Facebook Friend Lists suck when compared to Google+ Circles

Early reviews of Google+ are in and they’re generally positive. Obviously, not everybody love Google’s latest social network experiment, but I’d like to debunk one piece of criticism that keeps being repeated over and over. And that is, that the Google+ Circles feature is basically the same thing as Facebook’s Friend Lists.

Facebook Friend Lists lets users group friends under different lists; family, co-workers, etc., so that you can share things with subsets of your overall Facebook friends. As in real life, you don’t share everything with all the people you know, and with the Friend Lists feature you can emulate that. Sounds very similar to Circles right?

The problem with Friend Lists is the poor usability of this feature. Unlike Circles, you get the feeling that this feature was tacked on, and that it’s not a central component of the service. Creating and assigning people to Circles in Google+ is a lot easier and friendlier than managing Friend Lists, just look at this video from Google which gives you a good overview of how the Google interface handles this.

The main problem with Friend Lists is that once setup they’re a pain to use, which is probably why a lot of Facebook users either don’t know about this feature or don’t bother to use it.

Let’s try to share a message only intended for our family;

First non-obvious thing you have to do is click on the padlock icon. This icon gives you 4 choices; “Everyone“, “Friends of Friends“, “Friends Only” and “Customize“. Unlike Circles, it doesn’t list your Circles of friends or in this case your Friend Lists. What you have to do here is select the “Customize” option which opens up the “Custom Privacy” dialog.

The “Custom Privacy” dialog now gives us another 4 choices; “Friends of Friends“, “Friends Only“, “Specific People…“, “Only Me“. Again, Facebook decides not to show you your Friend Lists, and to select one you have to chose the “Specific People…” option. Now, in the previous screen, we already told the interface we don’t want to send a message to “Friends Only” or “Friends of Friends”, why is it showing us these options again? Bad UI design.

There’s also the strange option to only share an item with yourself (“Only Me“), I guess that’s usefull to save things and share them later. But instead of listing this, I’d rather see my family Friend List.

To find our desired list, again we select “Specific People… (1), which shows an empty text entry field. As we start typing “f” for family (2), Facebook is nice enough to show us friends with first or last names that contain the letter “f”. Note that I have so many friends with that letter that in none of the choices my family Friend List shows up. After typing a bit more, “fa” (3), we still see other friends but at the bottom of the choices we finally see our family Friend List. Finally we select it (4) and our family list is added to the field.

Another bad design choice is how Friend Lists are mixed in with regular (singular) friends, at the very least it would be nice to get a visual hint that something is a Friend List vs a singular specific friend.

We then click “Save Setting” at the bottom right of the dialog and go back to our Facebook wall. Obviously, the last step is to press the “share” button, unfortunately Facebook doesn’t make it clear what Friend List or group of friends I’m sharing with. To see that, you need to click again on the padlock icon which instead of indicating what Friend List is selected, it shows a cryptic “Custom edit” selected item on the padlock popup menu. Not clearly showing who we’re sharing with makes it easy to share the wrong thing with the wrong group of people by accident. Again, bad UI design.

And that’s how Friend Lists are used in Facebook. The feature is hidden via the padlock icon, the option is not clear (“Customize“), selection is cumbersome, and Facebook does its best to hide away Friend Lists from the user. It’s almost as if the UI is designed on purpose to discourage the use of this feature.

In contrast, in the Google+ interface, you simply type the text you want to share (or image, video, etc.) and then click on the “Share” button;

From right there you can select with Circle of friends you want to share with. The Circle can be typed in or selected from the list, if it’s not shown in the list simply clicking “more …” will show the rest of the Circles. Unlike Facebook, Circles are not hidden but featured front and center. In this case 2 clicks allow me to quickly select who I want to share with.

Another key usability item to note, once a Circle is selected, Google+ makes it very clear who you are sharing with. In this example we can see the family Circle highlighted in blue and with a Circle icon to denote it represents a group of people. Singular friends added to the group, will also be shown highlighted in blue but without the Circle icon to differentiate them with Circles.This is much better than clicking on a padlock and trying to figure out who “Custom edit” is.

Simply put, when contrasting both approaches we note that;

  1. Google has spent a lot more effort on usability in their User Interface design; minimizing clicks, removing the need for additional dialogs, preventing users from sharing information with an unintended Circle, etc.
  2. Circles is a key and central feature of Google+, whereas Friend Lists seems more like a feature added as an afterthought, rather than a fundamental aspect of how people share information with different groups of friends.

It is clear that Google+ Circles are friendlier and easier to use than Facebook Lists. On this one central aspect of sharing, it seems Google has done their homework while Facebook really needs to evaluate and reinvent their approach to usability.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  • Seems like Facebook could fix those UI problems pretty easily. No fatal or fundamental problems, just some usability glitches.

