“It’s such a big team, we could never run it in a traditional hierarchical way,” says Austin Chang.
Chang is director of product design at Facebook and is based in California. When he speaks to Design Week, it’s from his home office. Like so many workers around the world, he’s been at home since the coronavirus pandemic told hold in earnest in March 2020.
With an in-house design team as large as Facebook’s, coherently working from home is no small feat. But as Chang explains, the effort is helped by how the company’s designers work. Facebook doesn’t so much have one main design team, but a lot of smaller ones.
Chang’s role is referred to as being “cross-family” – its his job to make sure the design output from Facebook is unified across teams. It means working across the Facebook roster of apps, like Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, but also products like Workplace and Portal.
How does the team work?
Having small teams embedded throughout the company means designers are often working in parallel, Chang says. In many ways, he says it feels like “a bunch of different start-ups working together”.
“We encourage our little teams to ‘own their own dependencies’,” he says. That means calling their own shots and being able to drive the project they’re working on largely in the direction they want to, Chang adds. With so many projects happening at one time, on multiple different platforms, his job is to “connect the dots”.
The need for Facebook designers has only increased amid the pandemic, Chang reveals. He says since March 2020, the company has brought in around 1,000 more designers. He adds: “We interviewed them remotely and onboarded them remotely.”
The remote nature of work life right now has in some ways been a positive thing for Facebook, despite its obvious challenges. Chang explains having people beyond the Californian boarder working on the design of Facebook products expands horizons – not everyone uses the different services and platforms the same way, with use cases varying from country to country, so having that expertise is valuable in the design process, he believes.
What’s the process like?
Briefs can come from anywhere, Chang says. A lot of the projects the in-house team (or teams) work on are “bottom-up initiatives”.
“This is where teams go off and find something new to focus on within their area of Facebook,” he explains. “They can work solo, or join forces with other teams to widen the initiative.”
Of course, other briefs come from the very top. Facebook’s recent Shops product came from co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Chang explains the Shops feature, which sits horizontally across Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, came from noticing how users were already utilising the company’s platforms and wanting to find a way to streamline this.
“Early on in the pandemic, we saw that many businesses that were already on our apps were using their profiles to sell goods and services – restaurants were posting on their profile about their takeout and delivery options, for example,” he says.
Since commerce operations were already happening, several design teams were mobilised to create a dedicated platform to smooth out the process. The Shops function unites apps – as Chang says: “You could be performing the process all in one app, or you could be seamlessly following a shop or business on Instagram, browsing their menu on Facebook, and talking with the seller on WhatsApp.”
What’s the schedule like?
Different projects and initiatives are going live all the time. That means workflows are ongoing and fast-paced. In the example of Shops, Facebook identified a problem, built a platform solution and launched the first version of it within six weeks, Chang says.
What kinds of designers are on the team and how do they interact?
The majority of Facebook’s team are labelled as product designers. This is deliberate, Chang says. The job title is symbolic of its designers being “full stack” and able to create and develop at all levels of a product “from strategy to pixels”, he says.
That said, there is need for more specialised roles within the teams too for disciplines like sound design and content design.
Depending on the type of project, different teams and designers work together in varying degrees. For a product like shops, cross-disciplinary work and collaboration is crucial.
“We have different teams working on different aspects of the project: one group will have control over the “Shop fronts” design systems, another will be taking care of the layout and functions of product description pages,” Chang says.
“Making sure the end to end experience is consistent requires teams to collaborate,” he adds. “Shops is a bunch of products that need to work well in unison, so it’s super important for teams to work together.”
What are the highlights?
Facebook’s mission to connect the world is something that resonates particularly with Chang. Having moved to the US at a young age, and growing up in Oklahoma – a place “right in the middle of the country with little else around it” – the ability to use technology to learn and connect with the world is important to him.
“Through computers, I’ve been able to reach out to the world and I’ve arguably created a career out of it,” Chang says. “Connecting minds to resources is something I’m really passionate about and something I think we should really be prioritising as a species.”
Additionally, the “start-up culture” of the various design teams is a highlight. Chang explains it was the “scrappy nature” of the group that inspired his initial move from consultancy work in Boston to in-house work in California five years ago.
“We just have a very open and collaborative way of doing things here, and it’s more than what I could have expected,” he says.
What are the challenges?
As Chang explains, every strength can also be a weakness – the fact Facebook’s in-house team works in such independent streams can be a challenge.
“It’s like the grain pattern on a plank of wood: it’s really strong in one direction, but perhaps a little weaker in others,” he says.
Because Facebook design projects are often executed in siloes, working on a cross-family initiative – what Chang calls an east-west project – it can feel like going against the grain.
“As designers, it’s in our nature to be perfectionists and to get a little protective over our work – but that’s what my job is there for, to help facilitate those smooth workflows,” he says.
With so many teams working simultaneously Chang says, “There are a hundred ways we could answer the question of what’s coming next”. That said, there are some thematic consistencies between all the projects currently underway.
“Bringing our platforms closer together is something a lot of us are working on,” he says.
The notion of separate apps is something we’ve become used to as smartphone technology has evolved, but could this be on its way out? Chang says the way most people feel comfortable interacting with the world is people-focused, rather than app-focused. It shouldn’t matter, for instance, if you’re communicating via WhatsApp or Messenger, he says.
“One of the major themes of our cross-platform work is focusing attention on the people, rather than distinguishing the apps and we’ll be working on this a lot more moving forward.”