Facebook breaks the return key

Facebook is forever testing new user interface paradigms. And they usually release them on an unsuspecting public, generally to mass uproar. Facebook rarely responds to these protests, and generally speaking people seem to adapt and move on.

This morning, they released a particularly insidious update to the service. They’ve removed the ability to create paragraphs by hitting the return key in comments. You can still use the shift-return key combo to generate a soft return. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to change how such an important key works.

Facebook breaks the return key

I’m assuming that their goal is to simplify and shorten conversations in comments. We’ve been discussing this on Twitter this morning and while some seem to support the change, most agree that it’s just odd. Why break conventional behaviour of the return key? In a text box, the way a return key is supposed to function is to provide a hard break between paragraphs. It would make more sense to give power users a way to speed up the comment entry through a modifier key like control or command-return, rather than adjusting how everyone interacts with a key they thought they understood.

The worst part is that you can still use the return key normally when posting a status update or message. So Facebook has essentially changed the behaviour of a small subset of the functionality of its network. In the field of usability, it’s important that things function the way people expect and that they are consistent across the board. Otherwise it confuses and slows people down.

I have no doubt that people will learn this new behaviour and that it will seem like second nature at some point. Facebook has gotten to a scale with half a billion users that it can simply teach people a new way of doing things, but is this right? It will still trip up many users who don’t mean to post part of a comment instead of the whole thing because every other text box they interact with doesn’t perform this way.

You can post as many paragraphs as you want in our comments field without premature post-ulation. Love to hear your thoughts.

Filed Under: Design, Jeff

Jeff White

Written By:

On Mar 16, 2011

As one of the two principals of Kula Partners, Jeff is that odd dichotomy – a creative who can also think in code. Jeff is as much a developer as he is a designer and is able to translate business needs into beautiful applications that function the way people expect them to work.


  • Colin Gourlay
    March 16, 2011
    9:53 am

    My Mom will never figure this one out.

    • Jeff White
      March 16, 2011
      10:03 am


      Sometimes I wonder if they actually do test these things before releasing them, or if they just put them out there and adapt as required.

      • Ben
        March 17, 2011
        1:12 pm

        I’ve been told that Facebook developers can push updates to the site at any time, which I find hard to believe, but maybe it only takes a mid-level or two to approve changes.

        • Jeff White
          March 17, 2011
          1:16 pm

          I’ve heard that as well, Ben. Actually, a designer I met at a conference last year basically said that virtually anyone inside FB with the appropriate permissions was encouraged to test interface ideas and tweak accordingly.

  • Joel
    March 16, 2011
    10:22 am

    I’d say this just means they’re preparing to do the same for status updates.

  • Steve Dinn
    March 16, 2011
    10:31 am

    I fear that I will never be able to let go of my familiar, muscle memory-engrained “tab, enter” keystroke.

  • Kent Fackenthall
    March 16, 2011
    10:53 am

    It’s insane how accustomed we have become to appearance/function. Even hand movements/mouse placement.

    All morning I’ve been typing comments and looking for the damn blue button with the mouse.

    • Charlene Boyce
      March 17, 2011
      8:31 am

      Yup, same here. Augh. Instead of speeding me up it’s slowed me down as I have to pause, re-orient, reread the tip text and THEN hit return.

  • Heather
    March 16, 2011
    4:30 pm

    It will take some getting used to. Thanks for this post. I think Facebook makes these changes just for attention. It’s like they are seven or something. 😉

  • zeldman
    March 16, 2011
    8:47 pm

    Well said.

  • Donna Vitan
    March 16, 2011
    8:56 pm

    It has been really odd today knowing that something was missing during Facebook status updates! And of course, you’ve put into words eloquently the finer points of why this little change makes Facebook feel a little broken.

    Granted Facebook has done plenty of innovation in how we interact online but does change herald the removal of “submit” buttons?

    • Jeff White
      March 16, 2011
      9:04 pm

      That’s my big concern, really. Designers and developers that don’t really get it will think it’s cool and implement it everywhere without understanding what it means from a usability perspective.

