Product Design Director at Facebook
Hi Julie, to start this off, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do at Facebook?
I am the Design Director and I lead the design and research teams on Engagement and Core Experiences. Engagement refers to the lifecycle of content and sharing, and Core Experiences refers to the main surfaces in which people experience Facebook which includes our different interfaces on mobile and desktop web. At Facebook right now we are a mobile first company, meaning we design features and envision the future in a mobile centric world.
How long would you say Facebook has been a mobile first company?
Last year is when we started to make the transition, and a lot of what we have done since then has been to build up expertise in mobile. We have been growing our team on the design side to have more and more people start envisioning what a new feature would be on mobile first rather than on a desktop computer.
How was the transition from desktop to mobile? Was it mostly seamless or did the design language not translate at nicely as you might have hoped?
On the web, Facebook traditionally experimented with their design until finding something that really stuck, and over on mobile we’re seeing features like chat heads come and go from the iPhone app. What do you think will be the mobile design language from here on out, and do you feel that Facebook is starting to hit their stride on these new platforms?
We’ve always been a company that is not afraid to try new things and continue to push ourselves. This is true not just for the design and aesthetics, but also for the product itself, the technologies, and for the device’s capabilities. What I’ve seen, and what I hope you and everyone else has seen over the past few years or so, is us doing a lot better with mobile design. We’re pushing the envelope a little more with features like chat heads, especially on the Android platform. While we’re developing our expertise, you will continue to see better and more interesting design work.
Facebook Home is one of the company’s most interesting recent experiments. How has it been received on Android so far, and what would you say is the future of that style of approach?
One of the things I’ve talked about publicly is our approach to designing Facebook Home using tools like Quartz Composer, which allowed us to play with, design, and tweak interactions like chat heads. We continue to use the tool, both on projects that have launched and on things that we are still working on.
In terms of the product of Facebook Home, we have heard a lot of feedback from users that we are incorporating to iterate on the product and make it something that really resonates and is valuable to people.
The idea of mobile software that isn’t really an app, but more of a takeover of an operating system’s user interface is pretty unique. What kind of challenges did you face in communicating what Facebook Home actually is to the average user?
It was challenging because people understand what apps are, but a lot of people at this point in time don’t understand things like operating systems and platforms, so we chose to focus on what people do know. People understand concepts like lock screens and app launchers, especially on Android where you can customize all of these things. It was less important for us to convey how everything works together than it was to convey how the product is valuable.
What you’ve seen since we launched Facebook Home is us trying to be a little bit more focused. We’re focusing less on the launcher for the time being, and doing a lot more with the lock screen. For instance, we recently launched the ability to customize your lock screen with feeds from different services like Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest.
Over on iOS, Facebook just launched a new version of Messenger, and I was intrigued by its integration with the main Facebook app. Messages are no longer handled by the main app, and instead the app now takes you directly to the Messenger app. Is Facebook trying to build an app ecosystem on iOS, or simply looking for ways to link their apps together more elegantly?
It’s really about the mental model surrounding apps. People are used to apps that do something very specific, whether that’s messaging, checking the weather, or viewing your address book. We wanted to make it clear that we have a product that is focused on messaging. The app does it fast, it’s delightful, and offers a specific targeted experience for private messaging. It made more sense for us to focus on making that experience great, with its own brand and identity, as a separate app, while centering the main Facebook app around enabling people to keep connected and share with their friends and the world around them.
Do you view the purpose of a tablet app in the same vein? The Facebook app on iPad, at least right now, retains the chat heads, the side bar, and all of the functionality that was originally there before.
Tablets are a bit of a different beast. Usage patterns on tablets are not the same as they are on phones. People sit with their tablets and mostly use them to do things like web browsing, content consumption, and playing games, whereas mobile phones are more task oriented, instead focusing on performing and tracking activities you do on the go. When we start we have to choose a platform to build on first, and it made more sense for us to invest in the mobile phone. On tablet we haven’t launched many changes this year, but what we end up doing for that experience will probably be a little different than what you see on mobile.
Facebook has so many users, and its audience is classically resilient to change. How do you cope with that, and what do you do to convince the general user that a change is better for the platform as a whole?
One of the things that we’ve learned is that our large user base is not going to suddenly ask for change. We understand that for a lot of people, Facebook is a daily habit, something that they check every day. It’s sort of like if you have a certain desk configuration, and I went over to your house one day, rearranged your desk, and said, “Hey look I reorganized it and made it better!” You would still say, “Wait, I was really used to what I had.” It can come as a surprise.
In the past we rolled out a couple large changes that resulted in feedback from users asking why the change happened, so now we try to be cautious about large changes and take the time to explain to users why they are necessary. We give users the option of opting into a change and we have stuff in beta for a while so we have enough feedback on not only how users react to a change on day one, but on how they will respond to it a month or two after. Now we have time to take those learnings and continue to iterate on the product. We make sure for each change there is more explanation up front, and for the big things like timeline and the upcoming web redesign, we ask people to opt in.
Facebook has a number of different teams each dedicated to a particular feature, like Graph Search and News Feed. With such a large company, how do you maintain the notion that everyone is working toward one cohesive vision?
One of our goals with each of our products is to make it feel like it’s unified, almost like it’s created by one person rather than twenty, or fifty, or however many people. Design, even more so than engineering or product management, really needs to be cohesive, and we need to be able to do things like define standards and best practices for interactions and visual patterns. We have a weekly meeting with the entire product design team where we're sharing what different teams are working on, so that everyone has at least a high level idea of what’s going on.
Every designer at Facebook has a chance to see others' work, to ask for feedback, and to be exposed to up and coming ideas. We still have a lot of critique, and we try to have opportunities for to get critique from people that are outside of a core team too. Also, we have a group of folks who work on standards and champion the cohesive design standards across the Facebook product. Being a designer is super collaborative and designers get phenomenal feedback from other designers, so a lot of collaboration happens organically as well with someone just going to someone else's desk and riffing on ideas together.
You started writing on Medium recently. What inspired you to start writing there, and how do you select your topics?
I started this year because I thought it would be a good way for me to distill and clarify some of my thinking about whatever was on my mind, and also because I am passionate about design and technology as a profession and industry. Working at a company with a lot of other designers, you learn so much from sharing stories and working on things together. I wanted to see more of that in the industry at large. We are in a time where we are seeing more and more people recognize the importance of design, and you see a lot of interesting companies start to advertise one of their differentiators as design. Ev has a really great Medium post where he says one of the reasons this may be is because as technology becomes more of a commodity, the way you differentiate is with good design. It's not just about 'can technology provide this function?' but it's about having a great end-to-end experience, and in many cases, new and innovative types of experiences. It's a personal goal of mine to help people better understand the design profession, what value designers can add, and how all of us can work together to build amazing things.
Do you find design inspiration mostly in other applications and websites, or do you tend to look outside to the real world?
Looking at other apps is part of it, but Facebook is fast paced and more of a place where people spitball ideas that grow off each other. It’s less about getting inspiration from what other companies or apps are doing, and more about getting inspiration from first principles and what we ourselves are observing. We are all the most passionate users of our own product - it’s what we use day in and day out. As a company, we don’t use email a ton anymore, instead we're using things that we built like Messenger and Groups to communicate internally. There’s a lot of insight that comes from using your own product, and hearing about how your family and friends use it, and also the user research we do to understand users from around the world.
Of course we look at companies like Apple, or at Dieter Rams’ principles of design, and talk about how you can focus on things like simplicity and end-to-end experience and craftsmanship. All in all, our inspiration comes from the problems that we have using our product, from first principles, and from examining the world around us to find new opportunities to make something great.