Fantasy vs. reality: design lessons learned on the job

Jason Cashdollar
Sep 26, 2017 · 7 min read

It wasn’t until I began working at Facebook that I started to understand the challenge of designing products to solve problems for people.

I’ve learned that most of my design work has nothing to do with pixels and everything to do with working as part of a team to solve a problem for people.

I was initially drawn to design by the big flashy projects I saw online — the perfect animations, the clever logos, an app redesigned from scratch, etc. It all seemed so exciting. As a child I had big plans of becoming an accountant. I liked the structured rules and responsibility of being a historian of the company’s money. It didn’t seem like an enjoyable career, but that didn’t seem possible until these designers online made me think maybe, just maybe, work could be fun.

I should have known at the time, but everything I saw online about design was just the tip of the iceberg. I was observing the end result of a long, thoughtful process.

Now I’m at Facebook designing products for 2 billion people. A few years in, here are some of the things that surprised me.

1. Your design better solve a real problem for a real person

Before I began designing professionally, I’d spend my nights working on little things like apps and websites, most of which never saw the light of day. They were usually silly ideas (like a dating app that matches people based on their search history), but they allowed me to practice my visual design.

At the time, I thought I was doing the work of a product designer. I made screens and flows for these fake apps and figured that was 90% of the job. Another 8% would be emailing them to an engineer saying “please build thx” and the last 2% would be graciously accepting awards for the work.

Looking back, I realize that what I was doing was far from a product designer’s job. Before working at Facebook, I didn’t spend any time identifying a problem I was trying to solve or thinking through solutions. I just wanted to make something that was “cool” and maybe get some likes on a site like Dribbble or Behance.

The work I do now is grounded in solving real problems for real people. I work closely with my multidisciplinary team to identify problems, generate hypotheses, then create designs that test those hypotheses. This is the work of product design.

It’s still easy for me to get excited about design trends, but approaching problems at work with a solution already in mind is a disservice to the people who are experiencing that problem. It reminds me of the saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

2. Your best friends are product managers and engineers

Okay, they don’t have to be your best friends, but most of the time you spend designing will be partnering with them to solve problems.

I used to imagine myself working on a creative factory floor with an army of designers. Together we would discuss the important issues of the day like what gradients are in, how rounded is too rounded, and whether engineers should design.

At Facebook there are definitely opportunities to work with other designers. I sit right next to some, but since our designers are embedded on multidisciplinary teams, I’m primarily interacting with product managers and engineers.

This works out well because the problems we are solving at this scale require us to understand the nuances involved with making decisions. If we were a centralized team jumping in and out of projects, it would require a lot of time at the beginning of projects to bring people up to speed.

Product managers often have the best insight into what the entire team is working on. They see all of the projects and help make sure the team is moving towards the appropriate goal. They are my go-to teammates when I need a second opinion about my designs or need suggestions on which problem I should focus on.

Working closely with engineers has made me a better designer. They have a way of pointing out the limits of your design that is frustratingly humbling. For example, I used to overlook the roundtrip time from the phone to the server. In my prototypes, “loading” happened almost instantly. An engineer eventually pointed out the expected loading times in areas without fast data networks and I immediately saw how the experience was significantly different than anticipated.

Another important part of working with engineers is understanding the technical impacts of your designs. At Facebook, I try to include engineers early in the design process. That way I get feedback from them on the technical constraints I should consider and hear them out on any ideas they have for solving the problem.

Here’s Daren — an engineer I get to collaborate with.

I sit next to designers, we have critique twice a week, we regularly discuss design principles and best practices, but my primary partners are not designers. Learning this was an important step in understanding how to solve problems at Facebook.

3. You design for people who aren’t like you

Unless you are designing a niche product, you will likely have people using your product who are different from you.

When I was designing on my own, the projects were silly ideas for myself. If something made sense to me, then I accepted it as good enough and moved on. Every flow made sense to me because I was the one who created it.

Most people I’m designing for at Facebook don’t speak my language, don’t live in the same country, and don’t use the same state-of-the-art phone as I do.

There’s an entire UX research team at Facebook that helps us understand who we’re building products for so we can break out of our biases. They get real people into research labs to experience new features, talk with people in their homes halfway around the world, and measure the impact of a product change with surveys and other methods.

I’ve never seen an engineer move faster to solve a problem than when they are observing a research session and see a real person who can’t complete an essential task or reach their goal because of it.

Through research, we test our assumptions with reality and are forced to look at scenarios we didn’t consider on our own. For example, a cute little button might work in English, but how does it work when it’s translated to a longer language like German? Does a slow internet connection change the best design solution? The design might look great on a high-end smartphone, but what about the people using your products on lower-end Android phones? Is the problem you are solving actually a real problem for people?

Understanding who you are designing for is something that should happen well before you open Sketch or your design tool of choice. It’s a key piece of information you need before you can even get started.

4. Your design will be measured

“Metrics” is a word that I’ve seen scare some designers away. It’s easy to hear that word and assume it yanks creative control away from the designer and puts all decision making power into a magical chart with a bad color scheme.

When I was designing on my own, I never gave much thought to metrics of any kind because most of what I designed was never trying to solve a real people problem. Considering metrics for making design decisions and measuring whether I was doing impactful work was a new concept to me when I joined Facebook.

At Facebook, one of the first things I do when solving a problem is look at any relevant data we have about it. This gives me the foundation I need to understand the problem.

Who will be using this feature? How many people will be impacted by the changes? How big of an improvement are we hoping to have?

Identifying the metrics that matter — and how you’ll measure them — is a crucial step in design. There is more work to do than we have time to do it and getting answers to these questions can help us prioritize where we focus our attention.

At Facebook, we have a saying that “data wins arguments.” If you are a designer working here, that’s a currency you need to deal in if you want to be part of the conversation. However, designers are in a unique position to push the conversation further by connecting the metrics back to people and the problems they have.

Changing the conversation can be as simple as asking “Why?” I tend to ask this whenever I see a change in metrics to get my team aligned around understanding what’s changed and why it’s changed.

Why did people stop going to your help website? Was it because they are less confused or because they don’t know how to get there?

Every company has goals they want to achieve that evolve around people happily using their product. Metrics are a way for you and your team to get signal on whether the designs are helping solve peoples’ problems and moving the company closer to their goals.

Your job may not be what you think — mine wasn’t

I used to think that a large part of a product designer’s work was to make things look pretty. Since joining Facebook I’ve learned that my fundamental understanding of product design was wrong.

Visual design certainly plays a role, but my job is to work with my teammates to understand the problems people are facing, translate those into possible design solutions, and consider the ways to measure if we’ve been successful in solving those problems.

Facebook Design

Designing for the global diversity of human needs.