Secrets of Designing for billions; Lessons from 2 internet giants


Google processes 1 billion search queries every day. Every minute over 100 hours of footage is uploaded to YouTube. That’s more than a single day of all three major US networks broadcast in the last 5 years combined. Facebook transmits message, photos and stories to over 1.23 billion people. That’s almost half of the internet population and a sixth of the humanity.

These products are so big that they have posed unprecedented design challenges. The hardest part of solving these design challenges involves two things: Audacity and Humility.

The audacity to believe that the product you are making is something the entire world wants and needs. Humility is to understand as a designer it’s not about you or your portfolio, it’s about the people you are designing for and how your work just might help them live better lives.

As there is no school to teach Designing for humanity 101, the process of designing to make a world a better place or more specifically put designing at scale is a learning experience for even the world’s best designers. Here are few interesting aspects of designing at scale.

Little things really matter

Here is an example of how a tiny design element can make a big impact on users – the Facebook like button. While redesigning the like button to keep up with the evolution of the look and feel of Facebook, the designers had to consider all sorts of constraints: Height and width parameters, make it work in a bunch of different languages, it had to degrade gracefully in old browsers so extra careful while using gradients and colours. Hence the redesigning of the like button turned out to be really difficult project and the Design Lead had estimated roughly 280 hours on redesigning the button alone.

The question is why spend so much time on redesigning something so small? Because when designing at scale, there is no such thing as small detail as this little innocent button is seen 22 Billion times a day and over 7.5 million websites. It’s one of the most viewed design elements ever created. And that’s a lot of pressure on a little button and the designer behind it. And with these kinds of products, you need to get even the tiny things right.

“i am talking about the design of digital experiences and specifically design of systems that are so big that their scale can be hard to comprehend”

“when designing at scale, there is no such thing as a small detail”

“Data analytics will never be a substitute for design intuition”

“Data can help you make a good design great, but it will never make a bad design good”

“i spend almost as much time designing the introduction of change as i don the change itself”

“People can become very efficient at using bad design”

“Designing for low end cell phones is not glamorous design work, but if you want to design for the whole world you have to design for where people are and not where you are.”

“Everything i have designed in my career is pretty much gone and everything i will design will fade away, but here is what remains – the never ending thrill of being a part of something so big that you can hardly get your head around it and the promise that it just might change the world.”

Margaret Gould Stewart, VP of Product Design, Facebook

Design with data

While designing at scale, there is an incredible amount of data at the disposal about how people are using the product that you can then use to influence the design decisions. Facebook’s tool that allowed to report photos that violated community standards like spam or abuse. Tons of photos being reported, but only a few were really in violation of the standards. So, lots of photos were being reported erroneously as spam and abuse. On examining closely Facebook team found out that many of the requests were for the take-down of a photo of their own. An option for requesting friends to take down photos did not work. Only 20% of the people used it. Then researchers went through the universal language of polite language and consulted conflict resolution experts. The finding of the research was to allow users to express how these photos made them feel like embarrassed, awkward etc. So, the new tool allowed users not only to report a photo, but also allowed them to express how the feel by selecting an option and a corresponding default loaded message which in suggestive language, expresses the feeling the reporting person felt. And now the tool began to be used by 60% of the people. And survey showed people on both side of the message as satisfied. These decisions are highly nuanced.

Data analytics will never be a substitute for design intuition. Data can help you make a good design great, but it will never make a bad design good.

When introducing design changes, always be extraordinarily careful. What is much more fundamental in managing change, by introducing change gradually, is that we have to understand who we are designing for. We see where people are using the product, evaluate how people are using the product in non-English speaking world and we need to make sure we use low-end cell phones from time to time to be in touch with the reality where people are.

Our take:
The speaker explores the philosophical aspect of product design and touches upon the ethical side of the design process while trying to make the case for Designing at scale. She takes a very high-level broad approach to designing at scale, layout the foundations of designing at scale. Being a TED session, the idea stands out more powerful than the detail of its execution. Yet, for anyone who is interested in user experience design, this is a must-see video as many ideas are mindboggling especially regarding the way big internet brands use data to make design choices.

Featured Speaker

Margaret Gould Stewart,VP of Product Design at Facebook

Margaret is a seasoned user experience executive with over 20 years experience leading design and research teams. Currently leading product design and user research teams for Facebook Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning, Privacy & Data Use, Facebook Workplace, and other critical, high growth product areas. Focused on design ethics and the ethically responsible design, development and deployment of new technologies. Over the course of her career, Margaret has led user experience for 5 different top 10 websites (Tripod, Angelfire, Lycos, Google Search, YouTube). She has a proven track record of leadership in a variety of contexts, from start ups to Fortune 500.