Cover photo by Christophe Wu

The Intricate Dance of Designing for 2.5 Million Businesses

Learning to “dance” through Facebook business design

The world is filled with digital business tools that only usually work, and often painfully so. The email client that crashes when you need it most, the slideshow software that gives you ghastly errors while presenting, the billing app that never gives you the latest receipts on time.

Yet it’s the less dramatic flaws — inefficiencies in the design of these tools — that drain time, little by little, day after day, and create the most painful experiences.

What causes these products to be so poorly designed isn’t as simple as bad craftsmanship. To design effective business products today is to delicately balance between moving (and shipping) quickly, and working more deliberately to ensure that the tool works for everyone who uses it — not to mention ensuring the solution is flexible enough to handle business needs as they grow and change.

Product design is not always a graceful dance. Moving too quickly toward a solution can mean overlooking issues or practical use-cases, resulting in an increasingly bloated, broken, or unhelpful product. Moving too slowly means the product team will have to eat the costs associated with constantly reworking the product to keep up with shifting trends and customer requirements. This dynamic landscape makes it hard to get scalable, reliable, and accessible business tools out to the world.

To design effective business products today is to delicately balance between moving (and shipping) quickly, and working more deliberately.

At Facebook, we face these same obstacles at dramatic scale: building elegant tools not for a niche subset of businesses with clear needs, but for more than two and a half million active advertisers around the world, each with unique workflows and varying ideas of what success means. Being able to design solutions for such a vast, diverse group of people is one reason I was excited to join Facebook business design.

In my time on the team, I’ve come to better understand how modern business design — when done well — has become one of the most thought-provoking and rewarding arenas to work in today. The problems we’re solving require immense creativity and insight. Our work is particularly difficult because many of us on the team are not the audience we’re designing for, we are not business owners or professional marketers. As a result, the work isn’t always easy or straightforward. And we do occasional make missteps in our designs. But part of that process is learning how to quickly recover and keep moving forward.

The recent update of Facebook’s flagship advertising tool, Facebook ads manager, is a great example of the kind of intricate dance business design requires.

Stepping into the Design Rhythm

On the face of it, especially to anyone who has only just begun to advertise on Facebook, it might appear as though we simply updated the tool: put a new skin on it and moved some things around. The reality is that it took our team quite a long time to make the fundamental improvements we wanted to bring to advertisers.

By the time I joined Facebook, the team had already spent a good amount of time working to revamp the existing ads manager. My on-boarding experience included weeks of sifting through numerous complexities the team had been attempting to outline and resolve. It was an awe-inspiring and almost overwhelming experience to explore the vast intricacies behind even the smallest decisions for what had appeared, on the face of it, to be a simple, yet comprehensive, advertising tool.

The placement of a button or dropdown in the interface, the size of each column width in a table, the vital metrics shown in each place within the tool, what happens to the interface when it’s in a relatively short language (such as English) but then translated to a much longer one — all of these things had been meticulously evaluated in the contexts of dozens and dozens of use-case scenarios. But what made the project especially difficult was our team’s chief goal of unifying previously separate parts of the product that people use on a regular basis.

Previously, the model at Facebook had been to split product solutions out into multiple areas of the site, forcing businesses to search through and navigate to several different parts of our product in order to do their jobs effectively.

The former, separated experience for managing ads on Facebook.

We envisioned a way to combine the reporting interface, where advertisers view performance metrics and spending, with the creation and management interfaces. By unifying each component of the tool, we could enable advertisers to work more efficiently. Unification also meant internal teams could add advertising features to the tool much faster, and use a more universal design language. The team also wanted to bring together other functionality, including a contextual help content tray that could display relevant articles in the side of every page, complex pixel tracking and audience management tools, a forward-thinking lift measurement tool as well as more advanced features like a draft mode, filtering, and potentially a series of features that would enable advertisers to work more collaboratively, from the same interface.

“There’s no substitute for direct contact.”

Reflecting on that first year of research and design, our product manager, Dirk Stoop, says the biggest design challenge the team faced was to build an understanding of exactly who they were designing for and the best way to empower each of those customers. To tackle that challenge, the team spent many afternoons with real advertisers to watch how they used the product to fulfill their needs. In Dirk’s words: “There’s no substitute for direct contact.”

As with any dance, we had to carefully consider the steps we would be taking and feel out the rhythm, lest we stumble over our own movements.

Stumbling Toward Elegance

If there had not been clear-cut intentionality behind each little decision of the work the team was doing, critical components used by thousands of advertisers might have been overlooked.

I experienced one such misstep firsthand. The stumble involved what seemed to be a minuscule part of the main view of the product, an area that lists dollars spent over the last seven days.

Daily spend list in the previous version of the product.

We had reached a point where we felt comfortable with the interface, but technical limitations — and the possibility of an otherwise poor experience for advertisers — had led us to quickly revamp the landing screen. In our haste, I had casually overlooked the seven-day spend area.

Very quickly we started hearing from advertising partners asking us to bring the spend list back — and not for reasons we might have expected. Advertisers wanted to see the last seven days of spend not because it was a nice thing to have, nor because it helped them manage their budget or monitor how much money Facebook was charging them (information they could get from other parts of the main interface). The list of seven-day spend gave those in certain advertiser roles a quick snapshot of exactly how their advertising account was actually going — were the ads they were paying for running or not?

