How To Design For All Of Humanity, According to Facebook's Head Of Product

Facebook has rolled out a design update, and, if the comments in my News Feed are anything to go by, it’s the end of the world. The new layout is awful. The fonts are atrocious. We want the old look back.

In short, we’ve reacted the way we react to every Facebook design update. We are nothing if not entirely predictable.

Most of us, however, have no idea of the imperatives and constraints facing Facebook’s design team. As Facebook Director of Product Margaret Gould Stewart described at TED last month, every minor change to Facebook’s design gets rolled out to a sixth of humanity -- and there are challenges to designing at that kind of scale that most of us have never even begun to consider.

First of all, your design has to work on every possible screen. There’s a pretty good chance you Online Spin readers are on an Air or an iPad, but -- believe it or not -- most of the world uses older devices with smaller screens and lower resolution, and so will most of the next several billion people who come online.

It’s not just the screens, either; Facebook’s design has to work within specific height and width parameters, it has to work in a variety of languages, and it has to degrade gracefully on older browsers. The redesign of the tiny Like button took an estimated 280 hours largely because of these constraints. That may seem like a lot of time, until you consider the fact that the button gets viewed 22 billion times per day.

Designing for a billion people requires an almost superhuman level of empathy. Take the Embarrassing Pictures Problem. You know the one: your friend posts a picture of you that is, let’s say, unflattering. You want them to take it down, but you feel a bit awkward asking. You don’t want to report it as spam or offensive. What do you do?

When the folks at Facebook first realized this was an issue, they started by offering you an option to message your friend to take the photo down. But there was almost no uptake.

So they investigated further, consulting conflict resolution experts and studying the universal principles of polite language. What they found was that they needed to offer additional help to get the problem solved. They needed to let people share how they felt. Now, if you click, “I’m in this photo and I don’t like it,” you get taken to an additional screen: “Why don’t you like it?” Options include, “It’s a bad photo of me,” “It’s inappropriate,” “It makes me sad,” and, “It’s embarrassing.”

It doesn’t stop there. If you select, “It’s embarrassing,” Facebook generates a draft message to your friend with suggested language requesting removal of the picture. And it turns out this was the magic ingredient: uptake went from 20% to 60%.

Just before you hit “send” on an email campaign, the wonderfully quirky folks at Mailchimp offer this intimidating reminder: “This is it. The moment of truth.” Even if your campaign is only going to a few hundred people, that line always provokes a moment of doubt: “Did I write pubic instead of public?” Imagine for a moment that every time you released a modification to a design, over one billion people were going to see it, be affected by it, and critique it.

It’s a brave, brave thing to design at that level. So next time Facebook rolls out a new design, it may be worth sparing a moment of empathy for them



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