Co.Design

A Visit With Facebook's VP Of Product, And His Redesign Team

In all the coverage of Facebook and its dominance, one group is seldom talked about: The 64-member design staff, which is busy honing interactions that affect hundreds of millions of people.

This story first appeared in design mind, frog’s innovation and design magazine.--Ed.

It seems odd, if not entirely counterintuitive, to find any building on Facebook’s main campus devoid of devices connected to the social-networking site. But inside the slightly grungy old warehouse that houses the company’s Analog Research Lab, there isn’t a single computer in sight. Instead, the space is filled with power saws, silk-screening gear, a small letterpress, and an industrial paper-cutting machine that slices through dozens of sheets at once, as swiftly as a guillotine. These tools are ideal for making what, exactly?

Apparently, they’re for making stacks of postcards with the word “poke” (a riff on the virtual act of “poking” someone) printed in inky red letters on one side and lines for a handwritten address and a postage stamp on the other. The cards are available to any Facebook staff member who wants to use them as personal stationery for keeping in touch with friends and family the old-fashioned way.

You see, Facebook’s creative leadership prefers to develop new features and products based on people and their online behavior, not technology and algorithms—an approach the company calls “social design.” Christopher Cox, vice president of product, defines the concept as improving how people build human-to-human, versus human-to-interface, connections online. Facebook’s social network, he says, is the virtual equivalent of an actual space in which people regularly gather to converse, play, collaborate, and share.

This starts to explain the postcards and the lab’s adorably anachronistic gear and comfy furniture. Two Facebook communication designers, Ben Barry and Everett Katigbak, transformed the space in their spare time about a year and a half ago. Beyond such old-school items as a photography darkroom and racks where wet prints can dry, there are soft chairs to sink into and a fridge filled with beverages. The business reason why the lab exists is to provide a space for communication designers like the lab’s cofounders to create branded marketing materials--T-shirts, for instance--for developer conferences and other Facebook events. It’s also where designers experiment with simple fonts and sleek iconography that will eventually influence what appears on the Facebook website. With its laid-back playful vibe, the Analog Research Lab has also become a place where Facebook’s growing design staff--which has more than tripled in size in less than two years--gathers for frequent happy hours.

Design is such an influential part of Facebook’s strategy that Cox and 64 other members of the design staff occupy desks that form a U-shape around founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The emphasis on building the notion of “social design” is so important that, when asked about its controversial privacy policies, Facebook’s in-house counsel invokes the “d” word: Earlier this year, a privacy and product attorney at Facebook was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that the company would “apply the Facebook design experience that we bring to everything we do and extend that to our privacy policy.” After all, to users of the site, finding the controversial privacy policy and adjusting the settings is really a user-interface issue--and, ultimately, a design concern.

“Everything Just Is”

Despite its pivotal role in the company, the lab typically gets left out of media profiles and Hollywood portrayals of Facebook. Those tend to focus on the website’s phenomenal popularity (more than 685 million active users worldwide at this writing) or the controversies surrounding the company, from privacy issues to its rivalry with Google. Cox is quick to point this out as a major oversight, because the lab is shaping Facebook as both an organization and a social-networking platform.

“You can learn a lot about a company by what’s literally on the walls. We don’t have clinical-looking logos on ours. They’re adorned by stuff designers have made in the analog lab and that people have put up, with no direction from me,” Cox says effusively. “We have a rogue, emergent, generative culture. We show people that when they come into Facebook, they start creating.”

This is also true of users when they log on to Facebook.com, he says: They can post whatever they want on their virtual walls. Indeed, company data shows that the average user creates 90 pieces of content per month, contributing to more than 30 billion pieces of shared content--everything from photos to web links to posts--across Facebook’s social network during that time. Every day, some 20 million installations of third-party applications further customize Facebook accounts.

Kate Aronowitz, Facebook’s director of design, says the lab also provides a place where employees “come up with expressing who we are.” The company won’t disclose how much it has invested in the lab, or its budget. There are no staff members who work full-time in the lab; instead, the resource exists to encourage designers to play and create with non-digital tools, which, Aronowitz says, is a powerful tactic to help inform how web design is effectively executed today. “Today, web designers are returning to original design principles--simple shapes, contrasts, and colors. It’s not like 10 years ago, when it was all about what tools you could use to create animations on a web page,” Aronowitz says. “At the lab, we have this extra-creative outlet, where designers can get back to basics. Sometimes people bring in old book covers, or go there and sketch. The printing press forces them to play around with super-simple typography, things that aren’t overly decorated or complicated.”

