At Facebook: Content strategy and design for broad audiences

At the Facebook offices, London

At the Facebook offices, London

I visited Facebook’s offices in London, for their ‘People First: The Challenges and Opportunities of Designing for Broad Audiences’ talk, on the 8th of July 2014. Here’s my brief account of the discussion.

On the panel:

Tom Hulme, design director at IDEO
Tuhin Kumar, Facebook designer
Sarah J. Richards, content design consultant (ex-GDS)
Amy Thibodeau, content strategist at Facebook

Panel Moderator: Kim Heilman, Facebook designer.

The broad topics for the discussion were product development and “strategies for designing experiences that are used by a diverse audience”.

It’s worth noting that there are content experts sitting next to designers for this discussion about “design”. This is evidence of a shift in thinking about how digital products are created, and it’s one of the themes of this evening – content and design are no longer separate (in fact they never were, but hey, working practices take time to evolve). But what is also apparent is that roles and responsibilities are still as fluid as the iterative product development processes being spoken about.

I’m just going to highlight a few of the issues raised in the discussion. Let’s begin with a question from Kim.

Kim: “How to pinpoint the motivations of an audience and their user needs?”

At gov.uk, Sarah researched forum discussions (an often overlooked source of info) and did “guerrilla user testing” – at bus stops etc.

Tom responds: “ask the right people”, show don’t tell when product testing and be careful you don’t over-optimise for an overly narrow audience. Get into users homes if you can. Using “open products” with APIs can also be fruitful as you can watch people use and play with your product – which can be revealing.

A little later Kim asked a similar question along the lines of: how do you distinguish between what customers say they want and their actual needs?

Sarah’s reply mentioned “pull v push content”, and the importance of user centred design. As she writes in her blog:
“Any push content can be turned to pull. All you need to do is find what your audience actually wants. And the more pull your content has, the more successful you will be.”

Tom referred to the “working backwards” approach that is widely used at Amazon. Clients should be able to write a press release for the product before it is created. It’s all about clear articulation of goals.

Sarah also went on to mention overcoming client resistance to user-centred change. She showed the client videos of users trying and failing to use their existing product. Showing evidence, and not just spouting an opinion has a real impact, said Sarah.

A question from the audience: Which design prototyping tools are recommended?

Tom’s picks inc:
marvelapp.com and squarespace.com
Squarespace, said Tom, is easier to use than WordPress, and lets you “get [the product] out there see if people like it”

Tuhin’s picks inc: Origami – a free toolkit for Quartz Composer – facebook.github.io/origami/ and prototypejs.org

Another member of the audience asked: why does Facebook need content strategists? Isn’t it all user generated?

Amy’s reply pointed out that Facebook has so many screens – lots of content to be created. There are currently 27 content strategists at Facebook and they’re hiring for more, she said.

Amy also went onto respond to another question about the difficulties of getting content strategy accepted inside Facebook.
It’s not been difficult she said, but it is a new job role / business function.

A little later the discussion turned to the place of creativity in data-driven user-centred product design.

Sarah expects her content designers to take care of the whole process from aligning their content with user vocabulary, to content production, to the performance analysis.

With product development she said “You have to test it, and take it out of the room”.

Tom agreed with Sarah, saying “don’t fall in love with the initial opinion” – but creativity is still key, or you’ll just hit the local maximum, and as Sarah said: “you’ll get a faster horse and not a car”.

And one of the final questions from the audience: When dealing with smaller clients, isn’t this research-heavy product development process of little use?

With smaller clients, said Tom, the process of:

Defining success
Research
Ideas
Rapid iteration

is still used, but the depth differs.

Amy also went onto point out that at Facebook, design, research and content strategy is always a unit. Therefore, parts of their development process can always be re-deployed elsewhere, even by the small companies / start-ups that she advises.

Thanks to Tom Hulme, Tuhin Kumar, Sarah J. Richards, Amy Thibodeau and Kim Heilman for sharing a little of their knowledge with me.

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