The Facebook News Feed is the first page seen upon login by the social network’s 1 billion-and-counting users. So it came as no surprise that the company’s News Feed redesign generated a lot of conversation when it was unveiled earlier this month. Beyond the discussion of ads and algorithms, however, is the continuing evolution of Facebook’s “social design” strategy.
With a strong emphasis on prioritizing social connections and conversation, the company’s designers work to get the platform's interface out of its users’ way. As Director of Design Kate Aronowitz previously told design mind’s Reena Jana, “when we’re doing our jobs right as a design team, we do not want people to remember interactions with our brand, we want them to experience real connections with each other and with content. That is most important.”
The team's continuing commitment to this approach was evident in my recent conversation with the two product designers behind the News Feed overhaul, Robyn Morris and Vivian Wang. We spoke on the phone only a few hours after News Feed’s public launch, the culmination of a year of work by their team in a small war room at Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters.
“We created a really fun, collaborative environment,” Wang recalls. “We brought in lamps to make it feel like a nice living room that we wanted to spend a lot of time in, there were posters on the wall to keep us motivated and make sure that our end goal was to create a great user experience for the people that use Facebook.”
This goal was reinforced by a television screen at one of end of the room that provided a live feed of user testing. “Every day or two we got to watch people in the labs using the product,” Morris says. “It always blew my mind that you could be sitting there, at a computer, working on a design for a product and turn your head and be able to watch people really using the product, or at least prototypes of it. It was really exciting, because you always learn more from people using your designs than you ever can by just reading books or trying to understand philosophies behind what you’re doing.”
“Of all the project I’ve worked on previously, and even at Facebook, it’s been the most researched project in terms of how much we’ve been watching users use the product but also trying to talk to people and really understand what they care most about with News Feed,” he adds, recalling one study where participants were asked to cut up paper printouts of their News Feed and arrange the stories from most interesting to least.
These studies revealed Facebook users’ preference for different categories of content as well as the popularity of visual content and a strong desire for an uncluttered feed. These insights shaped the new design’s content feeds as well as its focus on highlighting the photos and videos that make up half of content uploads on the site.
“Every single story has been redesigned,” says Wang. “Photo stories were already one of the most engaging stories but we really pushed on it. How can we make this story much bigger and brighter than before? We’ve pushed the photos to full frame, there are no extra borders or decorations. It’s really just about showcasing the photos as your friend shares them.”
The redesign also reflects how Facebook defines itself as a company. “We’ve really borrowed a lot of our thinking from our work on mobile.” Morris explains. “That’s a core philosophy. In the beginning, we were meeting with Mark and that is one thing he drives, and that everyone is really aware of—that Facebook is a mobile company.”
“As a designer, it’s lovely thinking that we can have a product that feels like the same thing whether or not you’re out and about or at home. For us, we really care about the experience being as good as it can be. Consistency and predictability is part of that and hopefully that is what this redesign is going to get us.”
The designers each describe the News Feed project as “design driven” from the beginning, highlighting both their close collaboration with engineers as well as the access and “seat at the table” granted to designers at the company.
“It’s not about UI for us, it’s not about ‘Here’s a wireframe, make it pretty.’” says Morris. “It will be like here’s an idea and here’s something we want to capture or go after and, how as designers can you make that happen. This is different from the visuals. The visuals are part of it but, as a product designer, what’s fun is grappling around the deep problems. How do we enable this behavior? How do we make this easier? How do we simplify this?”
“We were never really told what we were supposed to be doing," He continues. "We just said, ‘Look, we can make this better for people, let’s understand what they want and let’s give it to them.’ I think the amount of control that Vivian and I have had over this is fairly unique. It’s sort of insane to think that two people can be working on arguably the most visited page on the Internet, and have an amazing amount of influence over the way it looks and works.”
“We care a lot about having really clean and really easy-to-use social design products.” adds Wang “I think that’s something you’re going to see more and more—it’s really important to us.”
Hannah Piercey is the associate editor of design mind.