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Facebook VP of product Chris Cox, center, flanked by four of his design- team stars, from left, Mike Matas, Julie Zhuo, Nicholas Felton, and Kate Aronowitz.

Co.Design

Facebook Agrees: The Key To Its Future Success Is Design

In the past year, Facebook’s design staff has gone from 20 to 90. We talk with its brightest stars about the sea change that this represents for Silicon Valley.

For the last year or so, a designer by the name of Nicholas Felton has been hunkered down at a desk just 15 feet away from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s. Felton is something of a design superstar—his stunning layouts chronicling his life have earned him a spot in an exhibit at MoMA—but in Silicon Valley, his ilk are known as “pixel pushers.” Yet Felton’s proximity to power is no accident. Facebook is one of the very few Valley companies whose senior management, starting with the CEO, understands design as a sustainable competitive advantage. “We’re not just responsible for the pixels,” Felton says. “We’re responsible for a lot of the core ideas for how the product works.”

Zuckerberg and VP of Product Chris Cox hired Felton last year (by buying his startup, Daytum) to oversee the development of Timeline, the life chronicle that, since this past January, has become the personalized profile page for each of Facebook’s members. Zuckerberg, Cox, and Felton talked daily about the development of Timeline. The key design breakthrough came at a meeting that Felton and the CEO had last summer. “[Mark] drew the idea on the board,” Felton says. “His idea was, ‘Have we tried something like having this center line down the middle that would divide the two columns and act as the spectrum of time?’ I started playing with it, and it worked even better than I anticipated.” So instead of assembling users’ past activities as a vertical set of “bricks” stacked on top of each other, Facebook adopted a timeline—the standard for historical chronicles since, well, the beginning of time. (Zuckerberg could not comment for this story due to SEC regulations regarding the company’s quiet period.)

Felton smiles when asked if Zuckerberg, a programmer, has a design sensibility. “It’s surprisingly good. I’ve been really impressed by comments that he’ll make about letter or line spacing.” But more than that, Felton respects the freedom Zuckerberg gives him and his colleagues to experiment. “There’s a lack of attachment to the way the company has done things previously,” he says. “It kind of threw me at first.”

Facebook is playing a different design game than the rest of Silicon Valley. Instead of obsessing about making tasks like posting a photo easier or making the interface more beautiful, Facebook is getting its product out of the way. The goal, explains Cox, is to “make the experience of using Facebook as seamless and easy as talking to people in real life.” That sounds like the absence of design, but the simplicity of the look and the reach of the service has attracted top designers, including Rasmus Andersson from Spotify and Mike Matas, who worked on the original iPhone at Apple. Remembering his first meeting with Zuckerberg, Felton says, “The more we talked, the more we realized that our desires for [Daytum’s] product were really aligned with what Facebook wanted to do, and we had the opportunity to do it on the biggest playing field in the planet.” In the past three years, Facebook’s design team has grown from 20 people to 90.

“The biggest thing that’s different is that Facebook is not about human-computer interaction,” says Cox. Most designers in the computer industry have focused on helping humans interact with machines. But Facebook is about human-to-human interaction. “We don’t want people to remember their interactions with Facebook,” says director of design Kate Aronowitz. “We want them to remember their interactions with their friends and family.” Cox calls this “social design.” “It’s more like designing a plaza or a restaurant,” he explains. “The best building is one where the people inside get it and work together and are connected. That connectivity is created by how everything is arranged.”

An introduction to Felton’s startup Daytum, which Facebook acquired along with Felton and his partner, Ryan Case.

But describing the company’s goal as “designing a plaza” leaves out the biggest idea behind Facebook’s design. Facebook doesn’t just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions. It wants you to have the same feelings—the positive ones at least—that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person. The company shorthand for this is “serotonin,” the neurotransmitter that sparks feelings of happiness. A sticky note with the word scrawled on it is tacked on the wall of a design meeting I sit in on. “That’s our term for those little moments of delight you get on Facebook,” explains Julie Zhuo, a design manager. And Cox clearly understands this as well: “It’s the science of things you can’t reason about, that you just feel,” he says. “So when we’re going off to create something new, it’s important to be iterating in that mindset.”

This story appears in the April 2012 issue of Fast Company.

Jake Stangel

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33 Comments

  • Jeffrey J Schimtz

    Facebook

    If you REALLY believe this, please take a look at the experience for a user with only a Facebook fan page.  It does not work.  I can't use features like polls and questions, can't log in with a mobile app (b/c I can't add a registered device), and none of the help describes what I see.

  • Kyle Kesterson

    Kind of surprised to not see Ben Barry listed here. He has used design to extend Facebook's brand and experience well beyond the screen, with F8 to the Analog Research Laboratory, which has helped craft a significant culture inside and outside of the walls of Facebook. 

