What are the challenges in designing a product which is used by 1.65 billion monthly active users regardless of location and connectivity? Jon Lax, the director of product design at Facebook in San Francisco, chats with B&T about challenges in designing for mobile and why brands should understand the shift to mobile.
Lax and his team of 70 designers across three offices are responsible for a range of products including events, pages, products like check-ins and payments, over the past year he oversaw profiles and search. “We are designing for a very large community, it’s about trying to understand what problems people have and then getting our products to help solve that problem.”
Take the check-in product for example, people in Australia use it as an ego-boost to brag about where they are. But for some people, the same product is used as a safety measure to alert people where they were last seen. The check-in product works the same for everyone in the world, but the way people use it is very different.
“One thing I hadn’t fully internalised before I started working at Facebook is when you design at scale there are so many things to take into consideration. You don’t want a system that while it may look really beautiful and rich, most people won’t be able to run that- it will drain their battery, run up their data cost. All that person wanted to do was connect with their friends and family, so things that get in the way – while it may be gratifying for a creative professional isn’t the great for people.
“The Myspace days where you could design anything, it was so chaotic that any time you visited Myspace on the browser it would crash. If you think about the platforms which are on a global scale now, they have to constrain layouts in order to enable usage. We’re about to design something that works for everyone.”
For Lax and his team a ‘job well done’ is when people don’t even notice the design product. “I think a lot of people’s reaction is ‘Facebook isn’t designed’, but it’s actually heavily designed. There are tons of hours put into that interaction- but it’s not designed in a way we think of capital ‘D’ design where it’s up front and center.”
According to Facebook, Australians are spending 43 per cent of the average day on their mobile devices and 50 per cent of all traffic going to publishers is coming from mobile.
“If you look at design of the internet from 1994 to 2016 it goes through a series of phases. We’re now in a phase called the ‘platform era’, where the move to mobile has concentrated our energy into a number of platforms. This requires designers to think very differently, the chances brands can just create a website and generate traffic is difficult, not impossible but difficult. You’re better to think about how you operate inside the platforms where the distribution exists.”
The importance of mobile has impacted the way that Facebook designs: “We design everything from mobile, we don’t even look at desktop design. Prior to me coming to Facebook Mark (Zuckerberg) requested that all work should be shown to him on mobile screens. We only design in mobile, when we look at prototype they’re always mobile.”
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For Lax, the shift to mobile means that designers need to reshape their thinking about where to concentrate their energy. “When I think of my friends who still work in the agency world I say to them you really need to get out of this idea that you make websites. It’s not a growth business anymore. It’s a technological shift that has occurred; you have to understand how to design for the mobile world.
“Sometimes that means giving up a lot of control to be able to distribute the things that you want, so for example I think that brands that are deeply utilizing Instagram and Facebook are going to have a lot of success versus the brands that are trying to build websites and getting people to move from them. It’s harder and harder to do that, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But it doesn’t work like it did in 2008.
“The mobile web is not something which is working, there is a variety of forces as to why it doesn’t work, the primary one is Apple wants out to work in apps. When we look at app usage it’s concentrated in about seven apps with your phone, about 84 per cent of your time will be spent in some seven apps in our phone. Which seven changes from person to person, but what it really means is a small amount of app which are going to get a large amount of your attention, Facebook and Instagram are two of those.
“If you can’t be one of those seven apps on the phone you’re going to have a really difficult time to get people’s attention. You have to be inside those apps where people are spending their time and be valuable to them inside of that.”
Lax will be talking at Semi-Permanent event, a part of Vivid Sydney. Semi-Permanent is a two-day event which brings together internationally renowned artists and creative icons to explore the power and future of design.