HBR Blog Network
Inside Facebook’s Internal Innovation Culture
by Reena Jana | 8:30 AM March 7, 2013
Business news headlines featuring social-networking giant Facebook change almost as often and as dramatically as a teenager updates her Facebook status online.
But one big part of the Facebook story that rarely gets told is that of the company’s internal innovation culture. Obviously, it’s a story worth investigating, as executives at established corporations and startups alike wonder, how does such a young organization grab so much attention — and a billion customers — regardless of whether people “like” their product or their privacy policies, or its stock is so volatile?
Today, Facebook is expected to announce significant changes to the design of one of its core products, the news feed. Ahead of these changes, I sat down with Kate Aronowitz, Facebook’s Director of Design, a veteran executive of two other Silicon Valley giants that changed the way the world does business online, LinkedIn and eBay (where she directed design as well). I asked her to reveal how Facebook encourages creativity and collaboration, both philosophically and practically.
Our conversation revealed these innovation tips that Facebook is currently following — and shared exclusively with HBR.
1. Encourage everyone — even those in the C-suite — to learn by making. At Facebook, Aronowitz told me, top executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Vice President of Product Christopher Cox, are “super involved” in the conception and design of all products. In an age when user experience as king, it’s important that top management weigh in directly on prototypes themselves before approving any project. “There isn’t a review board that designers and engineers go present to with PowerPoint slides. We’re very much a build and prototype culture. Ideas presented on slides just don’t stick,” she said, echoing the credo of Steve Jobs.
At Facebook, all top executives are cast as entrepreneurial thinkers, not as judges. “They’re just other people on the team, in a way, even if they are Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Our innovation process is less about getting approval, and more about getting these thinkers to participate. Why have them sequestered?” Aronowitz told me. If leaders’ hands get dirty in design decision-making, then decisions don’t come as a surprise. Plus, as she added, “It can be hard to judge something if you’re not part of the process of making it.”
2. A winning mobile strategy: ask what’s essential and contextual. More active Facebook users now access Facebook on mobile phones daily than on desktops or laptops, and Facebook is now quickly challenged to be a primarily “mobile” company. What are the strategies being used to propel Facebook into the #1 used mobile app (across Android and iOS, according to the latest stats from ComScore)? Sure, there are the no-brainer approaches, such as simplifying images and text for smaller screen sizes to make them appealing on a handheld device. But the way Facebook approaches mobile innovation is to ask, What’s most essential thing I can present to somebody? “Our attention span is different when we’re using a phone. We need to give users something interesting, relevant, and create an experience where they can take action very quickly,” Aronowitz said. “They’re not focused, like they are at a desk.”
The way Facebook is promoting mobile innovation internally is by creating an internal mobile design think tank, which it established last year. The team created mobile-experience best practices for all of Facebook and has a strategy for 1-2 years in the future. The company also embedded a designer who has been steeped in mobile strategy to each and every product team.
Facebook is working on refining the experience of “contextual sharing,” Aronowitz said, in terms of offering information that can be understood, questioned, or answered while on the go on a phone. For instance, engineers and designers constantly ask how to make the experience better of asking friends for directions or advice on a tourist destination while you’re on vacation, in real time.
Some of the general mobile innovation tips that Aronowitz can offer, though, are that any design learnings from creating mobile interfaces can go back to the design of the Web site, to make it more streamlined and appealing.
Also, companies in general need to really think about the appropriateness of its mobile notifications — say, when a bill is due in the case of a bank, or when offering new discounts or offers via texts, emails, and other ways on phones. “We’ve learned at Facebook, where we offer so many notifications, that we can’t flood phones with those, as it gets annoying. We constantly ask, what do we buzz about? It’s important to think of every part of the mobile experience: what’s the most essential experience to serve at any time?” But the biggest challenge is also how to give enough of a compelling experience that is also satisfying enough if someone is using their phone while commuting or waiting for a flight in an airport.
3. Physically mix up your work environment on a regular basis. “Your physical environment influences how you think and feel. If you want to build openness and collaboration, then the office must reflect that,” Aronowitz said. Although such an observation might seem painfully obvious in an era of open-plan seating, what sets Facebook apart is that engineering, management, and other teams at Facebook often physically move around their desks and furniture to focus on hatching fresh ideas by joining new groups — in person, and on a daily basis rather than moving back and forth from permanent desk locations.
Also related to Facebook’s focus on keeping an office in constant flux, Facebook is currently in the process of expanding its headquarters (with Frank Gehry). Sure, cynics will say this is a purely a show-off move because Gehry is a marquee-name designer — but his design isn’t a swooping, shimmering showpiece. Facebook and Gehry are designing a space that is not only large and open, but with many intimate meeting areas. Colors will be “residential and comforting,” Aronowitz says, reflecting the current palette of Facebook’s offices, so workers feel comfortable and at ease while at work. The new space will have moveable walls and furniture so workers can feel nimble and ready to switch gears, building on the current Facebook practice of reconfiguring desks and chairs.