An Interview with Facebook Product Designer Debashish Paul

Debashish Paul—or “Deb” for those who know him—is a meticulously detailed product designer whose work over the last three years at Facebook has greatly inspired other designers in the company, including myself. He’s worked on everything from Facebook Business Manager, Live Audio, Video Ads, Camera and AR, as well as Facebook Stories

Deb has a knack for storytelling and beautifully crafted presentations as well as producing work rich in narrative in collaboration with partners. As Ryan Lee, who has worked closely with Deb on the Facebook camera and stories products, put it: “Deb is one of the most generative designers I’ve ever worked with. When working through ideas, he brings in the rest of the design team, product managers, researchers, engineering and other cross-functional partners early. He’s able to iterate with them in an open way, free of egos, which leads to well-informed and thoughtful product decisions.”

Tanner: You’ve been at Facebook for three years now Deb, what was it like when you joined?

Deb: When I joined Facebook I went in having assumptions about how the company works and the different teams and what they all do. I realized on my first day that it’s a very different world once you’re in.

There are so many different products and problems to solve at Facebook, so many different teams working on these problems.

Tanner: And you weren’t originally from the United States, you moved here not long before joining Facebook right?

Deb: Yeah, just one year before I joined Facebook, my wife and I moved to the United States from Bangalore, India, which is right on the other side of the planet. More than the distance and new home, I was struck by the shift in culture as well as some of the fundamentals of design at Facebook. I was new to the valley, and I’ve learned a lot since joining Facebook and how design here is different than where I’ve worked in the past.

Tanner: How so?

Deb: At Facebook, it’s different, design is at the front of decision making, designers contribute to the strategy. We’re very much a core part of the whole team.

Before I joined Facebook, a lot of my experience—and designers I worked with elsewhere—weren’t included in the first phase of the product process. We were always considered as a second or third layer when it came to building things. Problems would be identified by product managers or other higher-ups in the company, decisions were made and only then designers would be asked to create mocks. Also before I joined Facebook, visual design, interaction design, and prototyping were different roles entirely on a design team in my experience. I wasn’t used to a single role for doing it all. My past experience was a stark difference to what things are like here.

”At Facebook design is at the front of decision making, designers contribute to the strategy.”

The other difference I’ve experienced since joining is I’ve realized how previous companies I worked with were very tool-centric. At Facebook we’re more focused on problem solving, that was one of the big challenges I faced after coming here.

Illustrations by Andrew Colin Beck for this article.

Tanner: What do you mean by tool-centric? Because even here we’re pretty easily distracted by the newest, shiniest tools.

Deb: What I mean is, here at Facebook designers are looking to make a real difference, not make something just because the tool allows them to do it. The tool-centric approach only helps designers get feedback on screen-based designs and not the design decisions going on behind the scenes. When you focus more on tools you overlook important questions like: “Why are we doing this?” and “Is this the right thing we should be designing?” That was a thing I had to learn when I joined Facebook: to be more problem-focused and less oriented around just what the tools can do.

Working on Facebook Business Manager really drove that concept home. I had to focus on the problems real businesses were experiencing and how our technology might help solve those issues.

Tanner: How did you make that shift, from being tool-oriented to more problem-focused in your process?

Deb: When I was very young I was into films—I always had a knack for film making and loved following the process of which some of my favorite movies were made—and I relate film making to the design process. If you look into how movies were made 50 years ago and how they are made today, the process has changed because of the tools.

At the end of the day, we are still telling these amazing stories using motion pictures, but the tools and techniques that are used today have largely evolved.

Filmmakers have a lot they don’t have to think about now. They used to have a lot of constraints, now you can shoot with 50 different cameras and 50 different angles and figure out how it all comes together in post-production. The same thing has happened for designing products. The tools still matter, but it’s when things come together that the work really gets done. Products like the Facebook camera make that more clear: you can do a lot in post-production these days even on something like your phone.

“The tools still matter, but it’s when things come together that the work really gets done.”

Tanner: Yes! I immediately started thinking of collaboration. Collaboration is pretty critical to being able to pull things together, right? You can’t have 50 different cameras shooting things and try to pull it together if the person running the camera isn’t in-sync with the director.

Deb: Right, the way I’m trying to connect product design to films is that there’s a huge team working both on screen and behind the scenes. You have all of these mutually exclusive skills that have to come together to tell a story. And each skill is a specialist in their own way, it’s why actors are often given only certain types of roles.

