You might not remember this one because Facebook has had bigger headlines recently, but back in April of 2013 Facebook announced Facebook Home, a version of Facebook as your phone’s home screen. Despite the time, money, and resources that went into this first-to-market "phone home" initiative, the product flopped. Why?
(This is the second in a four-part series of posts on epic product fails and how better market validation might have prevented them. Click here for part one.)
Home was designed for Android and rolled out pre-loaded on the HTC First (also known as the Facebook Phone). It was Facebook's first-to-market break from the limitations of the app format, and its goal was simple: keep people perpetually connected and engaged on Facebook. To an extent, this goal succeeded; apparently, “those who use the app [spent] 25 percent more time on Facebook as a whole, with comments and likes up 25 percent, Chat usage up 7 percent, and messages sent up by 10 percent” (Techcrunch). It stands to reason that making Facebook the default background of your phone would cause you to spend more time on Facebook. However, within hours Home had a 2.3/5 on Google Play, within a month the price of the (HTC First) phones had been dropped from $99 to 99 cents, and within eight months Facebook had released what would be the final update to Home.
In terms of market response, more than half of the 15,000 app reviews gave Home just one star, and people quickly began looking for ways to remove the software from their phones. They claimed that Facebook Home made apps more difficult to access and, worse, removed the customization that makes Android phones unique (including widgets, folders, and docks). Business Insider mentioned this oversight in conjunction with the production team itself: “The Facebook Home team made a horrible, simple mistake before it began development of the product. One reason is that the people on the product team were iPhone users, and they hadn't used Android enough before testing Android with Facebook Home installed.” Beyond this initial error, some cited “the limited rollout [as] partially responsible for the app’s inability to maintain a higher ranking” (techcrunch). Finally, Home was met with privacy concerns (which have only grown and multiplied in the last five years). While we do not know exactly how much Home cost Facebook, we do know from public investor reports that the total revenue for the quarter introducing Home was $1.46 billion, which was down from the $1.585 billion of the previous quarter.
Reflecting on why Home managed to get all the way to launch with so many oversights, some cite Facebook’s culture, which “has been built around a motto– ‘Move fast and break things’–that has become so famous it almost stands as the preeminent cliché of Silicon Valley.” This attitude can be incredibly liberating for innovators, but it can also stand in the way of an inclination to pause, reflect, ask questions, and market test before being first to market with a product.
For Facebook Home, that might have meant bringing more Android users into the production team, or conducting a survey to see whether Android really was the best platform to host this product. They might have asked themselves how they could make the transition to Home as smooth and intuitive as possible for the user, or how to avoid the trap of a limited rollout. It’s possible that Facebook is even behind Google in terms of only market testing with existing customers (by definition people who find Facebook valuable). Those people are more likely to look favorably upon a new Facebook-centric phone experience than people who don’t use the app. What they failed to do was look closely and broadly at the phone-using marketplace. In general, they might have found it worth their time to sacrifice some of the speed required to be first to market, to better understand how to get people to want to use Home, because unlike changes to the Facebook site and app (which at this point we know we either have to get used to or else give up Facebook entirely), people can just uninstall Home without consequence, so why would they keep it if they don’t love it? They wouldn't, and didn't.