Creating Technology for Social Change

Design, Hack, Ship: How Facebook Designs Products

Today, Tom Stocky visited the Media Lab to talk about how Facebook designs and builds products. He’s a Media Lab graduate and the director of product management at Facebook. He shared five principles for great design: start with people; hack and share; solve the root cause; keep it simple; and be bold.

Tom started out by encouraging us to start with people, to build social systems with people at the center. He showed us a network diagram by the Dachis Group’s social business design team. He wanted to differentiate what Facebook does from that model. Instead of thinking about systems, he encouraged us to start with people’s experience in the real world and then design a product around that, with people at the center.

He showed us an early screenshot from “the facebook.” In the days before statuses, Facebook noticed that people would update their photos as things happened in their lives, especially parties. People clearly wanted to express themselves through photos, but what was the right way to do it? There were already lots of photo album services. The feature list for these products was vast. But there was one feature missing from all these products: people. When people share photos with other people, they’re usually photos of people. The key details are the people who are in the photo and who’s doing the sharing. So the first version of Facebook photos didn’t have any of the features we expect, not even the ability to correct photo orientation. What it did have was photo tagging, so you could say who was in the photo. Now Facebook hosts more photos than anyone else. Tom pointed to this as an example of an anthropological design process. Instead of designing a vast system and seeing how people respond, Tom suggested that we build things based on contact with people.

Next, Tom encouraged us to hack. He showed us a photo of the street leading to Facebook HQ, which they named “hacker way,” to demonstrate that hacking matters at Facebook. What is hacking? It’s the view that code wins arguments, that you should do rather than debate. Designers should build something, get it out to users, get feedback, and continue from there. As an example, Tom showed us Facbeook chat, designed in 2007. At the time, screens were small, and they were worried that it would obstruct the site. Some people were uncomfortable with the idea of moving Facebook to a realtime experience. To address this loggerhead, a team just made it in a day at one of the Facebook hackathons, and tested it with a subset of the Facebook community.

Almost all the engineers, as well as many of the product managers and designers, participate in all-night Facbeook hackathons. Mark Zuckerberg shows up to them as well. They start at 8pm, food arrives at midnight, and the hackaton ends around dawn. People then stumble off to breakfast somewhere. The goal for the hackathon is to build a prototype by the end of the 12 hours. At Facebook, they actually launch the hackathon projects with a subset of customers. Tom pointed out that this is a great way to understand what the product really is, rather than just imagining it. The first version of anything isn’t going to be any good, so Facebook launches things as soon as possible. This gives them time to iterate on it and make it better.

Tom’s third principle is to solve the root cause, to find the leverage problems and fix them instead of the symptoms. As an example, Tom talked about the profile browsing problem on early Facebook. In the early days, users would log in to their profile, add something, look at a few friends’ profiles, and log out. This wasn’t enough for Facebook. They wanted their users to browse more. Might a grid layout of friends encourage browsing? In reality however, users didn’t want to browse lots of information. They just wanted to know what had changed. This insight led to the development of the minifeed and the newsfeed, the one place where you can get updates from what’s happening in everyone’s lives. At launch, this was controversial, but now it’s what brings people back to Facebook every day. Tom points out that newsfeed was an example of solving the leverage problem. If they hadn’t… it wouldn’t have been as popular.

Next, Tom urged us to keep it simple. Every new idea for a feature sounds like a good idea. Designers often employ the following string of logic: someone’s going to like it, or I can imagine liking it, so let’s launch it, and people who like it use it; people who don’t like it won’t use it. This kind of thinking leads to way too much complexity. But the art of keeping things simple isn’t just about saying no. It involves finding and cultivating the bare essential within an idea. As an example, Tom talked to us about the international appeal of the “post” in Facebook. When Facebook was being shared across several countries, the received wisdom was that you needed to localise design to every culture. But the post is something simple that anyone can use. It looks the same for everyone. Tom then showed us the crowdsourcing translation system for Facebook. He pointed out that there was in fact very little to translate. He showed us a screenshot of everything on his facebook page which isn’t user generated content. From this viewpoint, designing for user generated content itself is a form of simplicity.

