Julie Zhuo chats with Bryn Jackson and Brian Lovin of the Design Details podcast. Julie shares her path from being Facebook’s first intern to leading design on a product that is used by billions of people.
Below is a transcribed excerpt, but the whole interview is full of useful advice. Be sure to check out some of Julie’s writing too :)
Over the years, what I really enjoy is working with designers and really helping designers become better designers. I think that’s the part that I really love to do.
To me, being a manager is really about knowing the team and knowing what the team needs. You sort of look at the team, and say “these are the problems that our team needs to solve.”
And do we have the right people? And are the people working on the best things?
The things that let them really leverage the things that they are good at, right?
And are they paired with people that they love to work with?
Do they feel like they’re learning?
And what else does the team need?
Those are the kinds of questions I get really interested in.
You talk about those things like what is a good design process for the team? What are the ways in which this group of people can produce better work or be more efficient?
Or love what they’re doing a little bit more?
To me, management in many ways is also a design problem. It’s just you’re designing more of the people side of it.
From a product perspective, when we were a college site, it was much easier to change stuff around. Because everybody would be like, “awesome, you launched this new feature. I love it.”
You would rearranged things, and they’d be like “great, love what you’re doing!”
At some point, we were still doing that. Of course, we could just push a button and people would get a re-design or a new Facebook. At then at some point, we realized we could no longer really do that and have people be comfortable with it.
It was so gradual. We were growing, there were more and more people. But at one point, I think we were still operating as we did a year or two ago, and suddenly we were evolving and launching these designs.
And people we giving us all this feedback like, “wow, why did you guys change that?”
“Give me the old thing back.”
That’s been a learning for us, is how do we roll out new changes?
How do we do change?
Because we’re still a company that really wants to move fast and continue to build new things. And we don’t want to just get stuck. Right? That would be the death of innovation.
So it’s totally important for us, culturally, to be able to continue to improve our product. But we also need to balance it now with the fact that when you have over a billion people using your service, and again they’re not all college students who are looking for the next thing and open to change, they are people for who change is going into your living room and changing your furniture.
It’s like even if it’s a better configuration, you still have to get used to it. So we have to talk about it more. We have to tell people why we think it’s good. Why they’ll benefit from it.
We need to hold ourselves to that bar a little more too when we build things. It can’t just be for changes sake. It has to be worth the cost of what the change will be.
That’s one thing, the other thing on the product side is to continue to make sure our product doesn’t get infinitely complex.
Because it’s always much easier to add things than it is to remove things or rearrange things, as we talked about rearranging things is hard.
But if you always keep adding new things at some point, you realize this is really, really complex. And we need to figure out how to simplify it.
And that to me is all about the evolution of a product. Figuring out how we continue to do that at the scale that we are at now is still one of the biggest challenges that our product teams always talk about.
The first year I said I am just going to write one thing a week. It doesn’t have to be any good. It can be about anything.
My goal isn’t trying to build an audience. I’m just going to write whatever is on my mind and get into this habit of doing it, and hope that it will get easier.
The first couple times, I would sit in front of the computer blank screen and I’d have no idea what to write about. Two hours would pass, I would open a couple more browser tabs and read other things to try to get inspiration.
It was awful. It would take me forever to figure out what I wanted to write about. But as time passed, it did get easier.
Since my goal for myself was just to do it, to publish something once a week, it did get easier and easier.
I did that for a year, and then the second year I was actually really enjoying this.
What I learned was that I when I was sitting down to write, it helped me think. It helped me, with all of these hazy things, to kind of distill them.
Even for myself, it helped me get to a crisper articulation. The process of writing was a learning thing or self-discovery thing for me.
I would consider Facebook a very product-centric company. I don’t mean product in terms of PMs (product managers), I mean it terms of what actually matters.
The product and what does it do for people. And does it solve their problems? And does it actually have impact?
We’re very focused on that aspect. That is how we think about design as well.
One of the frameworks we use to talk about design as Facebook is, you’ll see this heart and it’s got these three pieces, the first piece is value.
Everything we build should have value meaning it solves a problem, it does something that is worth it enough for people that they would use it again.
You know you have something valuable when a lot of people repeatedly come back to it.
Whether it’s a feature or whatever is. That’s sort of the most critical piece.
If we don’t have something that is valuable, almost the other details don’t really matter.
