My Journey Designing Internal Tools at Facebook

Zi Yuan
Zi Yuan
Aug 5, 2019 · 5 min read
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Illustration: In-Product Brand for Business Team, Facebook, Inc.

I’m a product designer and I build internal tools at Facebook. My team’s mission is to support our fellow Facebook employees with well-crafted and forward-thinking products so that they can thrive. Essentially, our designs empower Facebook employees — who are focused on connecting the world — through tools that enable internal collaboration, information sharing, productivity, and openness.

I was recently looking through the notes I took on my very first day at Facebook’s new-employee training. I was surprised to discover that what I’ve learned in the last two years were completely in line with the notations I made on day one: Impact. Be Bold. Move Fast.

Nearly two years later, and these values still guide our daily work and prove to be much more than buzzwords jotted down during orientation. Because of this, I know I am at the right place.

Things move fast at Facebook; indeed, my second Faceversary is in a few months. As I reflect on my growth over the past couple of years, I’d like to share my key learnings as a designer.

Keys to success: communication and collaboration

As a company who builds communication tools, employees are encouraged to communicate openly and honestly. At Facebook, we use Workplace (an enterprise version of Facebook) to share knowledge and to collaborate. Other businesses, like Nestlé, Starbucks, Walmart, and Chevron, also use Workplace to get their jobs done. What I love about using Workplace is that I can easily stay synced to other colleagues’ projects by browsing their News Feeds. My co-workers post updates about their projects on Workplace in the same way that public-facing Facebook allows people to post status updates. One thing that is special about designing internal tools is that I can access feedback from Facebook employees through their comments on Workplace.

As odd as it may sound, overcommunication is encouraged here at Facebook. People actively share information through multiple channels: at meetings, in emails, and within posts. I generally share my notes after each meeting for two reasons: to keep participants on the same page and to record meeting decisions. I not only present my works at design critiques but also post weekly updates on Workplace. I have practiced overcommunication for the last two years because we achieve so much so quickly at Facebook — and my notes are essential for staying on track!

Owning your career growth

Managing, observing, and reflecting are important parts of my career growth at Facebook. “Managing” means I collaborate with and manage the relationship with my manager. Facebook managers are not bosses in the traditional sense — they are mentors and resources to help me unblock my work and myself. Every six months, I collaborate with my manager to devise a career-development plan, which we align on my goals and growth areas, such as establishing processes to handle dynamic work requests. “Managing,” to me, also means maintaining my overall health and wellness: I must keep a work-life balance and take care of myself in order to succeed.

“Observing and reflecting” means Facebook has a very strong culture of self-assessment, self-reflection, and self-actualization. People ask and react to feedback regularly. We also write self- and peer reviews at the end of each half-year, which are great opportunities for reflection.

Facebook supports our growth with lots of resources. For example, we have onsite classes such as Manage Up, Crucial Conversation, and mentorship programs.

Defining your design process

There is no fixed design process at Facebook. Every designer has their own process of getting the job done. Therefore, whatever manner in which I accomplish missions becomes my process.

Throughout any project, prioritization matters. To maximize the impact, we prioritize half-yearly, weekly, and daily. At half-year planning sessions, I propose project priorities from product-design perspectives, and then seek alignment with cross-functional partners. I’ve also learned the art of pushing back on tasks with lower priorities in order to stick to my goals.

The unique experience of designing Facebook internal tools vs. designing consumer-facing products

A drastic difference between designing internal tools rather than consumer-facing products is that we have direct access to people who use our tools for first-hand, along with near-immediate feedback. It’s pretty special that people who utilize our designs are fellow Facebook employees. Therefore, our colleagues serve as the early adopters of new features, and, as designers, we have the ability to apply their experience and direct insight to inform next steps.

Every designer on my team owns at least one entire product/tool. There are more opportunities to lead large initiatives and work autonomously in my team. For example, I am currently the lead designer for two entire internal products. I make decisions from defining roadmaps to making interaction-design choices. Designers on my team wear multiple hats. Sometimes, we also perform the work of a product manager, researcher, and customer-service representative for our products. Designers of internal tools may have a bigger scale of ownership compared with those who are working on consumer-facing products. In this journey, I’ve become a better designer by developing stronger product-management skills.

Many internal tools are very complex and tech-heavy, and it often takes a long time for designers to ramp up and acquire domain knowledge. Therefore, conducting research in a person’s authentic work environment is invaluable to help designers understand how their designs are applied. For example, when designing features for a developer tool, I sit beside engineers to observe them operating the tool. This allows me to truly learn my engineer user’s work flow and build empathy, since I don’t use the developer tool on a daily basis as a software engineer does. Research helped me bridge domain knowledge gaps and validate assumptions.

Facebook internal tools feels like a group of start-ups. Therefore, designers in my team can work on a wide range of products simultaneously, from developer tools like Nuclide (Open Source) to meeting tools.

Looking back and moving forward

Designing better internal tools can help Facebook ship faster. Together, we are making the world a better place. In a nutshell, the most important things I’ve learned are:

  • Communication and collaboration are the keys to succeeding at Facebook.
  • You own your career growth at Facebook.
  • Every designer defines their own design process at Facebook

Special thanks to my amazing colleagues Laura Vogel and Genevieve Isola for helping to bring this article to life.

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Product Designer @ Facebook, Carnegie Mellon Alumna.

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