Heavyweights in the design world--museum curators and executive creative directors of well-known firms--have been largely unimpressed. They question the effectiveness of Facebook’s so-called “social design,” often using adjectives such as “cold” and “unengaging” to describe the social network’s aesthetic to publications ranging from the Washington Post to Advertising Age. Paola Antonelli, curator of design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, seems to concur. “The awesome designers, engineers, programmers, executives, and thinkers behind Facebook--who all have my eternal admiration--have designed a unique system, but the result is not an example of design,” she observes. “Let’s assume every interface is a design: Some are good. Some are bad. Some are neutral. Facebook falls in this latter category. It is not offensive, and it leaves room for people to do their own thing.”

Facebook’s plainness, Cox and Aronowitz argue, is the key to the success of its design strategy, which targets a potential 1 billion users worldwide, appealing to people ages 13 and up, with diverse cultural backgrounds in more than 70 languages. “Yes, we’ve had negative press, in terms of our ‘lack of design,’” Aronowitz says. “But honestly, when we’re doing our jobs right as a design team, we do not want people to remember interactions with our brand; we want them to experience real connections with each other and with content. That is most important.”

As an example, Cox cites the names of Facebook features. “In 2005, we decided to create a photo product that we called Photos. Other people at the time were using names like Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, right? Very niche-y,” he says. “Instead, we use common words. We recede into the background. We design a place where there aren’t new objects to trip over. Photos are photos. Chat is chat. Groups are groups. Everything just is.” To directly address criticism of the site’s design, he recalls his comparison of Facebook’s virtual space to physical space. “Look, you can design a place with the coolest-looking windows or the most beautiful archways, but that doesn’t mean people will want to sit down in those spaces and stay there,” Cox says. “The problem or challenge that we face with creating social products that work online is that the subtlest of gestures are what makes them comfortable.”

Facebook’s focus on replicating offline human connections online by keeping them straightforward and real has worked for seven years--ever since Zuckerberg launched the company from his Harvard dorm room--and the site continues to gain steam. Facebook was the most visited website in the U.S. in 2010, beating Google, according to Hitwise, a web analytics firm run by Experian. People also tended to spend more time on Facebook than Google last year, despite user backlash when Facebook rolled out a profile page redesign.

Jessi Hempel, a senior writer at Fortune magazine who covers technology, agrees that Facebook’s design strategy is working. “Sure, people can ding Facebook for pure aesthetic reasons--and some say it’s ‘boring’--but design is the most integral part of the website,” she notes. “When social networking was born in 2005, a lot of companies were doing the same thing. But there’s a reason why they keep coming back to one or fleeing to another [i.e., Facebook]. Ultimately, the reason was because of how it was designed. It is not just pretty; it is useful and intuitive.”

Hempel sees Facebook’s clean, minimalist sensibility as parallel to that of another hyper-successful Silicon Valley company. “Facebook as a site is so stripped down, design doesn’t get in the way. As a company, Facebook is not so different from Apple. They have extremely different DNAs, but they both have an authoritarian founder figure with strong concepts who from the beginning made it clear that his company’s products would have no compromises.”

So Simple, It’s Practically Invisible

Soleio Cuervo, the second designer that Zuckerberg ever hired, in 2005, says that he and his colleagues have taken a “social design” approach since the earliest days of the company. “When we first started out, it was important to us to build a system that actively maps people’s relationships in the world--offline,” Cuervo says. He points out that the team has been moving closer to their goal of creating a “universal commenting system” that is simple, easy, and understandable across cultures, nations, and generations.

“We came up with ‘like,’” he says about the button that lets users tell others that they like a photo, link, or status update. It’s a solution so obvious and elegant that the design is practically invisible--and as easy to use and understand whether you’re logging on to Facebook in Bangalore, Cairo, Madrid, or San Francisco.

Not everyone loves the “like” button, however. Last year, when it made its debut, the feature met controversy when users and the media questioned whether Facebook tracked users’ Internet browsing habits fairly when they clicked on it. So Facebook had to rewrite its privacy explanations to disclose just what happens when a person “likes” a product: The company that makes the product has permission to send information to that person. And if that company is an advertising client of Facebook, Facebook may combine that person’s profile photo with an ad in a “News Feed-style story,” according to the current Facebook privacy page, which also says that such actions offer a “social context” that makes advertising more “relevant.” On the one hand, it’s akin to that age-old tradition of word-of-mouth advertising among flesh-and-blood friends, mediated by Facebook. On the other, it could seem like a sneaky way of compiling data on potential customers’ tastes, as well as a provide the means of turning Facebook “friends” into virtual salespeople.

Since the button’s introduction, it has been integrated into numerous high-profile news, retail, and search-engine websites, including CNN.com, Zappos, Yelp, and others. While Facebook won’t divulge how many or what sites use the feature, a company spokesperson will say that more than 30 billion pieces of content are shared monthly using the “like” button. To be fair, that includes not only endorsements for products, but also expressions of sincerely liking, say, your sister’s new baby photos.