Finally, Tom encouraged us to be bold, to take risks or get left behind. As a company gets larger and tries to learn from mistakes, it’s easy to put in place structures which make the company more risk averse and less able to innovate. Facebook doesn’t want this to happen. According to Tom, Facebook is always trying to push the envelope and take risks which might not be wise. He showed us a photograph of the New York office, which has huge painted letters on the wall, “PROCEED AND BE BOLD.” But what does it mean to be bold? Tom shared a quotation by Wayne Gretzky, which Gretzky’s father told him when he was learning to play ice hockey: “skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been”

Where is the puck going? Tom encouraged Media Lab researchers to think about where technology is going, where human behaviour is going in the next 3-5 years. Then we should build for the future now. That’s what Facebook means by being bold. To illustrate this, Tom talked about recent changes to the Facebook profile, Facebook Timeline. Tom argued that the traditional Facebook profile really isn’t a way to tell our story as people. To solve this, Facebook gave a small team the challenge of throwing out the old page and designing a new one. This was genuinely bold. People in companies get attached to their code, to the projects they worked on in the past. Just as good coders sometimes learn to throw away their code, Facebook has reinvented the profile page with the timeline. They’re still working on the usability problems, but overall, he doesn’t think it’s possible to create something like Timeline through incremental design. Being bold requires imagination and risk taking.

== Q & A ==

Someone asked whether bold changes are easier earlier or later in the life of a company. Do you need a large userbase or a smaller one to do this? Tom responded that when a company has a lot of users, changes become riskier, because there’s more at stake. Every change could disrupt the success of the company or give competitors a chance to steal users.

Another person asked about the role of product management at Facebook. Tom responded that the first part involves prioritising features, deciding what should go into the launch, etc.. The other half involves strategy: understanding industry trends, understanding the competition, doing research, understanding what needs to be built, and so forth. Finally, product manager roles are about communications. They are the single point of contact internally and externally for questions about the project. This requires someone who is capable of translating between the worlds of marketing, engineering, legal, and PR.

Jie Qi asked, is there some sort of end goal that Facebook is trying to accomplish with their products? Tom responded with the reason he joined Facebook. For them, Facebook is trying to design a social infrastructure for the world, something that could create a virtuous cycle which benefits both Facebook and the world. They try to imagine a world where everything you do is based on the Facebook graph and design for that.

Someone asked why there is no dislike button. Tom mentioned that this is a big debate within the company. Overall, receiving a dislike is a not very positive social interaction. So Facebook doesn’t plan to offer dislikes. Nevertheless, some people choose to “like” things and then unlike things to send the message of their dislike to the poster. Tom pointed out that open graph allows third parties to build other verbs. Spotify, for example, records if you listened to something. Map apps record if you went somewhere. So in theory, someone could create a dislike app, but it’s not something that Facebook would be likely to develop themselves.

A reporter from archinect asked about privacy and datamining. Tom responded with an explanation of how the Facebook advertising system works. Instead of sharing user data with advertisers, Facebook asks advertisers to specify the demographics, rather than actually share that with advertisers. She followed up with a question about governments, and Tom responded that they sometimes try to push back in cases where governments are asking for too much, but Facebook complies with the laws of the governments where they are based.

Charlie De Tar asked if there was ever going to be a governance system to let users make decisions about how Facebook works. As Facebook becomes more a part of our society, might people be given more control rather than just having Facebook making decisions for them? Tom responded that the company only has as much control over people’s lives as people choose. People can choose to use Facebook to leave it. Even if people mistrust Facebook, the company has a good reason to listen to their users, not because Facebook sees themselves as good samaritans, but because they want people to use their products.

Concluding Thoughts

I really enjoyed hearing Tom’s way of describing design. Having just completed the Festival of Learning, I have seen the benefits of focused moments of creativity within large organisations. I was also very pleased to discover that Facebook places engineers in high level product decision positions.

Like Charlie, I have ongoing questions about the growing social and political responsibilities of Internet companies like Facebook, and what mechanisms should be in place to make sure that the virtuous cycle of public benefit stays virtuous. At the Center for Civic Media last week, Rebecca McKinnon asked the same question, saying that we need a Magna Carta of the Internet, a way for companies to operate and succeed with the consent of the networked, just as we expect governments to function in accountability to the people they govern. This is especially difficult to reconcile with the need for companies like Facebook to stay bold, to create visionary products that go where the puck is going.

Overall, I’m excited about the power of platforms like Facebook for public good. The Knight Foundation launched this year’s Knight News Challenge today; the first set of grants is focused on projects which leverage existing platforms to support community information and the news. I’m sure many of the applications will be Facebook apps.