      • Jamil
        May 4, 2011
        8:55 pm

        EXACTLY Ben

        I am a self-taught techie (programming, software/hardware troubleshooting, low level tech support and just messing around, hehehe)

        What really bugs me that how come Facebook designers don’t realize the impact of releasing these changes onto a public platform. They just make the changes to the code and release onto an unsuspecting world, not even the preliminary testing to make sure the code itself is stable or not. Its like they dont even use Facebook themselves…. :$

  • Melanie
    March 16, 2011
    9:14 pm

    Huh. I’ve had this Facebook change for awhile already. I seem to also be the only person I know with the new Facebook email.

  • phill harding
    March 16, 2011
    9:34 pm

    this confused me at first, but only for a few minutes. it’s very easy to go back to normal mode, by unclicking the “quick reply mode” box.

    • Jeff White
      March 16, 2011
      9:41 pm

      See, that’s the thing, I think this is a new version from what was tested in FB Groups last year–I can’t find a disable button anywhere. I would have thought that it would be nearby the comment textarea, but it’s not. I don’t see it in account settings either.

  • Sharat
    March 16, 2011
    10:21 pm

    I experienced last night for the first time, and I thought: “How stupid!”

    Admittedly, that’s a gut reaction and not good for much in a meaningful discussion, but if a 19-year old part-time web geek can tell you’ve broken usability guidelines, you’ve probably done something wrong. The way it personally breaks the behavior for me is that it breaks my usage of the return key to put in a space and then look back at what I said. It was a good way of editing for me, especially since I post lengthy comments on my friends’ statuses. Now though, I may have to go back and delete comments ten times before getting my message across. Frustration ensues.

    I didn’t realize it was only for the comments though, that’s sending mixed signals within one interaction for somebody who is authoring the status, and then commenting on his friends’ replies. Wow, just wow!

  • abragad
    March 17, 2011
    5:02 am

    Actually that’s the way FriendFeed has always behaved. After the acquisition of FriendFeed by Facebook, you’re seeing more and more interface elements being moved to the bigger site.

  • Dinis Correia
    March 17, 2011
    7:26 am

    This was already the case for comments on the new Groups.

    Messages also get this behavior, *but* on Messages you do can turn off the “quick reply” mode.

  • John Hubler
    March 17, 2011
    10:34 am

    When Facebook does stuff like this, it reminds me highly of Microsoft’s long-standing attitude with IE, and refusing to change or adapt, because they still had the most widely used browser.

  • Tim Jenkins
    March 17, 2011
    11:29 am

    FB Purity fixes the comment problem for Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari Users, restoring the old Comment button method, it also fixes a whole load of other annoying things that are wrong with Facebook. http://www.fbpurity.com

    • Jeff White
      March 17, 2011
      11:32 am

      Very cool Tim. Thanks.

    • Jamil
      May 4, 2011
      9:20 pm

      This is the awesomest little addon EVER!! (i know not a word but thats how i feel) 😀

      Thank you Tim, BIG THUMBS UP!!!!

  • David Lewis
    March 17, 2011
    6:10 pm

    breathtakingly stupid change

  • […] breaks the return-key: http://kulapartners.com/2011/0…..eturn-key/ #badusability […]

  • R.M. 'Auros' Harman
    March 20, 2011
    1:25 pm

    Can we form a Facebook group along the lines of “one million strong to get Facebook to fix the damn return key”?

    • Melissa
      March 23, 2011
      2:49 pm

      We could always create a group, but would anyone listen?

      I’m also curious how many half finished comments will be submitted now. I’m not sure whether it’s a feature or a bug but you can also now edit a comment within a minute or two after posting. If you click the x to remove the comment, it opens up the text box for editing again with your message there. Bizarre, but potentially handy for fixing typos.

    • Jamil
      May 4, 2011
      9:22 pm

      just follow what Tim Jenkins said in the post above

      FB Purity fixes the comment problem for Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari Users, restoring the old Comment button method, it also fixes a whole load of other annoying things that are wrong with Facebook. http://www.fbpurity.com (credit: Tim Jenkins)

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