Think of the actor who is always the protagonist, an antagonist, the lead, the comic relief—they know how to act the part. The same is true of design, where you have designers who are exceptional at interactions or motion design and others who are a bit better with visuals.

As product designers, we all understand how to solve problems with design. I think that this aspect helps us to empathize about how each other role in a project works. And collaboration only works if there is a good amount of empathy; for those you’re building products for and for your co-workers. You have to be able to build up your ability to empathize by putting yourself in their shoes, see the world through their eyes, and feel what they might feel when they encounter the work you’re doing.

At the end of the day, the success of the film or design project comes from the individual’s ability to understand and execute on the script they’ve been given. And if the script isn’t written well the actor can’t do their job. Design is the same. The script in our case is the framing of the problem, the “why” of the whole story. If the framing of the problem doesn’t answer some of the core questions, it is not going to work.

The only way to get the work done or improve it is by working as a team—each person must do their job well and collaborate as a team. We do that nicely at Facebook, pulling together teams of individuals that compliment each other.

“The only way to get the work done or improve it is by working as a team.”

Tanner: Totally, I feel like many designers—particularly those just starting out—want to take a problem and hide away with it in order to produce the work, but that usually backfires. They want to shelter their ideas and designs but end up weakening them instead. Like an immune system that hasn’t had a chance to strengthen itself against diseases. Designers who don’t collaborate well end up seeing things from a very limited perspective and that hurts the designs.

Deb: It all comes back to diverse, even specialist, perspectives and then learning how to listen well. You should be the expert in something—visual design, interaction, whatever—but if you want to get better you have to learn to listen to the people you work with and even people you meet out during the day. I’d say try to be a designer who is a jack of all trades but a master of just one. The “master” in you will make you valuable for the team and the “jack” will help you empathize with others.

It’s like this: when you grow up you have different belief systems than other people, and we all learn from our own life experiences. People have different ways of communicating their own stories, so it’s important for us as designers to focus on the skill of listening and understanding. What is this person telling me? What is the story they’re telling? How does this thing relate to this other thing? Design and collaborating is much more than just communicating outward.

Design is about inward absorption as well. I feel there is a great sense of enrichment when you understand common concepts from different point of views. Ultimately, it helps you tell stories that people connect with more.

I think you are made up of your own thoughts and perspectives—there isn’t really anything else which shapes you early on in life. But these perspectives and points of view can grow and improve if you become a good listener. Hearing what someone else says can sometimes change your life.

“Perspectives and points of view can grow and improve if you become a good listener.”

Tanner: But it’s difficult to learn how to listen. Particularly if you want to really own the design work. You don’t want to get some feedback or hear something that might make the design change, and so you either don’t try to share the work or you don’t try executing on an idea.

Deb: Right. This all comes from a lesson from my childhood. I remember traveling to a city for a sporting event when I was young, as I was walking around I met a Sadhoo (Hindu devotees with strong beliefs).

The Sadhoo told me about his life. I didn’t really understand anything he said but I listened deeply. Things he said have stuck with me. One of the things he told me though I still think about today. It’s funny how when we really listen we can recall things we wouldn’t ever expect to later on.

According to this man, on your death bed your entire life will flash in front of you. And the thing you’ll ask yourself is: what did I do in my life? But you won’t think about the things you did right or wrong, what you’ll think about is everything you didn’t do.

You’ll think about the opportunities you didn’t take. Things you wish you could have done. And those are the highest points of your life you’ll be reflecting on.

The lesson is this: anything you feel like in life should be done, you should try it. Because if you win, you lead. If you lose, you guide. Whether you succeed or you fail at something, you’ll still have something to offer others as a result of simply trying.

“The stories we tell and the stories other tell us shape our work, our beliefs, and that’s what shapes us, as designers and people.”

Tanner: So good! That quote gave me goosebumps.

Deb: Right? It’s a quote from a great Indian philosopher, but I deeply believe in it. No matter the result of what your actions are, you’re still valuable for someone. But only if you’re open to things, and wanting to learn, and listen and experience. You have to stop and open yourself to others’ perspectives, because that’s what will shape you.

I wouldn’t be at Facebook if I hadn’t pursued that perspective of just trying, of just applying and seeing what happens.

We have these posters at Facebook that say: “Even busy bees stop and smell flowers.” I think often about that saying, and how it’s at the heart of not only the work we do but also our own life experiences. The stories we tell and the stories other tell us shape our work, our beliefs, and that’s what shapes us, as designers and people.

Follow Debashish on Medium or Twitter. Illustrations for this article by Andrew Colin Beck.