AMA with Instagram and Facebook Product Designer, Christine Choi

Wesley Magness
Sep 30, 2015 · 9 min read

Whenever I begin the ‘quest of copy-paste’ from our Facebook thread to this medium body, I have the opportunity to peruse the AMA as a whole and pull together a motif of sorts — something that seemed to stand out more than anything else. With this AMA, I could not help but notice how certain platforms and people have the ability to enable individuals to express themselves.

Instagram’s latest platform updates have been impactful. As an avid user, I was excited to know I could finally upload and share my photos in their original format. It may seem like a small change but when a community has seen ~20 billion sequential squares (yeah, that’s right) and suddenly the sizes change, it’s hard not to notice. With this, Instagram enabled every user to display their photos the way they saw fit and it paid off, as it was very well received.

I also see certain people who enable others to truly express themselves. It’s my belief that giving someone the opportunity to take on new challenges, progress in their lives and grow is one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another. In this AMA with Christine, she recalls a time when she had brought back so many finger paintings from school, her mother had to hang them up in their garage. She describes how every Friday, their team comes together to communicate and spend time with one another, which allows them to trust and invest in their relationships. Christine also mentions meeting Josilin Torrano, a design recruiter at Facebook, at a time when she couldn’t imagine being hired. And yet here she is now, giving us the chance to gain insight into her process, sharing her advice, and detailing part of the company culture she contributes to.

Enjoy and check out her Instagram @chchoitoi if you’re a fan of perfect lighting.

Wesley: When did you know you wanted to be, or could be a designer? What inspired you at an early age?

Probably since kindergarten. We had this mini easel with buckets of paint we could use during recess. I pretty much hogged it for the full hour and gave out my paintings to my classmates (whether they asked for it or not). I remember bringing so many finger paintings home, my mom had no place to hang [them]… so my garage became this mini museum that housed them all.

sweetest cursors back in the day

Then in 4th grade, I got into Xanga — For those who haven’t had one, it was an online blog where you could like each other’s posts and comment on them. I would spend hours changing up the html/css to fit my “theme” and add sparkly banners and music. I’m glad I’ve forgotten my username because I’m sure I left it in an embarrassing state.

Murád: Do you have any advice for someone who’s just getting started with interaction design? Also, can I see your portfolio? :)

I’ve taken down my portfolio for now :P There’s a lot of new work that I’m excited to showcase and it’s currently in the workings so stay tuned! My advice would be to absorb everything you can about interaction design from the resources you have. There are tons of sites and books you can read to get inspired and learn about whats happening today in the world. I’m currently reading Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people that inspire you.

I only got into interaction design two years ago (I came from a fine arts background, then to graphic design, then interaction design). I had a lot of catching up to do… so actively finding resources, asking a lot of questions, and practicing helped me get there quickly.

My advice for a killer portfolio would be to focus on what makes you unique. During my [Facebook] interview, I added some of my hand drawn illustrations into my presentation (which I was reluctant to do since a lot of the design work would be UI/UX and digital), but it brought out my personality and helped tell my story as a designer.

Sanny: Who should I follow on Instagram?

Me :P

Check out this guy @stolbyshkin. He is a photographer that travels the world and takes photos standing on his head haha. @Frenchiebutt is always a winner too.

@chchoitoi Christine Choi
@stolbyshkin
@frenchiebutt

Ryan: Hey, firstly thanks for hopping on and answering our questions — I’m sure I speak for everyone when saying we greatly appreciate it!

Do you find each day to be unique with different tasks at FB / Instagram?

It really depends on what project you’re working on. Some projects are longer term that can go for months, even years. Some are shorter and take a few weeks. There are definitely pos/negs to being at a large company.

My experience at Instagram is a bit of both. Instagram is relatively small (the design team consists of 10 talented peeps). It’s nice to work in a small group because changes tend to happen rather quickly — there are less people you reach out to in order to move forwards with an idea. The negative to a small company could be limited resources — too many things to do and not enough time/people to execute!

The benefit of being part of a larger company like Facebook is that we have resources and can get the help of designers from Facebook who may have approached some of the same problems before. The environment is very collaborative and we bounce a lot of idea off of each other, which is great.

Wesley: What was the decision behind Landscape and Portrait photos? Did something change over the years?

#thinkoutsidethesquare

Not going to lie, we were all really nervous about the launch. I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was imagining all of the backlash and resistance to the change. But it was really well received!

