Facebook Messenger has got a new look. After three years of trying to bring chatbots to the masses, the company has pulled the plug on the experiment. The new version of the app is just 135.2MB, mainly because Facebook shrunk 1.7 million lines of code down to 360,000.
That isn’t a miracle of engineering, the company has finally understood that some things weren’t meant to be – in this case bots. The ‘Discover’ tab in Messenger was a messy combination of games and chatbots that the company hoped would drive engagement; a tactic similar to how WeChat operates.
While games have slowly been moved out of Messenger, Facebook now has closed the window on prioritising bots. To be clear, bots are still available on Messenger, they just won’t live in their own dedicated tab. If you want to access a chat bot, you can do so by using Messenger’s search bar, Pages, and ads on Facebook.
A New Design
The new design has just two tabs – “People” and “Chats”.
The Chats tab is home to your chat history, and still has Stories at the top. Strangely enough, Stories can also be accessed from the People tab, which is further subdivided into Stories and Active. It’s unclear why Facebook has persisted with Stories in the Chats tab if they get their own dedicated space.
In the People tab, Stories are now visible as large rectangular cards, giving users a much clearer look at the images than the small circles in the Chats tab or on the Facebook app. It’s very clear the company is still pushing Stories as an important part of the Facebook experience. Maybe the two ways to access Stories is just a design flaw? It’s unclear as of now.
The redesign is meant to make Stories more visually appealing. While the feature has caught on on Instagram, and even WhatsApp, Stories on Facebook are lagging behind. This redesign is an attempt to entice more Messenger users to use Stories.
Getting rid of the Discover tab certainly makes sense. It was a cluttered and confusing space that offered more issues than solutions. By reworking the app from ground up, not only is one-fourth (or so Facebook claims) the size, but also twice as fast.
In a blog, the company said that as a part of the redesign, a few features would be temporarily unavailable. It’s unclear as of now what those features are. The company also added that the removed features would be back “soon” but there was no definitive timeline for that either.
The redesign is rolling out slowly, and should be available to everyone in a few weeks.
Migration of Features
Last August, Facebook announced its plan to axe the Discover tab. In 2015, they introduced Transportation, allowing users to book Ubers from Messenger. It was quickly axed in 2017. Gaming has slowly been on the way out, merging into Facebook’s dedicated gaming platform.
As Facebook has realised, squishing in features does not work in the West. In Asia, it is common for apps to do multiple tasks at once. WeChat in China for example isn’t just a chat app. It’s an e-commerce platform, digital wallet, and mini social media app all in one. Similarly in India, Paytm has emerged as a one-stop shop for e-commerce, digital wallets and banking, ticket booking, and bill payments.
Theses apps are crowded and chaotic, but serve a crucial purpose.
In Asia, a majority of smartphone users are first-time users. And due to costs, most phones in the countries aren’t available in storage capacities as high as 128GB. These restrictions meant that apps needed to do the heavy lifting – they needed to be capable of a lot of things.
In the West though, users are accustomed to using different apps for different purposes. Users could afford to download several different apps, and there was more emphasis on ease of use and simplicity. So when Messenger got bloated, it naturally became unattractive to Western users.
By stripping away these additional features, Facebook is bringing back Messenger to what it fundamentally is – an app that instantly connects you to your friends.
The Issue with Bots
As of November 2019, there were over 300,000 bots on Facebook. You could do everything from book spa appointments, to restaurants, to purchase flowers. However, their presence on Messenger has always been an issue.
The old version of Messenger made it hard to distinguish a bot from a game, and the endless list of options made it hard to discover (ironically) something useful. Sure there were 300,000 options, but what’s the point if you can’t find one that you need?
With the new design, Facebook is making it easier to access bots. Chatbots can still be accessed from a company’s Facebook page, which is where most people will naturally go first.
If you know what you want, the search field will spring up results. This is a simple, easy and subtle way of preserving bots without being too intrusive.
However, it’s not a complete win.
A lot of smaller companies depended on the visibility brought by the Discover tab to gain new users. Now users have to actively search for a particular brand, as opposed to passively selecting from a list of options.
Without this promotion, brands will now have to rely on ads and other marketing channels to draw attention to themselves. It’s not ideal, but it’s a price they will have to pay for the sake of users. It is very likely that many brands will stop building bots.
That doesn’t mean bots aren’t a part of the Facebook experience. Chatbots allow businesses to easily scale their services and communicate with millions of users. It’s a fundamental part of the Facebook experience in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) era.
However, it’s clear that they aren’t as popular as the company hoped. When first launched in 2016, Facebook was heavily criticised for its poor UI and experience. With Discover in 2017, the company hoped to change that.
So keen was Facebook, that they even announced their own AI assistant – dubbed M – that could do anything. But by 2018, the company seemed to have shelved the idea. M is now relegated to suggesting replies and stickers in chats.
Despite these issues, there seems to be some appetite for chatbots. No one likes to wait for hours on the phone for a reply. The idea that AI can help customers get solutions faster, and businesses interact with more people easier, has made its way to other platforms.
Apple has been trying to push Business Chat on its platform for some time; a way to communicate directly with businesses as you would with friends on apps like Messenger and WhatsApp. Similarly Google’s Duplex AI service is being heavily promoted. Both haven’t caught on they way either company would have hoped, but there’s clearly enough interest to keep them invested in improving and scaling the service.
The new lightweight version of Messenger is a clear step forward in the right direction for Facebook. Even though the F8 conference was cancelled, we will still see what Facebook has in store for us this year through a video conference. As the main app gets more and more bloated, maybe 2020 is the year Facebook streamlines itself.