Driving Positive Change: A Conversation with Margaret Stewart

Liz Odar of the U.S. Digital Service spoke with Margaret Stewart, Vice President of Product Design at Facebook, about the challenges of designing for a massive audience and using design as a force for good.

Liz Odar, U.S. Digital Service: How do you approach building products that are used by such a large number of people across the globe?

Margaret Stewart: What’s important is that we don’t approach our work as designing for a giant, homogeneous group of people. Your users are never one homogeneous group. People have different challenges, needs, and wants, and it’s our job as designers to create technology that addresses those things.

That’s why building the most diverse team that we can is so important. A diverse team equals diversity in points of view and background, which generates more empathy and understanding. We have to work really hard to ensure that women and underrepresented minorities in our industry are involved and leading this work.

What I find really exciting when working with these massive communities is having the opportunity to design with users, not just for them. There’s this great quote from the CEO of LEGO where he said the company had a major epiphany when he realized that 99% of the genius in the world is outside their company. Figuring out how to leverage and empower the creativity of the whole human race instead of the small number of people that work inside your company is really exciting, and can be daunting, but is exactly what technology allows us to do.

LO: What role do you think sites like Facebook, that have such an enormous reach, should play in trying to create positive change or impact in people’s lives?

MS: I think it ultimately comes back to the mission that companies and organizations choose to focus on. There are companies that have missions focused on positive change, and those that do not. Missions like these become a lens through which you can prioritize and make important decisions.

That doesn’t mean we’re always going to get everything right, and sometimes we have to try and fail to get it right. But by keeping our eye on that single mission, I fundamentally believe we — whether it’s at a tech company or the U.S. Digital Service or anyone else with the responsibility of designing for a huge number of users — will continue to drive positive change in the world.

On a personal level, I think all humans should be using their time and talent to make positive change. It isn’t just up to big organizations or the government. We should all understand what we can do to lift people up. And I think design is an amazing career choice for so many people to do just that.

LO: Have you always had this underlying mission-oriented plan for your career? Or has that evolved over time?

MS: One of my favorite things to ask people when they join my team is, “What did you want to do when you were a kid?” I think you learn a lot about people, their passions, and their core values. For me, it was always making things. Whether it was making things out of scraps of fabric or putting on a show for my friends, I always wanted to create experiences for other people. That’s something that has driven me throughout my life.

I feel like the notion of being in service to others was influenced by my family and parents, who were very service oriented. Also, very early in my training at the interactive telecommunications program at NYU for graduate school, I was mentored and taught by the founder of that program, Red Burns. She taught me that the most magical things happen when you combine art and science. She wasn’t particularly interested in technology for its own sake, but she was interested in how technology could democratize systems and empower people. She was very motivated to make the world better for people, and that influenced the way I thought about what I should be doing with my very limited time on earth — what will do good in the world and how can my work benefit a massive number of people?

LO: How is your work shaped by this idea? How does it shape the project decisions that you make and the teams you’ve built?

MS: I think there’s a couple pieces. I’ve developed good self awareness over the years. I’m not good at everything, but I am very good at some things. I look for opportunities where my strengths can have great impact, and conversely where someone else may be better suited to a task. That sounds simple, but it’s something that’s taken me years to have a good understanding of.

That’s influenced how I’ve built teams because I try and focus on building a leadership team, and a wider team, that is diverse in its approach and its skill set. This allows us to address the most varied set of problems because we have the most varied ways to tackle them.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked at very vision driven companies and a lot of my inspiration day to day comes from the vision. And more specifically, the leaders at these companies. How do they make decisions based off a shared set of values? Even if a team has different points of view, you’re all still working towards the same mission with the same set of values. That’s something that is inspiring and helps me learn from my colleagues in different ways.

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