From Need to Impact: Designing Products for Social Good

Garron Engstrom
Oct 21 · 8 min read
Illustration of people working to build social impact products
Illustration of people working to build social impact products
Illustration by Taylor Krut

If you’re one of the over 2.5 billion people who uses Facebook each month, you likely know it as a place to find news, keep up with friends, or even buy or sell some of your belongings. But did you know that you can also mark yourself as safe during a crisis, raise money for nonprofits you care about, sign-up to donate blood to local blood banks, and help safely return children when they go missing nearby? In fact, there is a team at Facebook dedicated to using the platform to create real-world, social impact.

But at a company as large as Facebook, how do we translate needs into ideas, and get those made into features that will positively impact billions of people?

The secret to making a valuable product is to identify latent demand in people’s behavior and to make that behavior easier and more impactful. This is the same way we approach Facebook’s social impact products. Below, I’ll take a look at two examples: Facebook’s AMBER Alerts and Crisis Response and show how they went from concept to launch to become the helpful products they are today.

You’ve probably heard the term “social impact” a lot, especially recently. Organizations use this term to refer to the effects their actions have on the well-being of society. For example, Habitat for Humanity makes a positive social impact on communities by providing housing for low-income communities. On a platform like Facebook, the community is diverse and global. Therefore, as designers on the Social Impact team, we need to design products that positively affect the well-being of people around the world.

I’ve heard this type of design referred to as “Design Activism” by Francesca Desmarais in her talk about climate adaptation at Design Matters 2019. She said that for her, design activism is a marriage of her passions and her work. At Facebook, our Social Impact team of product managers, engineers, data scientists, researchers, content designers and product designers gets to marry their passions with their work every day.

We sometimes see people who use our app trying to accomplish things that we don’t yet support. We can identify this type of demand in many ways, but often this identification process follows the same pattern: First, we see a behavior anecdotally such as users posting about missing children — like what inspired AMBER Alerts. Or, a Facebook company employee experiences or becomes aware of a crisis and wonders how the company might use one of its apps to help. Next, we either substantiate that behavior through data or build a small test to measure latent demand for a product that might meet it.

An example of how our observation of latent demand led to a product innovation is the recommendations feature. The team found that a significant number of people posted to ask their networks for recommendations. Upon further investigation, the team found that these posts often followed the same pattern: Someone would post about an upcoming trip, asking their network for recommendations on what to do, where to go out to dinner, etc. Friends and family would reply, filling the comment thread with suggestions about places to visit or restaurants to try. So, in order to make this behavior easier, the team built a new type of post to solicit recommendations, which organized all the suggestions into map points for easier discovery and planning.

Mobile Facebook app screenshots: creating a recommendation post type
Mobile Facebook app screenshots: creating a recommendation post type
Mobile Facebook app screenshots: creating a recommendation post type

So, what happens when we identify socially beneficial behavior with higher stakes than discovering a solid vacation meal? And how do we decide to amplify that behavior with a new product on a massive scale?

AMBER Alerts

Remember kids’ faces on milk cartons? Prior to 1996, missing child notices were synonymous with milk cartons and local morning news broadcasts. These low tech — or no tech — solutions paired limited reach and targeting with broad-based panic over the perceived prevalence of missing children.

Everything changed in 1996 when a nine-year-old girl named Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas. This specific child, this moment in time, led to the political lobbying and activism necessary to create what was first an opt-in text messaging service called AMBER Alerts. Due to the opt-in nature of the service, only 700,000 people signed up, severely limiting its reach.

In 2012, FEMA launched the Wireless Emergency Alert system. In conjunction with wireless carriers, this new system was used not only for AMBER Alerts, but also to alert people about natural disasters in their geographic area.

It wasn’t until 2014, however, that Facebook took notice of a specific AMBER Alert. In May of that year a woman dressed as a nurse entered the maternity ward of a hospital in Québec and abducted Victoria McMahon, a 19-hour-old baby. The Canadian authorities immediately issued an AMBER Alert and people shared it on social media. The parents also took to Facebook to post a plea to their friends and family: “Help us please, after one day, our daughter has been stolen.”

A community member in Québec recognized the suspect in the hospital surveillance video as a former high school acquaintance. She rallied a few friends and headed over to the apartment of the suspect. Upon confirming the vehicle matched the report, they called the police who recovered the missing child only hours after she went missing.

