Designing for Privacy on Facebook

Last year when I came to Facebook as a Product Designer I was given a choice of which team to join. I had some great options to choose from, so it was not an easy decision. I chose to join a team I viewed as the most challenging, the Privacy team. I felt excited by the idea of bringing design to something that isn’t necessarily shiny, but is a fundamental construct of the service.


Fast forward to today, the problem is just as hard and engaging as you would imagine. Let me set up the scenario for you. Facebook has evolved rapidly over its ten years. New features have been implemented fast and the way privacy works adapted to those quick changes. While Facebook has always strived to provide people with control over the stuff they share, those controls evolved quickly as new features were added to the service. If people using the service wanted a setting for something, Facebook generally came through and gave them that setting.

The privacy model has settled down.

Facebook now knows who it is a lot more than in the past. The privacy model has settled down. New features are built to integrate with the privacy model from day one. Even though it’s not always viewed this way, the privacy model is an extremely robust system that gives people granular control over what they share to others.

The real problem is that people are very different and have different expectations of the system. Privacy needs to work for all of them. Some people want a lot of control, other people just want the system to function well for them without much interaction.


How to make privacy work for everyone?

In order to refine Privacy, the privacy model has to work for people. It shouldn’t be people’s problem to manage the settings if they don’t want to. The settings should just exist in the right state for the experience they desire.

I view it as a design failure if we have to send someone to a settings page. That is putting the responsibility on the person using the service to fix the problem. The settings should be coming to you when you need them.

The Privacy team is focused on implementing this way of thinking and I would like to share with you a few examples.

Friend Requests

Sometimes you might end up with friend requests from people you don’t know and you don’t want those requests. Did you know there’s a setting for that? Most people don’t. Now, we surface this control in-line when you are ignoring requests.

Starting people at Friends

An important shift we made was to change the initial state of who you share with to be Friends instead of Public when you first join Facebook. Our research showed different cultures have varied preferences for this setting, but in the end, we decided it made the most sense to start the setting at Friends and protect people from over-sharing. We also encourage people to choose their audience on their first post so they are aware of how the control works.

Helping you post to the audience you want

If you usually post to one audience, we will now check in if you have the control set to a different audience before posting to make sure you are sharing with who you want.

Audience Selection

Choosing an audience might have seemed like an overwhelming task in the past. You were presented with six or more choices with very little hierarchy or visual distinction. We simplified the audience selectors and structured them to surface the most commonly used choices. We also explain who the audiences are and what the action of the selector does.

Cover Photos

We’ve improved people‘s ability to control who can see their old cover photos. You are alerted to how this works when you update your cover photo. This was motivated by direct feedback and has been well received.

Privacy Checkup

We are rolling out a way for people to check the important parts of their privacy settings very quickly. The Privacy Checkup gives people control, helps them understand their privacy and hopefully also shows how much we care about the privacy experience on Facebook.

What’s next?

We are very excited about this direction and the momentum of this approach. We believe that helping people be in the right state will make their Facebook experience better. If people feel in control, they can trust the tool and focus on what is important: sharing and connecting.

We are pursuing more of these types of refinements as well as other methods to simplify the privacy experience without removing controls. We aim to create a world where privacy is viewed as one of Facebook’s greatest strengths.


I am happy to have taken this challenge on. I never expected to be working on something like this, but it feels very good to be able to make this kind of impact with design on something that so many people use so often. Every little decision requires a ton of consideration and thoughtfulness, but it’s all worth it when things end up better because of the work.

If this sounds interesting to you, you should check out our design jobs. We could use a few more designers who are interested in taking on challenging problems.

If you’d like to keep up with this stuff, find me on Facebook or Twitter.