How Facebook Designs for a Billion People


Margaret Gould Stewart is the director of product design at Facebook. Having worked previously at Google and YouTube, she knows a thing or two about designing at scale. In her TED talk, “How giant websites design for you (and a billion others, too),” she shared some lessons she’s learned along the way, three of which could be easily applied to any business.

1. Details matter.

It’s important to know that a very tiny design element can make a really big impact.

Example: The Facebook “Like” button.

Stewart says at one point the team managing the button determined that it had gotten out of sync with the brand and needed to be modernized. The problem was, there were all types of design constraints: There were specific height and width parameters. It had to work in a variety of languages. It also needed to “degrade gracefully” in old web browsers, limiting the use of fancy gradients or borders.

The result? This project ended up taking an estimated 280 hours. Why would Facebook spend so much time on something so small?

The “Like” button is seen (on average) 22 billion times a day, on over 7.5 million websites. In the words of Stewart: “It’s one of the single most viewed design elements ever created.”

Lesson: You need to sweat the small stuff. Your product or website might not be viewed by billions, but it will be viewed. Take the time to make sure you’re reflecting your brand and ideals effectively in every web application development project.

2. Ask why. Again and again.

Example: Stewart next speaks about a years-old Facebook tool that allowed people to report photos in violation of community standards (spam and abuse). Problem was, tons of photos were reported, with only a small percentage being actual violations. Most of what was reported were typical party photos that don’t seem like such a good idea by the next day.

So Facebook added a new feature allowing people to message a friend and ask them to remove a photo. But only 20 percent of these people sent the message to their friend.

The team refused to give up. They consulted with conflict resolution experts. They studied different communication styles. Eventually, they discovered that by helping people express how the photo made them feel, more people would use the feature.

Nowadays, Facebook provides specific, suggested language to help. Depending on how you answer a series of questions, one message could look like this:

Hey ____, this photo is a little embarrassing to me and I would prefer that people don’t see it on Facebook. Would you please take it down?

This relatively small change produced a huge impact. Whereas only 20 percent of people were sending the message previously, now 60 percent were. Research shows that both parties felt better as a result.

Lesson: Keep asking why. If something’s not working, don’t settle. Keep digging, adjusting, and testing until you get it right.

3. Know your audience.

Example: I used to wonder why websites like Facebook and Wikipedia aren’t more eye-catching, especially since they employ some of the most talented design minds in the world. But as Stewart explains, you run into some pretty challenging constraints when you’re designing for the entire human race.

She asks some interesting questions, like: “What if you had to drive four hours to charge your phone because you had no reliable source of electricity?” Many of us don’t realize that millions of people using these products are viewing them on old, low-end cell phones. So the mobile application development is really important.That might not seem like glorious design work, but it’s reality when you’re designing for the entire world.

To ensure they’re keeping all of their customers in mind, Stewart and her fellow designers travel to other countries, use products in non-English languages and try using low-end cell phones themselves to make sure things work well. She calls it “keeping in touch with others’ reality.”

Lesson: Ask yourself, whom am I designing for? For me or for my customers? In most cases, you want a bit of both, but it pays to not be overly self-indulgent.

Get out of your bubble, and listen to what others have to say. Try to see and understand things from their perspective.

Just don’t lose yourself in the process.

Good design can really set you apart from your competition. But remember, it’s about more than logos and branding. Perhaps the biggest design fan of all time, Steve Jobs, said it best:

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”



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About author

Thao Nguyen

I am working as a Marketer at S3Corp. I am a fan of photography, technology, and design. I’m also interested in entrepreneurship and writing.

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