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Episode #94 Design Lessons from Facebook’s 350 Million with Julie Zhuo

March 2, 2010  ·  34 minutes

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Julie Zhuo is the principal designer behind the Facebook Platform and Facebook Connect experiences, and has contributed to the last two major site redesigns. She sat down to chat with our Jared Spool.

Show Notes

When Facebook tweaks anything, it gets coverage across the IT and design realms, and sometimes the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. If the users don't like the changes, they form protest groups… how can a team operate under such a public microscope?

Julie Zhuo knows. She is the Product Design Manager at Facebook. As the principal designer behind the Facebook Platform and Facebook Connect experiences, she's contributed to the last two major site redesigns. She also leads the front-end user interface engineering team. On her watch the site grew from 8 million college kids to 350 million people across the globe.

Jared Spool had a chance to chat with Julie recently. The stories she shared, from behind the scenes, are fascinating. When was the last time a throng of people gathered outside your office because you changed a feature on your site? Julie tells that story in the podcast, plus touches upon:

  • The early years of innovation and launching features fast, and without testing
  • Taking major design risks in front of a large, passionate audience
  • How they moved to a strong routine of metrics, A/B tests, usability testing and staged rollouts
  • …and much more

Julie talks about the transition from the run-and-gun design strategy that Facebook once used to roll out new features fast, and how it evolved to a more measured approach, while still moving quickly:

We are cognizant of the fact that every time we make a change, the initial user reaction is going to be a little bit negative. That's why listening to feedback really matters. If all of the feedback is basically, "I don't like this change because it's different," then maybe that's a sentiment that will go away once people use it regularly. But if the feedback is, "I don't like this change because now I can't find my applications," or "I can't find chat," or "I can't find messages." Then that's a real wake-up call for us that we really need to examine this change and see if we've regressed in making it easier and better for users.

They progressed to a test first, launch second strategy, that in some sensitive cases involved a lot of testing.

Last December we launched a change to privacy, and so when you logged into Facebook one day, you got a little privacy dialogue that said, "Hey Facebook is making some changes to privacy. Please revisit your privacy settings." That is not going to take that long to build. Right? It doesn't take that long to design, it's just one little dialog. But the process for us getting to that final point was months and months, because we knew privacy is such a sensitive topic for people that we wanted to be absolutely sure that what we were doing people would be comfortable with. It was the right thing to do. Maybe four or five months prior to our launch, we were already bringing people in. We hadn't even started building the pod. It wasn't really even designed. We were just showing them a little text dialog with the language that we were going to use and with a lot of different options for how we would present this messaging to them. These are like paper, low-fi prototypes, nowhere near what the final product will be. But prior to us even building and getting nice mocks from everyone, we already had at least five sessions with a bunch of users testing about 30 different versions of the language and the messaging for this dialog.

So many companies struggle with building the proper amounts of user research into their design process, but so few do it with so many users and so much public attention. Julie's stories are fascinating case studies that should prove valuable to your own organization.