What Is Facebook Doing To Make Its Android App Accessible In Developing Countries?

By David Cohen 

AndroidLogoOnBlack650Faster, leaner, smaller — no, it’s not an advertisement for a gym, but rather, a description of the changes Facebook has made to its flagship Android application with an eye toward making it more accessible worldwide, including in areas that are still reliant on older networks and devices.

Facebook said in a post on its engineering blog that it sent a team of product managers and engineers to Africa to get a hands-on feel for how its app was performing in developing countries, and the social network outlined the changes it made to its Android app as a result.

Engineering Manager Alex Sourov described the trip and its results in the blog post:

In an effort to connect the next 5 billion, Facebook began to shift to a mobile-first company about two years ago. We trained hundreds of employees on mobile development, restructured internal teams to build for all platforms, and moved to a fast-paced release cycle.

However, our mission extends far beyond building and delivering the best experience on high-end smartphones and LTE networks. We want Facebook to work for everyone — no matter the region, network condition, or mobile device.

To help accomplish this goal, a team of product managers and engineers traveled to Africa to examine mobile performance in developing countries. We purchased several different Android handsets to test the latest version of the Facebook app — and the testing process proved to be difficult. The combination of an intermittent, low-bandwidth network connection and a lack of memory space on the devices resulted in slow load times and constant crashes. We even burned through our monthly data plans in 40 minutes.

We returned to our offices in Seattle, London, and Menlo Park, Calif., determined to enhance the Facebook experience on Android — and soon made major improvements in performance, data efficiency, networking, and application size.

Did it work? Apparently, as Facebook said it was able to:

  • Lower start times of its app by more than 50 percent in the six months following the Africa trip.
  • Slash data use by 50 percent compared with earlier this year.
  • Decrease reports of slow or failed loading of images by nearly 90 percent during the past year.
  • Reduce the size of the app by 65 percent since the beginning of 2014.

Sourov went into much greater detail on those four areas in the blog post, and he also offered the following insight into what comes next:

Our trip to Africa really highlighted the importance of our work on mobile performance, data efficiency, networking reliability, and application size for emerging markets. We’ve made a concerted effort to improve in all these areas and achieved a significant amount of success in the past year.

The lessons learned have already impacted the development of new features. We test all major features and changes in poor networking scenarios. We have automated verification for various performance and efficiency characteristics, which allows the features team to receive immediate feedback on the impact of their code. We also expanded our playbook to other apps, such as Messenger and Instagram.

We will continue to innovate to make the Facebook experience better in emerging markets, and share tools and information that can help developers build apps that work well on different handsets, network environments, and operating systems.

Readers: What do you think of Facebook’s efforts to make its app more accessible in developing markets?