    I'd like to get your feedback about a page I've created, about the good and bad features of Facebook and how they should fix it: http://billdietrich.byethost8.com/Facebook.html Thanks.

  • Augusto says:


    Well, there are many ways facebook could "fix" this, however I do think part of the problem is that this is not a core feature they offer. So while you certainly make the current way of doing this friendlier, it will be a bit more challenging to migrate users to it in a better way without disrupting the way they post today.

    For example, if you are happy with posting to everybody, Google's incistence of having you specify who is the target group of friends could make it confusing for a facebook user not aware of lists.

    So there's a bit of a migration issue. Not impossible to overcome, but not trivial either.

  • jobo says:

    I hate how lists are handled by Facebook. I have family and friends that are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. So I don't want to post something that gets the other going, especially family and professional contacts I feel obligated to be "friends" with.

    I have a "no status" list. People on it don't see my updates and can't see my wall. As I understand it I can't simply post a Happy New Year's message and have everyone to see it – the most restrictive settings apply to people on that list.

    What I would prefer is the ability to select which lists can see any given post. There would be a default, and I could edit it for any post and select which lists can see the post. So I could easily allow the "no status" to see the Happy New Year and family bbq pics without having to let them see other posts I don't want them to.

    While I have other concerns about Google+ (I segment my online life and I'm leery of google getting that much info in 1 place) the Circles approach to controlling post access makes so much more sense

    than Facebooks.

    • kloe says:

      You have to get more specific than "no status." I have "no status," "no wall," and "no photos."
      "No wall" restricts access to my wall entirely, while "no status" only restricts access to certain statuses that I specify at the time of posting.

      If you want people to still see your family bbq pics but not the political posts, put them only in "no status" but keep them away from "no wall" and "no photos."
      It's cumbersome, but it gives you a great deal of control over your info.

      Google+ definitely makes segmenting your audience more intuitive. But I still have to play around with it more to see if they do an "except" feature like FB. When it comes down to it, sharing isn't about who you want to share with; it's about who you DON'T want to share with.

  • […] particular — how to give users a clear but meaningful choice of privacy options. It’s faster and more obvious to make an update visible to a subset of your pals on Plus than on Facebook (though I’d like […]

  • […] Before, all your posts would be manifest to a same people — everybody online if you’d stranded with Facebook’s default setting, friends customarily if you’d switched to a less-exhibitionist option. Posting an refurbish to some-more or fewer people compulsory an unintuitive array of clicks. […]

  • Justin says:

    In all that I have researched and read, in an attempt to model my real life relationships with my separate families (ex & Current) within Facebook, nobody seems to address what seems glaringly obvious: Facebook's core database design is deficient. All the work that Facebook is doing (bodge job fix-ups- Lists) and Facebook's CEO's pronouncements that the Age of Privacy is over, comes across like a "Cat trying to hide it's crap on a Marble Floor". They cannot model real-life social relationships.
    It's not so much about what "information" we choose to "post" and the choices we make about who sees those posts – That's an easy fix for Facebook! It's more about the "Who our Friends Are" and "How do we manage our Different Personas". I don't know whether Google+ got it right with their "Circles" but the concept of "Circles of Friends" is not new to anybody – Social Circles.

    So, a simple and common "social tangle": Your ex-wife and your child of 8 and the related circle of friends. Your new wife and your new baby and the new circle of friends. In your real life they are both separate circles. Do you want the photos of the new baby posted by Granny thrust in the face of your eight-year old from your previous marriage?? Do you not want to be able to tell your eight-year old that she's the most special person in your life without your new wife turning around and accusing you of not loving your new baby?

    Facebook has no sensible model for representing such "real life" social situations. So their answer is: "Make it all Public"!!

    Some have said that Facebook's Zuckerberg is being arrogant in his assertion that being more public in our lives is a necessary social development. I suggest that his comments simply reflect his immaturity .- he is a child (albeit smart) with no life experience.

    Facebook, stop making excuses and Change to be what you purport: a solution to managing real-life (social) relationships via the internet.

  • dudedudude says:

    are you guys kidding me? let's be honest – lists and circles are the same thing, just in a different format. you can call them whatever you like and make it look as different as you like, but they are the same thing.

    one thing i really hate is how in google+ you HAVE to put people in circles. what if i just want to add someone and dont care about lists or circles? if i dont want to talk to someone, why would i add them to my social network anyway? why does it have to be so annoying and complicated?

    • Anonymous says:

      God you are dumb. Create a "strangers" circle or something where you never share anything. There are a ton of circles for listening to others, where you don't have to share a single thing if you don't want to. It's a lot better than facebook where you have to go through and make sure they don't see your pictures, tags, etc.

  • Teachers must have the quality to develop the interest of students in studies. They must adopt the way of teaching in which students feel convenient. Student’s attention must be caught by the teacher during lecture.


Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>