pulses because this resembles a majority of international ring variations.

It also contains a minor 3rd interval, A-C. Descending, this interval is the same used in the common doorbell (ding-dong), which conceptually reminded me of when a friend would show up at your house. It is also the quintessential “DIINNNNEERRR” or “LAASSSIIIEEE” call out, which again, is a very nostalgic pattern.”

Irritating people is never a good idea

Musicology aside, I think what Everett is missing is the fact that old-school telephones were really annoying. There was only ever one in the house, and it was in the downstairs hall. That meant no one was ever near it when it rang, because the hall was cold, draughty and uncomfortable. So the ring had to be loud enough to be heard throughout the house, and irritating enough to make the person at the top of the house tramp down the stairs and pick up the phone before shouting to whoever the call was for.

Now, why ever should Facebook need an irritating ringtone?

It used to be that Facebook held everyone’s attention all the time. (I remember a colleague of mine being told off by her boss because she’d received an average of 700 email notifications of Facebook comments every month for the last 12 months.) It was seriously sticky back in those days.

It certainly didn’t need a ringtone to irritate people into paying it attention.

But now, apparently, it does. And there can only be one reason for that: because people have stopped paying Facebook attention. Yes, they’re still on Facebook, but they’re no longer on Facebook. Their interest levels are declining, and they’re getting their social buzz elsewhere, like twitter, or Instagram, or more likely Pinterest. Their involvement is so passive that they need Facebook to ring them when something’s happening. That doesn’t betoken a genuinely high level of engagement, does it.

And that lack of engagement is a real problem for Facebook. They don’t control the content; their members’ social group does. And if that content gets uninteresting, then people are just going to drop off.

Terminal decline?

Almost everyone in the world who could realistically sign up for Facebook, already has done, so the figures for active users can only decline. And there’s precious little the media owner can do about that. It can’t make my former colleague Mary still use Facebook to tell her friends she’s had a really nice cup of coffee/meeting/night with a lovely man if she’s already telling them in some other way.

All it can do is make sure that on the rare occasions Mary does use Facebook to tell the world her momentous news, the world knows she has done so: by making an irritating ringing sound. I’m not sure this is what anyone would call a good user experience, is it?

Unfortunately it can’t stop them a) turning their sound down to ignore the irritating sound b) not signing into Facebook any more so that the irritating ringing sound is no longer a problem.

If a) and b) continue to happen, no amount of musicology is going to stop Facebook from losing money. Lots of it.

Why bad user experience is a bad problem

And that, more than the musical origins of the tone is what really matters here. User experience matters. Bad user experience matters more than good user experience, because it generates an instant response.

It’s like when you want to get someone’s attention. If you go around like a toddler shouting ‘Mummy’ and pulling at people’s metaphorical skirts, how likely are they to respond positively to you? But if you’re charming and winning and have something they want, like a lovely smile, you won’t need to pull at their skirts because they’ll already be coming to you.

Facebook needs to do something about the standard of its content, rather than creating irritating ringtones, however nostalgic they may sound. They need to get more people back using the service as a cornerstone of their life. Otherwise someone else is going to win.