A year of designing at Facebook
And how it’s different than designing at a startup
One year ago today the Branch team became part of Facebook. While excited for our new chapter, I was also anxious about what designing at a larger company was going to be like.
This post is what I would have loved to know before starting my new job. For those who are curious about the other side, I hope it also sheds some light into the similarities and differences between a design role at a startup and at Facebook.
I do fewer things tangentially related to product design
When you work at an early stage startup, you get the opportunity to build a variety of new products and iterate on them until you find product-market fit. Being part of a very small team, you get to touch every aspect of building new products: as a designer at Branch I was not only involved in brainstorming ideas, product definition, visual and interaction design, I also got to write all our frontend code, tweak backend code to prototype ideas and push (gasp) production code. I also did quick usability tests, spent time thinking about the copy we used in our UI and occasionally tried to make sense of usage data in Mixpanel or Google Analytics to see what people were doing in our products. I wasn’t doing any of the tasks that were tangentially related to design particularly well, but I got to touch many parts.
Facebook is more complicated than most startup products I worked on, it also serves way more people. Facebook’s infrastructure is built to support this scale and there are checks and balances that ensure people can depend on it, making it harder to just jump in and push some code. I have been able to push code to production as a designer, but I don’t think I will be able to build any features from scratch any time soon.
As for the other hats I wore as a startup designer like researcher, content strategist and data analyst, there are dedicated folks at Facebook for each of these roles. Research recruiters locate and bring in exactly the right profile of people you need to test a feature, researchers can run proper lab studies or far-reaching surveys, content strategists make sure we use language that people understand and feel coherent within the whole product, data analysts confidently answer questions about how people are using a feature. As a designer it’s great to see how these are done properly and learn from domain experts.
There are a lot more design challenges to pick from
A design job at Facebook can look quite different depending on what team you’re in. A team working on a brand new feature or a new app operates pretty much like a startup: they have a blank canvas to solve a problem or follow an opportunity. A team improving an existing product is more constrained, but has years’ worth of history and research to guide their decisions.
Some designers work on familiar features like News Feed and Messenger, helping connect people with family and friends. Others focus on lesser known but equally important parts of Facebook, building products for small businesses, advertisers and developers. Their work is more similar to designing productivity tools than social networks. There are countless product teams at Facebook, each with different challenges and rewards. When you start as a new designer at Facebook, you get to “choose your own adventure”.
This variety is a huge advantage to someone that wants to get better at product design. You can go for breadth and try a variety of design challenges, you can also stay on the same area for years and go very deep. I’ve found Facebook to be very supportive of folks moving to teams that fit their skills and interests (as opposed to asking people to re-interview for the same job just to switch projects, for example).
Early stage startups are strapped for both time and money, so everything has to be ruthlessly prioritized. The only thing you can afford to spend time on is what the company desperately needs at that moment — and what you learn closely correlates with that.
Until a startup finds product-market fit, the challenge on a very high level is always the same: “How do we get people to use this thing?”. New Facebook products aren’t immune from this question, but there are plenty of other projects with different challenges if that’s what you fancy.
Data isn’t a silver bullet
A lot of product decisions for brand new startup projects are done with gut feeling, because usually that’s all the available information there is. After operating this way for many years, I was looking forward being able to harness all the data about how people use News Feed.
I quickly found out that the potential of data doesn’t necessarily render it easier to make decisions. Sometimes it turns out you aren’t measuring the right thing, and new data will take time to gather. Sometimes the data that comes out is contradictory or inaccurate. And even when the data seems correct, it only explains what is happening, not the why. This critical question is still up to interpretation, so there can still be some amount of gut feeling involved.
Nobody stops you from working on what you want
One fear I had about designing at a big company was having stiff boundaries around what I get to work on and having to get permission from layers of management to experiment on things. At a startup there are no clear boundaries of ownership and the stakes are lower, so it’s easy to talk a few people into hacking on something new and shipping it.
I found Facebook to be a supportive place to take initiative and hack on things I feel passionately about. Last October I wanted to pursue an idea about News Feed which was outside the scope of my current project, so I teamed up with an engineer who liked the idea and we built a prototype in one night during a hackathon. We ended up showing the prototype to Mark and seeing him get excited about it was very motivating. Eventually the idea made it to this year’s roadmap.
I find inspiring that a significant number of features you use on Facebook every day were conceived at Hackathons and eventually made their way to the entire world.
It’s also possible to jam on an idea for a while before finding folks to build a prototype. For example a designer co-worker in the Feed Ads team thought of an opportunity where Facebook could help someone through a difficult life event and she was encouraged to explore different solutions as a side project over last winter. (Edit: I’m happy to add that the designer in question was Emily Albert and her passion project was the Break-Up Flow, which recently launched and enjoyed a ton of positive feedback).
There are also a number of people working on improving internal tools so we can design more efficiently. Many folks contribute to the Origami framework in addition to their primary project. I’ve also been encouraged to continue contributing to Framer and teaching it internally and externally.
In short, if you are passionate about an idea, you don’t have to convince layers of management to work on it. And chances are that other people who share your passion want to help you build it and your idea makes it to the product.
The five years I spent designing at startups taught me what it takes to build and ship brand-new products. At Facebook, I have the chance to explore design challenges that are not available in the startup realm and go deep with the ones I am passionate about.
In my experience, the breadth of work available and the entrepreneurial culture of Facebook makes it a great place to get better at product design. I’m happy to reflect on what I learned this year, and look forward to many more years of improving my craft.
Trying to decide between a design job at a startup or a larger company? I’m always happy to chat and share my insights. Reach out to me on Twitter or email me at public at cem dot re.