Once we had a better understanding of why the seven-day spend list was so important, we worked to quickly iterate on a possible update to the main screen. In a short time, we restored the seven-day spend list, now in the form of a chart.

Daily spend list in the most recent version of the product.

Rather than stumbling from a small oversight, we were able to re-align our balance and continue moving steadily ahead with our work. In retrospect, it was just one of many similar challenges along our path from ideation and conceptualization to shipping.

Staying a Step Ahead

Pace mattered immensely for the team as we worked toward a viable product launch.

We found ourselves working carefully through research and test studies while moving more quickly through conceptualization. Balancing each allowed us to stabilize ourselves if we started feeling uncertain about a potential solution or if we started receiving any negative feedback from test groups.

One primary contributor to this deliberate pace was our need for accommodating changes in the ways people used the advertising tool.

When we looked out at the landscape of advertising trends over the last eight years, we saw how the rapid expansion of mobile connectivity — such as more affordable smart phones and tablet computers — had created entirely new points of interaction between businesses and consumers. We saw that new trends and technologies would continue to appear at a faster and faster pace, and our product would need to get ahead of the curve if we wanted to fully empower businesses.

When designing for two and a half million customers, there’s no such thing as “keeping up.”

In such a landscape, and designing for two and a half million customers, there’s no such thing as “keeping up.” Instead, we needed to build into the tool some flexible system for enabling our teams to stay a step ahead.

Much of that work took place well beneath the skin of the project. The engineering team had taken the opportunity to create a flexible backend platform that would allow new features and functionality to be more seamlessly implemented in the future: things like the carousel format, a new type of advertising campaign called Reach and Frequency, the ability to schedule ads for certain times of the day, new types of ad creative, an advanced under-delivery tool, and allowing businesses to advertise on Instagram through the Facebook ads manager.

This flexible platform meant we could better handle the evolving landscape of technological and business needs that so many other companies struggle to design around. However, the decision to make a fluid system also meant that, as a design team, we would need to ensure our designs allowed for immense flexibility, for everything from varying ad preview sizes and functionality, to budgeting and filtering mechanisms. For every possible advance in our product, we knew our customers would be putting it to work in hundreds or thousands of potential use-cases.

A map of possible workflows for those using our tool.

This exemplifies just how complex the project was for our team. Not only were we designing for perceived complexities, we were designing for scenarios we hadn’t yet imagined.

The Power of Pausing

The complexity of our ideal platform led to some big challenges. For example, advertisers were starting to tell us they were confused by one navigation feature that had initially tested well. To serve their needs better, we had to pause and learn a simpler, more graceful move.

We decided to incorporate a more traditional breadcrumb trail at the top of each page in order to help solve some advertiser confusion, but the team was still getting a lot of feedback about navigation problems; advertisers weren’t certain where to look for key features like modifying ad creative or attaching a conversion tracking pixel to their ad sets.

Remember the delicate balance between speed and deliberation I mentioned earlier? We realized at this point in the process that we had become somewhat distracted and, as a result, too intently focused on moving fast — on shipping — and needed to regain our balance before moving forward. We had been so excited to move forward on the project that we had briefly lost our footing.

As the engineering teams continued to focus on optimizing and building out the back end of the product, the design team took a few weeks to step away and explore simplified designs. This period of collaborative, exploratory iteration helped crystallize in my mind just how comprehensive the work we were doing had to be. We looked not only at how the bulk of advertisers would use the interface, but we also had to explore edge cases to see where our concepts would break. Once we’d found our footing again, we quickly ramped up our execution to integrate the exploratory work into the product.

In the months after moving back into a faster-paced flow, we found ourselves repeating the pause-evaluate-execute motions. When we put features into the hands of real advertisers, we learned that our intuition wasn’t always right. We sometimes had to make decisions that, on their face, seemed counter-intuitive. Our dance became one of feeling out the right rhythm for execution: taking a step forward, pausing briefly to feel it out, adjusting as necessary, and carrying on the dance.

Keeping the Beat

The feedback on our efforts has been overwhelmingly positive. Marketing expert Jon Loomer said: “[The new Facebook ads manager] looks pretty slick. It’s simplified and — once you get a hang of it — actually makes more sense than the previous setup.” VentureBeat called the new tool “more streamlined.” And the numerous tweets, Facebook posts, and emails our team has received have shown us that the work we’ve pushed through for two years has been worthwhile.

The dance of quality design is never-ending; the rhythm and movements merely change over time.

I know there’s a lot in front of our team still — use-cases we haven’t yet addressed, new features blooming on the horizon. We still have a long way to go in order to fully realize the vision we set out to create more than two years ago. Designing a product for millions of businesses means there are undoubtedly things we’ve overlooked. But we’re actively eliciting feedback from those who use the product, we’re paying attention to usage metrics, and we’re continuing to balance the times when we move fast with the times when we step back momentarily to evaluate our direction.

The dance of quality design is never-ending; the rhythm and movements merely change over time. From where I sit, this dance is one I can only learn by doing.

If the challenges I’ve described sound invigorating to you, I think you’ll find business design rewarding work. Some moves you’ll get wrong, sometimes you’ll lose your pace, but if you pay attention to the direction you’re going — and if you listen intently for feedback — what you perform will be as enjoyable as it is empowering.