Enabling landscape and portrait is something we’ve been thinking about for a while. We dug into the data and the numbers showed that 1 in 5 photos on your Instagram Feed are letter-boxed! (a term we use to describe those white and black bars used to fit photos into a square). Even before seeing the numbers, we knew this was something the community was asking for. By enabling this functionality into Instagram, we made the process of sharing your moment way easier. Not all of your favorite moments fit into a square, and that’s okay. The most important thing is visual communication, and not necessarily the format it’s in.

I still get excited every time I see Queen B post a portrait or landscape photo. Her first portrait post:

Achal: What would your ideal team consist of, if you were to build one?

I guess it depends on the product and what you’re trying to accomplish. In my case, with a few more designers, Instagram would hit a “sweet-spot” because we have the advantages of being small and iterating quickly, while having the resources and experience of FB :)

*Achal added this photo of a Shiba Inu and had multiple great questions. Unfortunately we did not have time to get to them all.

Sanny: Are there designers at IG/FB that don’t use the product that they design for? What is the most interesting design challenge you worked on recently?

The most interesting design challenge was the recent launch of landscape and portrait photos/videos on Instagram. What seems like a simple and obvious change went through many, many design explorations. The team and I worked to strike a balance between more flexibility and ensuring that photos/videos look great in the Instagram feed. We didn’t want it to feel like a completely foreign experience.

And I’d say all the designers I know have Instagram or Facebook. The frequency of use may vary but it’s hard not to use a product you design for. Part of the design process is to identify problems and solutions and it really helps to be a user of the product. I use work as an excuse to spend even more time on Instagram.

Al: As a creative, what would you say the top three pillars of a culture that allows you to be creative and productive would be? Any key initiatives that the workplace does to build culture that you’ve noticed work really well?

Hmm — work for a product you enjoy using, be inspired by your colleagues, keep focus. Though, it’s hard to keep focus when you work for your favorite product. I try to keep Facebook and Instagram open only when I need to check designs and when I catch myself checking notifications of friends I TRY to snap out of it. Still a work in progress. Better to spend too much time on your product than not enough, right? ….…

Culture is huge here at Facebook and we make a conscious effort to keep it alive. It’s important to trust the people you work with and investing in that extra time to grow a stronger team will only shine through the work. Every Friday, FB and Instagram respectively host a live Q&A where Mark and Kevin answer questions asked from employees. It’s a chance for the whole company to gather and I think this is really important as the company continues to grow.

“It’s important to trust the people you work with and investing in that extra time to grow a stronger team will only shine through the work.”

Offsites and team dinners are also a way to help keep the culture and team together. My favorite offsite was at Higher Fire where the team took a pottery making class. An offsite that’s coming up is at Real Escape Room in SF that I’m really excited about.

Kasey: When you applied to Instagram and Facebook, did you feel your portfolio and work experience was ready? Did you build it a while before applying by taking other jobs, or did you just take a leap?

Start when you’re not ready! What I’ve realized through my journey into a product design role was that I never thought I was ready. I met Josilin at the university recruiting event and I didn’t imagine I could be hired, but I had nothing to lose. My previous experience was in editorial and branding and I felt like competition was too steep.

A favorite quote of mine is:

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” -Seneca

So my advice would be to prepare as much as you can, give it your all, and you’ll have no regrets.

Christine:

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful questions! I have to run for now but this was a blast. I’ll try to answer ones I’ve missed in a bit. Much thanks to Wesley and Josilin for setting this up.

— — — — — — — — — —

There was also a great question asked regarding the hiring process at Facebook which was answered by Josilin, a design recruiter. Here it is formatted-

Josilin:

At Facebook we’re looking for students who have:

  • Demonstrated experience with end-to-end (hybrid UX and UI)
  • Product design, pixel-perfect attention to detail
  • The clear ability to articulate design decisions
  • A history of self initiated product work
  • Experience working on high-visibility applications.

Portfolios that exhibit these usually catch our eye :)

Process for hiring full time: Portfolio review and phone screen by recruiting team -> Phone interviews with designers -> Onsite interviews at FB campus.

Process for hiring interns: Portfolio review and phone screen by recruiting team -> Phone interviews with designers.

— — — — — — — — — —

*BONUS* I asked Christine for a sight she never tires of and her most played song(s) in the past couple years. Here’s what she came up with:

— Sight —

— Sound —


Another special thank you to Josilin Torrano for facilitating and initiating this AMA. See more resources at Universities on Facebook.

++Feel free to join MakerMesh or contact me for more info.

Tweets: @wesmagness

Maker Mesh

A collection of interviews, tools and tutorials from the Makers of the world

Thanks to Louis-André Labadie

Wesley Magness

Written by

Designer//Developer//Coolguy//Your Friend

Maker Mesh

A collection of interviews, tools and tutorials from the Makers of the world

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