Designing Like a ‘Human’ In A Metrics-Based World: Jeff Smith Takes Us Behind The Scenes At Facebook

by Patrick Faller

posted on 02-28-2017

For Jeff Smith, working at Facebook was the dream. He looked up to the designers there for years and aspired to be one himself ‘one day.’ That ‘one day’ came two years ago, when Facebook asked him to become a product designer on its ‘Timeline.’ We asked Jeff about his journey to Facebook, and how he’s tackling the challenges of tomorrow at the social media giant.

How did you get to Facebook?

I went to school for fine art and philosophy, never really anticipating getting into design full time. When I graduated I had no real clear idea where I was going to end up, and so I moved to California and started working for a startup in a non-technical capacity. I learned really quickly to have impact, you needed to have some sort of technical capacity.

I learned how to code and started doing freelance work, and through that I landed at an agency that was acquired by GoPro. I then landed at Facebook, after one of my design idols approached me to work for them.

What’s really neat for me, is this circle I’ve taken from philosophy and business, to a technical role, then back towards design. It has given me a really rich background to think about product design, and all the fixtures that play into that.

Was it intimidating to first start there?

Before joining Facebook, it was THE company I wanted to to work for for a number of reasons. To interview and then join their team and get to work with them at a very familiar level has been immensely rewarding, but also intimidating.

Even in the time I’ve been there, the scale has grown so much. When I started, there were about 100 designers, and now I think we’re at 300 or 400. It’s a tremendous shift in the quality of work I’m doing, but also the scale of the company and how big the teams are. I like it.

What’s Facebook like behind the scenes?

Designers at Facebook are product designers. We are peers with product management and engineering managers in thinking about, and shaping, the product at its core level. Our job responsibility isn’t just to make things look good, but to make sure the product is something that people want.

Designers at Facebook are really empowered to find problems and fix them. It’s not a top-down structure, it’s very flat, so I think people are able to be the change they want to see in the organization and to create products they think are compelling.

What kind of challenges have you faced at Facebook?

The biggest challenge, especially with newsfeed, is it’s such a metrics-constrained service. Newsfeed has existed for a long time and it’s hyper-optimized, there’s almost every feature you can imagine crammed into this app. We’re constantly making incremental improvements, and it’s a different way of thinking. I think that’s pretty challenging.

Also, things shift on a country to country basis. People in Korea use Facebook dramatically differently than people in the U.S. for instance. Understanding and appreciating those localized differences is both fascinating and really challenging.

What advice would you give to designers just starting out?

Really look and find those people who are willing to invest in you and take a chance. Find a mentor and put yourself out there: apply for that job, go to that event. Those small risks are integral to growing in this field, and you’ll find that people are really receptive and welcoming. Ping that person you want to take out for coffee because they probably will give you that chance.

Never give up or stop striving for what you want to become, or the kind of work you want to be doing.

Tell us about some of the ways you’re helping new designers at Facebook?

A big part of my growth as a designer was using a lot of the tools others had built and get some sort of baseline when I was designing and building things out. A great example of that was the iOS GUIs: those were fundamental to doing my freelance projects, being able to open up a kit and learn the basics of app design.

That’s what we’re doing with Facebook Design. The tools and advice there is our way of giving back to designers who are just starting out, and essentially giving the younger ‘me’ the chance to establish themselves in the field.

We’re really interested in learning more about what kind of tools or resources are meaningful and important to designers too. What will make a younger designers life better and easier and we want to start thinking about how we can shift the resources we build towards those needs.

What does the future look like for digital product designers?

Our field is so young. We’re just a fledgling industry compared to architecture and engineering. What we’re going to begin to see is an increase in fracturing into different silos and verticals.

I don’t think UI design is ever going to end. I think we’re always going to have UI designers out there. But we’re already seeing VR design and AR design taking off, and they require very different skillsets from interaction design and UI design. There aren’t even design patterns at this point (in VR and AR); they’re always shifting and changing and we’ll see an increasing amount of that as we go.

I think embedded devices, in 20 to 30 years from now, will be significant. The interface may not be something we see or touch, but it’s just embedded in us as people. What do those interfaces look like? It’ll be very interesting.

Have an idea or design tool you’d like to see from Facebook? Get in touch with Jeff on his website

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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