Designing on a global scale—Margaret Gould Stewart at TED2014

Margaret Gould Stewart has been a designer for some of the world’s largest companies. Now at Facebook, Stewart knows what it’s like to design something that is to be seen and used by an incredible amount of people, and in her TED Talk, she focused on the specific challenges that come along when working on design for scale that can be hard to comprehend. Projects that may seem “simple” take on a whole new meaning when it’s going to be unveiled to Facebook’s 1.23 billion users.

One difficulty for large-scale designers is that their work requires them to work and act with a combination of audacity and humility, things that don’t exactly always work in harmony. In terms of audacity, Stewart said that designers have to believe that what they’re working on is something the entire world both wants and needs. And for large scale projects, this is almost an automatic. However, humility is also key, because your work is not about you or your portfolio; it’s about the people you’re designing for and how it might help them lead better lives. This may seem a bit pretentious at face value, but when over a billion people are going to see your finished product, it’s more than a fair belief.

This led Stewart to touch on four main ideas to keep in mind when working on a large scale project:

Little things matter a lot

Take Facebook’s “Like” button, as an example. It may seem like a pretty innocuous thing, but when Facebook decided the button needed to be redesigned, it wasn’t by any means a simple ask. In fact, it took the designer over 280 hours of work. That sounds inefficient, but when you’re designing at scale, Stewart says, there is no such thing as a small detail. For instance, the “Like” button is seen 22 billion times a day, and appears on around 7.5 million websites. It’s one of the world’s single most-seen design elements.

Designing with data

Data is helpful in many ways but in design, it’s not as simple as following numbers. Stewart told the anecdote of Facebook’s hope to eradicate the service of offensive photos, but in its research found that most people were asking for embarrassing photos of themselves to be taken down. So Facebook created a feature where someone could ask a friend to do just that, however, the 20% usage rate was a bit disappointing. The crew tasked with fixing the feature realized they needed to make this connection more personal, and had to help people express how the photo made them feel. So they changed the feature to allow people to include a bit more information when asking for it to be taken down, and usage quickly moved up to 60%. The lesson here is that design at scale is both art and a science. Data and analytics, while, useful, will never be a straight substitute for design.

Manage change carefully

Change is never easy. Even if it pays off in the long run, initially it can be frustrating. This is especially true with user-generated content platforms like Facebook. After all, it is their content. Stewart brought up how when she was at YouTube, the company took a lot of public flak for changing its rating system from a 5-star system to an upvote/downvote one. It took a lot of time for people to get used to, which is the norm.

Know who you are designing for

This is partially where humility comes into play. Sometimes, designing at large scale isn’t glamorous. Think about how many people still aren’t a part of our connected world. For them, their first experience with Facebook may come on a low-end cell phone. The experience for those users still needs to be designed as well, and it can be painstaking work. But, designing for a testing on a low end phone can keep us get in touch with reality.

The talk ended on what can be construed as a depressing note. Finding this balance of audacity and humility can be exhausting. Products are always changing, and that means that everything you spent all that time designing will eventually fade away. But it’s certainly rewarding to recognize that working on large-scale products often means that a designer has had a part in changing the world.

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