Facebook’s Trust and Safety Director, Emily Vacher, reflected about the event, writing “Something extraordinary was happening on Facebook and it caught our attention. People were using our platform to encourage their friends and families to help find missing children. They would share information and pictures with messages of hope, and the Facebook community responded to the call for help.”

That same year, Facebook began integrating AMBER Alerts into its Newsfeed. We started by using Facebook’s Newsfeed and location targeting. The first iteration of the alert displayed a simple message at the top of a person’s newsfeed that they would see if they were in the area where a child had gone missing. It showed an image of the child, their name, and some details about the abduction — a modern day milk carton, in real-time. People could click to learn more at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) website, or share the alert to their network on Facebook.

AMBER Alert designs over time
AMBER Alert designs over time
AMBER Alert designs over time

Seeing these AMBER Alerts on Facebook has been a major factor in the community helping to bring missing children home, like this 11-year-old girl in Massachusetts or this 4-year-old girl in Florida.

Over the years, we have improved the feature and launched it in over 20 countries. We plan to continue to add value with the goal of safely returning more missing children.

Crisis Response

While AMBER Alerts came out of behavior we saw on the platform, our Crisis Response product was born out of the near-death experience of an employee.

On March 11, 2011 a 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit Japan, killing over 15,000 people and causing $360 billion in collateral damage. Facebook had recently opened its Tokyo office where Brian Sa, a software engineer, had moved to help with the setup. Brian writes of his experience during the earthquake:

I was coding at my desk when my monitor started shaking. When I got up I felt like I was on a moving ship. The whole room was shaking so violently that I thought the building might collapse…I posted on Facebook: “Huge earthquake in Japan”, and all my friends started commenting. I was able to let them know that I was okay, and a lot of people commented about how they were really happy to know that I was safe. At that moment I realized how important Facebook was for connecting me with my friends and family when they most worried about me.

This experience led Brian to wonder what Facebook might do to help people during times of crisis. Google already had its “Person Finder” product which helped people find their missing loved ones. Brian wanted to leverage the Facebook app’s vast social network to make marking oneself safe as simple as liking a post. So, he hacked together the first version of this product, which he called “Disaster Message Board.” (Brian was able to do this on company time; Facebook encourages certain types of employees to use ~20% of their hours for in-company volunteer projects). Each disaster had its own message board where people could mark themselves safe and update their status.

Brian continued to iterate on the Disaster Message Board as a passion project. Then, following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Facebook leadership doubled down on its investment in what became Safety Check, which allows people to mark themselves safe and invite their friends to do the same.

After further company investment, we came out with Crisis Response on Facebook in 2017. Crisis Response is a place on Facebook that provides tools, including Safety Check, to help people efficiently connect and support each other during a crisis.

The Social Impact team visited affected areas after disasters and talked with communities during aftermaths to learn about people’s experiences, and how or if Facebook Crisis Response helped them. This research told us that during a crisis, people in the affected area turn to each other for social support and basic needs. So, we built a feature within Crisis Response called Community Help — a feed for people in the affected community to post offers and requests for help with things like food, shelter and transportation. We also found that more people wanted to support the relief efforts than just those in the area, so we integrated the product with Facebook Fundraisers to allow anyone to pitch in.

The evolution of Crisis Response over the years. From left to right: “Disaster Message Board” in 2011, “Crisis Center” in 201
The evolution of Crisis Response over the years. From left to right: “Disaster Message Board” in 2011, “Crisis Center” in 201
The evolution of Crisis Response over the years. From left to right: “Disaster Message Board” in 2011, “Crisis Center” in 2015, and “Crisis Response” in 2020

So far, more than 130M people have marked themselves safe on Safety Check.

Like AMBER Alerts, the evolution of Crisis Response shows how paying attention to user behavior can help designers identify unmet needs and create new products.

The world has changed a lot this year with COVID-19, and that change has translated to new latent demand and behavior on the Facebook app, and across the internet. We’ve seen communities fundraise for struggling small businesses, people leaning on each other and the local community for everyday needs, and a need for accurate, authoritative information about everything from COVID-19 to the upcoming 2020 US Election. The Facebook Social Impact team is attentive to these needs and will continue to identify opportunities for new products that help make the world a better place.

🙏 Thanks to Emily Vacher and Brian Sa for their contributions to AMBER Alerts and Crisis Response respectively, Taylor Krut for the illustration, and Lauren Adams, Shannon O’Malley and Julia Wayne for their contributions to this article.

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