Because a lot of what we try to build are things that we hope will impact a large amount of people. We’re not really looking to build niche experiments for a small subset of the world.
We hope that the things that we do are going to be applicable to a large number of people. That’s the core.
When we think about design, we’re always thinking about what’s the problem? What do people want?
How do they behave? How do they think?
And is this going to solve that? Does it have the right dynamics in order to do the thing that we want?
And the next piece after that is ease of use. Frankly, anything that is valuable, well then everyone will use it.
But then in this landscape there’s always competition for value, right?
A lot of other things will come up that will offer the same value in terms of functionality. I think then you start to compete on which one is easier to use. Which one is more accessible?
Ease of use includes everything from performance, which is a huge part of what people perceive as is this easy to use, to the interaction design.
What’s your hierarchy of the app? Do you have the most common things up front or do yo have good content that explains it?
Or are people just having to navigate this clunky thing?
So that’s the next thing. But again, in this market, competition is very fierce. Lots of apps can offer the same value and similar ease of use.
And at last you start to distinguish good products based on craft. I think craft is the idea that the people who built it just really cared.
They cared about you, your experience, they cared about end to end, the holistic aspects of your experience.
And I think everyone kind of understands craft at a high level. There is an idea that this thing, furniture you’re sitting on or whatever it is, food that you’re eating, is made with love and care. And people who sweated the details.
I think you have to have all of these things to have a product that feels really well designed. And feels like something people really love.
Those are all the elements that we care about, but we really do want to make sure that we don’t sweat the details, if you haven’t even solved the value or the problem.
If you haven’t actually built something that is valuable.
What’s the secret process? What’s the handbook that will suddenly help us make amazing things in a consistent manner?
And I don’t think one exists.
That’s the nature of creativity. Were that to exist it would do well at repeatable things, which I think are generally much more incremental. And they’re not the crazy new ideas.
I read Creativity Inc., which I still think is one of the best books about all of this, the creative process. It sort of really resonated when Ed where he said the only thing you can expect is change.
You can’t be scared of that. You can’t think that it’s a bad thing. When things break down, and you need to refine your process.
That’s just part of what it means to try and be creative, and to come up with things that continue to push the bar a little bit.
It’s not just the same formulas or the same tried-and-true things people are working on.
I thought that was one the best thing I’ve ever read in terms of putting a voice or a framework of how to think about that.
It made me relieved that there wasn’t some secret formula that none of us were discovering.
If you make something valuable, it’s not just will people see it and use it. But will they go back and use it?
Repeat usage. I think that is one of the clearest ways to know you’ve made something valuable.
That was a great lesson and learning for us. We started off, brainstorming lots of different design directions. It was very easy for us to get excited about this.
It was, “oh my god, we would want this!” You know?
Big photos. Super expressive. We thought that now that we had all these huge Apple monitors that this would be great. All of our friends are great photographers.
When we actually tried it, we all loved it. Then we launched it, and then we realized all the things that we were tracking were down.
It’s not just like one metric is down, it was not just like revenue is down when you shipped it. No matter how you measured, whatever metric you could of thought of to measure whether this thing was valuable or not, was worse.
The new design was worse.
We spent hours, we didn’t understand. It must be logging, something is broken. We spent all this time trying to understand why it was. It wasn’t going to be like “oh, it’s not as good because all these numbers.”
In order to make peace with it, we had to really understand what was going on. What the hell is going on with this redesign?
After lots of research, and uncovering and uncovering, testing pieces, and trying to get to the heart of the problem, I think what we realized is not everyone is like us.
Not everyone has big monitors. Not everyone has amazing PCs or MacBook Pros. When you actually ran it on a shitty computer, 11 inch screen, it was a worse experience.
You couldn’t see the full story. You couldn’t see the photo and the comments.
Enough people in the world are still using mice instead of track pads. The scrolling was much harder. The likes and everything was centered, and it was harder for them to reach over. Everything kind of moved over more. So imagine you’re trying to click these buttons on the story, and then you had to go over to your scroll wheel and press down on the little scroll arrow to advance the page.
All of these things took longer. It was a worse experience, so people were like I’m just not doing to use this as much. Because it’s harder now to read stories and do all of the things we wanted to do.
That was a really interesting lesson for us because I think we were designing for ourselves and we weren’t as clear or aware of the fact that the audience for Facebook is so global, in so many different markets, and a lot of people weren’t all like us.
I would listen to this again and again, thanks Julie.