Our Blog

The official Motribe blog, written by the founders

July 31

by Robyn Hobson, Motribe Mobile Brand Specialist

It’s no secret that mobile is the weak link in the Facebook chain, as was extensively highlighted in the recent IPO filings. Facebook’s painfully slow acknowledgement of mobile, its failure to monetise its mobile users, and its unwavering focus on web have left the company in an awkward spot with regard to mobile.

Embarrassingly, Facebook didn’t monetise any of the 488 million active monthly users who’ve accessed its mobile products as of March 2012.

Facebook has acquired five mobile startups since the beginning of the year, so it’s clearly taking steps to address the problem – albeit a little late. But few of these acquisitions seem likely to meet the needs of Facebook Mobile’s users who access the site via their feature phones – the handset, by the way, that dominates the African landscape. And Africa isn’t the only one: Indonesia is the fourth-largest Facebook country with 42 million users (behind US, Brazil and India), but most of them are on mobile (with feature phones).

Facebook is aware of the fact that growth lies in the feature-phone-dominated emerging markets, and it responded to this by launching its Facebook For Every Phone app. The app supports more than 2500 Java-enabled phones and was developed in conjunction with Snaptu.

I took it for a test-drive on four different feature phones, and I’ve yet to see the answer to all Facebook’s mobile problems. Let’s see how it did on the most popular phone in Africa – the Samsung E250 feature phone.

Loading the app
I attempted to load the app on two popular, low-end Samsung E250s that were purchased in Kenya. After two hours of error notifications, authorising downloads and toggling WAP settings, I admitted defeat. I would never see the Snaptu offering, despite the fact that the app was dangled in front of me on one of the phones every time I hit Facebook in the native browser. It’s safe to say that several feature phones currently on the market will never access the app, and its users will be stuck with the frustrating experience that is Facebook in the native browser.

To say that it’s painful, laborious and time-consuming is an understatement. The news feed is littered with links, each of which causes the phone to pause and, after roughly every fourth link, to freeze completely.

There’s no scrolling functionality, which means you need to hit a button to navigate. Seven minutes and 32 clicks later, I still hadn’t seen the footer. Much like a snail wading through molasses, it’s impossible to get anywhere in a hurry, with each additional link having the same effect as strapping a dumbbell to its shell.

I’m aware that catering to every handset is impossible. I, too, dream of a Utopia in which the local app store has content, and we have a standard browser across all handsets. Facebook rendering on an E250 is a bit of a dog show. Headers run over, and the news feed and content aren’t optimised for the screen size. There appears to be little thought given to the end-user’s experience – in its place there seems to be the hope that feature-phone users are a patient lot.

At first glance it appears that you can update your status, upload a photo, check in, like and comment on content, access your inbox and search. They heavily highlight the search functionality, which is a bright-red hyperlink. At first it wasn’t clear to me, and then I realised this was their attempt to help the user get around Facebook speedily. It was faster to search for something than it was to find it on the home screen or visit the disaster that’s the friends list. This list loads gigantic thumbnails that pixelate to the point where you can’t be sure whether you’re looking at man, beast or lolcat. You can’t scroll through five friends like this, let alone 500 or more – it’s a terrible, frustrating, time-consuming experience.

I successfully updated my status and managed to check in. But I failed to upload a photo, as the native browser and the upload functionality were seemingly at war with each other. I was able to like status updates, photos and several external links.

When liking content, you’re redirected to a holding screen while the like is recorded. This can take up to two minutes and requires quite a bit of dedication from the end-user. Brands, value your E250 likes, as these come from your most devoted consumers. It seems feature-phone users truly live by the adage ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’.

It’s clear from the outset that Facebook hasn’t looked at the feature-phone offering in a long time, if at all. The tiny screen is littered with links you can’t open, and photos that are heavily pixelated and take up three-quarters of the screen. Some images never load, which means that most of the time all you’ll see on the screen is blue. These failed images are slow and heavy to navigate across and slow down the navigation ever further. When the images do load, they take forever. And when I wanted to view them, I often had to select ‘view full size’, which then downloaded the image to my phone…provided I had enough free space on the device.

Profiles have been updated to Timelines in the menu, but cover images are nowhere to be seen. Users’ Timelines consist of their pixelated profile images, their names and brief ‘About’ info.

The poke item is still prominent on the menu, and when you click this button you can see all your recently received pokes. This unexpected nostalgia confirms that Facebook Mobile is still living in the Dark Ages. Oddly enough, the content seems to favour any and all actions associated with profile pictures (updates, likes, etc.), which aren’t the most stimulating topic of conversation.

It took an average of five minutes to download all the content in the news feed. Also, the screen froze every time I tried to scroll, and the content experience I received at the end of the delay wasn’t worth the wait. Of course, I’m used to the experience of browsing via smartphone and desktop, but even so – this experience is far too slow, lacks thought and is rather shabby.

The verdict
Let’s forget about the feature-phone app that failed to load on the four different feature phones that I tried it on. The Facebook Mobile experience on a feature phone is slow, inefficient, unattractive and not worth the considerable wait that the user has to endure to get it. Facebook has completely overlooked this market in terms of effective usability, functionality and content to the point where it’s almost embarrassing. Never complain about your smartphone experience again.