A Designer’s Path to Empathy: A People-Focused Approach to the Ads Industry

Geunbae "GB" Lee
Facebook Design: Business Tools
5 min readJul 23, 2019
Illustration: In-Product Brand for Business Team, Facebook, Inc.

This is the first of two articles by Facebook Ads Product Designer Geunbae “GB” Lee about how he uses empathy to foster goodwill between product-design teams and businesses.

There is a saying at Facebook, “Our Journey Is 1% Finished,” and it is posted on many of our office walls. It’s taken me a bit of time, learning, and trial-and-error, but over the past year, I have truly internalized and made this motto my own.

When I started my career at Facebook as a product designer on Ads, I faced a big challenge: Basically, everything was new to me. I barely knew anything about marketing or advertising (and I definitely wasn’t familiar with the industry-standard terminologies that were casually dropped in meetings and throughout our products). I’d never had the experience of running ads myself on Facebook — or anywhere else, for that matter. But working at Facebook had long been a dream of mine, and because product design appealed to me — and I thought I knew what it would entail — I decided to join them.

There are high expectations of the Ads team, as well there should be: People all over the world invest in Facebook in order to grow and maintain their businesses. Our products directly impact their work, companies, and lives. We need to be vigilant to prevent any negative impact, since even small changes to their existing experiences and workflow can be disruptive. Yet we still need to move quickly on new ideas and respond immediately to businesses’ needs, which is why we need to intuitively understand business needs and what brings them the most value.

The most critical thing I’ve learned is that, to design great experiences, I first had to build empathy for the businesses and people relying on our tools. With a huge amount of support from the team on my research initiatives, I connected with as many people who use our products as possible and that. Knowing the people who use our tools, their workflows, and how they use our products to do their jobs was critical to my understanding.

Throughout the past year, I worked on some extremely tough business and human problems. Ultimately, our goal is to stay innovative and continue to craft elegant tools for the businesses who use Facebook while still adapting and respecting their existing workflow. However, my team is always kept on its toes by the diverse spectrum of needs and pain points that we encounter.

The importance of building empathy with businesses

The term empathy is used to describe the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In a product-design context, building empathy helps us to understand the needs of businesses and what we can do to solve problems for them. When we listen to people, we’re able to then build and iterate on our product’s meaningful experiences and features.

All designers learn about the importance of building empathy, but it can be a skill that’s hard to put into practice. Sometimes, we’re tempted to come up with a solution to a problem based on our own expertise and judgments without fully understanding the people problem behind it.

But building empathy is not about surface-level success or short-term wins. At Facebook, designers are encouraged to constantly think bigger about how people using our products can discover what works best for them and anticipate what they’ll need next. The goal of building empathy doesn’t just mean that designers should aim to create good-looking, well-functioning design or even to simply satisfy the basic needs of businesses. We’re always pushing ourselves to optimize workflow and improve their perception of our designs.

Interacting with people behind the businesses using our tools has been essential in my approach of solving problems more wisely and efficiently. Not only has it helped me think about existing behaviors, but it has also helped our team better identify problems, craft hypotheses, set goals, and focus on success metrics much more clearly. We sit together with those who rely on our tools and try to use their pain points to improve our tools. Furthermore, building empathy contributes to discovering areas of potential impact, which can often lead to valuable project initiatives.

Looking forward

During my year working on Ads, I learned that my responsibilities as a designer are far more than just producing elegant UI, fancy interactions, or building more features. I learned about the benefits of actively engaging in empathy-building activities to help design efficient, people-centered workflows and how to improve the way businesses interact with their customers through our product.

“When we design for people’s work, we must take on the responsibility of not just helping them complete discrete tasks but also get better at their jobs.” — Margaret Gould Stewart (VP, Product Design at Facebook)

Our mission at Facebook Ads is to make meaningful connections between people and businesses. Our design — with a capital D — team consists of product designers, UX researchers and content strategists who strive to help businesses connect with people who love their products and services. It’s our responsibility to not only think about the businesses we design for but also to ensure that the audience ad experience is a positive one. Designing for Ads is challenging and complex, but the opportunity to problem-solve and create meaningful connections is exceptional.

Of course, there are times when we try to move so fast that we forget to look thoroughly for opportunities to build more empathy before making final decisions. This may happen because we convince ourselves that running quick experiments and focusing a lot on the quantitative data we collect will help us get there faster and more efficiently. As much as I understand the importance of a quantitative data analysis within a design process, I am keenly aware that there are benefits of understanding people’s behavior on a holistic level, and how small changes add up to the overall experience of the product. This is why we emphasize the importance of UX Excellence — it is the north star that guides us to better understand authentic ad experiences and fuels us to create great, and hopefully excellent, experiences.

Returning to that quote that I love: I feel that my journey here is also only 1% finished. Every day, I’m learning something new, and I continue to confront challenges and unknowns. During those moments, and throughout my design process, I always look for opportunities to build empathy with the people impacted by our tools.

The energy spent creating authentic connections is invaluable, and it’s essential to the success of the product on all ends.

Above all, I have learned that designing with empathy is fluid. I’ve learned that even the greatest designers will never reach the “empathy finish line,” because that place doesn’t exist. The way empathy will influence my work is in a constant state of evolution, and I would love for you to join me on this journey.

Next article (below):

Thanks to Genevieve Isola, Jeffrey Winter and Matt Turpin for their help with this piece.