  • TLC

    "Facebook is getting its product out of the way." Oh, really? Is that why they now force everyone to link to THEIR timeline layout instead of their customized landing pages? And they have so many restrictions on the cover photos? And posts from business pages now only reach 16% of those who've liked a page? And all the advertising tools that would get a business' posts seen are available only to businesses that spend at least $25,000 a month in advertising? Facebook has decimated its capabilities for small businesses. Sorry, but I don't get a "little moment of delight" when I think about how much time my clients have spent to build their Facebook audiences, only to learn that they can't reach most of them.

  • Simon

    oh my god, get over yourself! furthermore you’re talking about a completely different topic!

  • Frederic Matuszek

    Facebook needs to constantly reinvent itself to revive the user experience. Today an UI has a 6 month lifetime. Congratulations to the design team and managment that is constantly taking risks for that.

  • Mark

    Hi Mark from Cape Town I am the editor of a design publication called Designtimes. How do I go about getting permission to run this article in our publication?

  • jmlorenz

    Timeline is good design? Remember the "Butterfly Ballot", Florida, 2000?  Same thing. I don't think zig-zagging back and forth across two columns is particularly easy or clear... just cluttered.

  • Zack Mazinger

    “The biggest thing that’s different is that Facebook is not about human-computer interaction,” says Cox. 
    Huh? What?

    Most designers in the computer industry have focused on helping humans interact with machines. But Facebook is about human-to-human interaction. 

    WOW! Just wow. I think I'm finally understanding the problems they have with design. While Boltron's QS process is amazing for static print pieces like his annual report, the interactive work - you know the digital stuff that humans interact with computers to use? - Yeah. That. That where I think the major failings are. Daytum is pretty painful - lovely typography but functionally impossible and ultimately useless as a tool. 

    This is the problem with Timeline as well. The marquee is lovely - giant header image much like Fastco is aesthetically pleasing. Trying to understand the timeline and USE the timeline - pretty near frustrating. 

    I don't predict this newly installed design prowess to deliver success. Not from where they are and now how they describe where they are going. Ms. Cox's statement is mind-blowingly off-kilter. 

    FB is GREAT at persuasive design. They've set the standard for getting click throughs, and pulling people into the site and keeping them there. Whoever has been in charge of that bit "gets it" - though they've removed alot of the elements that worked (like emailing when someone mentions you).

    All said, I'm interested to see where this new team takes things and how they can deliver the secret of FB success through design that doesn't include HCI on for computer mediated connection and interaction. 

    Ah well, ignorance is bliss, they say. 

  • Deborah Hymes

     I share Daniel's POV, so I'm taking the liberty of butting in here. ;)

    It's a much, much more visual experience. We are *all* visual learners, in addition to whatever other ways we learn naturally. So if you approach it as a visual medium, it becomes a beautiful, accessible, storytelling experience. 

    I believe this is why Pinterest is so addictively popular as well.

    Not tooting my own horn, just demonstrating what I mean here:  http://www.facebook.com/Wander...

  • Cathyromed

    really? WHy is that? Genuine question. It just confuses me. How can I use it to my advantage?
    Cathy

  • Joshua

    If Facebook is "getting its product out of the way," then what is Timeline? The user and admin experience has never been clunkier.

  • Peter

    Facebook has really been stockpiling the talent for some time now. But at this point, it's still all about potential. Seems a bit bizarre that more innovative, interesting FB products aren't emerging. 

    Rumours of an ageist hiring policy may be creating some sheep, but Feltron is certainly a proven heavyweight, who usually delivers far more interesting experiences..Feels like the Zuckster might be turning into a bit of a micro-managing control freak... For instance, why isn't the FB world big enough for Walls and Timelines? Why force people to switch? Why force them at all? Being forced doesn't trigger my serotonin.Why not diversify a bit - clearly the resources are there to explore and support both Walls and Timelines. And several other metaphors besides...

  • Steven

    there won't be Facebook 10 15 years from now, shelf life of any digital product does not last that long these days. well people will argue that as a company they will still be around, sure but it won't be the Facebook as you know today, it'll have to evolve so drastically to stay alive that it's basically another product.

    most people who left simply grew out of it... just as they grew out of myspace, and the messenger era.. and irc. (and the ones before)

  • kpr

    For each of you who have "left Facebook" for its implementation of the timeline, I would be willing to bet that dozens have joined. If not hundreds. Facebook isn't designing for you. 

    Think about the all the young folks who are only just now jumping on Facebook. The timeline is all they know. There is no "re-learning." As Facebook looks down the road, 10, 15 years from now, those are the people they have to be thinking about. 

    I welcome the changes that Facebook is making and the hacker mindset the company embodies. The glitches are things that users are quick to point out and Facebook is generally decent about trying to correct. As Zuckerberg put it in his S1 letter, plain and simply, "Perfect is the enemy of done."

    The product will never be perfect and there will always be critics*. If it doesn't work you, by all means, find another network that does. But pissing and moaning about it generally won't improve your situation. 

    *And the typos? E.B. Boyd keeping doing what you do. I couldn't care less. Again, perfect is the enemy of done. Ship that shit. 

  • Albert Vargas

    Bravo to Facebook for putting design in the forefront. That being said, I question the idea that Facebook is "getting its product out of the way." Design and product should be synergistic and not silo-ed.