So, how does Facebook create such widely used examples of “social design”? It starts with building a multidisciplinary design team, one that comprises communication and product designers, engineers, writers, and researchers. “When I started, it was only a handful of product designers,” Cuervo says. “Now, engineers work with us directly. We don’t throw documents at them with specs. We all focus on the site’s user experience versus the code.”

Design director Aronowitz, who previously worked for eBay and LinkedIn, says she has never seen designers and engineers collaborate as closely as they do at Facebook. “I’ve seen this in pockets, but not as a company’s culture,” she says. “When I come into work in the morning, for instance, I see designers sitting in different places all the time. One day, it’s with an engineer, another a product manager. In other companies I’ve worked at, people owned, say, branding, or they owned wireframes. They passed on directions to engineers.” Facebook’s structure helps the design team move quickly, she says. “Our culture is a culture of building and doing.”

Facebook also does its homework. The design team’s researchers work on higher-level brand issues, relying on focus groups to understand the habits of users in different demographics, such as international markets and people older than 50. They look at quantitative data on Facebook use. And they invite everyday users, from Luddites to early adopters of its latest features, to the testing center on campus to give feedback in person. “We have them come in and look at live data on Facebook usage … as well as paper prototypes,” Aronowitz explains, underscoring the validity of using analog inputs to bolster digital design.

Speaking of analog, here’s where the Analog Research Lab comes in: Check out the lab’s Facebook page, and you’ll find photos of some of the handmade ephemera created there. The seemingly benign objects often betray the sheer ambition and drive inside the company: “Done is better than perfect,” reads a poster. Bright yellow stickers proclaim “This journey is 1% finished.” Posts on the page invite employees to come by and pick these up.

As quirky and cordial as this may appear, it’s design research, a means for Facebook to discover which fonts, colors, or other basic design elements might strike a chord with real people.

It’s a place where Facebook designers connect in and to the physical world, which is about far more than having fun or getting creative juices flowing. This connection to the tangible world, says Cox, is vital to the company’s understanding and contribution to web design--and the future of its business. So vital that Facebook plans to re-create the Analog Research Lab when it moves to a new campus this summer. “On the web right now, a lot of companies, and not just us, are struggling to help people do what they’ve been doing forever, like playing Scrabble, only now on a glowing screen,” Cox says. “It’s extraordinarily powerful to help people take something in their heads and instantly give it to the world around them. It’s about focusing on what we do in our real lives and not whether a menu bar will pop up. And that needs to be designed, because it’s a new experience.” And as Facebook’s user base approaches the 1 billion mark, it’s an experience that, like it or not, is here to stay.


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4 Comments

  • KJ

    I agree wholeheartedly with the guest who posted before me! The more FB makes changes, and claims to be protecting our privacy, the more they do NOT protect us. Out privacy is invaded daily by the use of tags, and other features. FB is taking away all the control over our own accounts, taking away the ability to choose what we view, and choosing for us what THEY deem to be the important 'news'. I want to be able to look at the status updates, game feeds, links, pages, etc. individually to streamline what I am doing. I dont want to be bombarded with a constant sidebar feed of every tiny action of every person on my account. I dont want to have to constantly click and change things in an attempt to have the account *I* want, rather than the account FB deems I should have. I am now spending less time on FB, and a great many of the people I know are doing the same. If FB keeps up this Control Freak act....we will all be migrating to Google+. I, personal, opened an account the day FB launched these crazy new changes. I may be moving house, so to speak, soon.

  • Roperior

    I think that technology is designed around how people will use it, rather than how the  product is "meant" to be used. Just like physical objects differ in terms of ergonomics, the same rules apply for interface design. 

    You might have an amazing and groundbreaking design that you can't wait to implement it immediately, but herein lies the danger of slow adaptation, or worse, to be thrown out entirely. We have seen amazing innovations and experiments started by Google (Wave, for example) that did not take off. It's a wonderful project, but ultimately it fell into what I consider as a "too much, too soon" scenario. Change should always be embraced, and will always be embraced, but we are humans after all, and we must be able to gradually ease those changes--improved changes, more intuitive and ergonomic for the users to accept.

  • cia

    People need to stop whining and embrace change. Give any kind of change a few days to sink in and we'll soon forget that something was different from the first place. The Web changes constantly, and if you're going to stay online, we need to adapt. 

  • Guest

    The new FB interface is awful.  On my wall, I am now seeing the status and photos of strangers that my contacts have commented on or liked.  I don't wish to see this, and I'm sure they dont want all and sundry viewing either.  My friend created an album of our children, marked 'friends only' and it was 'liked' by a complete stranger.  This is not right, a gross invasion of privacy.  Things were fine before they started tinkering.  I am happy to change, on this occasion a huge blunder has been made.