Facebook recently rolled out a new design that, in the eyes of some, represents a fundamental shift for the world’s largest social network.

The new design places an emphasis on showing Facebook users real-time updates of their friends’ latest online activities. Some suggest this is Facebook’s response to the growing popularity of Twitter.

Facebook, of course, recently tried unsuccessfully to acquire Twitter.

Unfortunately, Facebook’s new design isn’t going over too well with users. A poll on Facebook shows that only 5% of the respondents like the new design. That’s not very good news given that over 700,000 people have already weighed in.

Of course this is not uncharted territory for Facebook. When it rolled out News Feeds, for instance, users by and large hated them. Today they’re considered one of the site’s best features. Eric Eldon at VentureBeat suggests that the new design is likely to go the way of News Feeds and points out that many of the complaints have to do with user confusion, not the new features themselves. He argues:

Certainly, the redesign needs to make things more clear to users. But that’s a matter of Facebook taking iterative steps with the new version — which it is. What Facebook shouldn’t do is listen to a relatively small number of irate users and stop trying to improve the product in favor of what already exists. After all, Facebook is trying to focus on getting people to do more status updates in order to compete with upstarts like Twitter; going backwards is more dangerous than going forwards.

I think he might be right but I do think Facebook should be more careful about ‘going forward‘. Sometimes what a company considers progress is a step backwards for users. The risk for Facebook is that its leadership and product managers get too disconnected from their own users.

Perhaps Facebook users really do want the site to provide the kind of ‘status updates‘ that Twitter has popularized and Facebook simply needs to do a better job of rolling out features and educating users on how to use them. But it’s also possible that Zuckerberg and his team have confused their appreciation of Twitter with their own users’ needs and desires and that users don’t want Facebook to be a Twitter-like service.

If Facebook has made a bad assumption about how its users want it to evolve, that obviously won’t be a good thing.

The truth is that Facebook can evolve and innovate without changing its core identity. Whether the new Twitter-like features in the new design represent evolution or an identity change is still unknown.

Whatever the case it will be interesting to see if Facebook users warm up to the new design. It will also be interesting to see how many times Facebook can upset large numbers of users before some of them leave en masse.

Photo credit: Jacob Bøtter via Flickr.