Facebook Engineers Reveal How New Messages Features Came to Be

"It starts with intuition," says engineering director Andrew "Boz" Bosworth. "It starts with a feeling that there’s an opportunity here."

Facebook’s new messages features confounded expectations. Most observers predicted the social network would unveil a bigger, better email service—a Gmail killer. But the social network went in a different direction altogether, unveiling a new set of features that are designed to reduce the chaos in contemporary communications and make digital messaging more like real-life conversations. The features allow users to combine their email, chat, and SMS all in a single place. They prioritize messages from people you’re most likely to care about (your friends). And they store past conversations, so you have a digital "shoebox" of the messages you exchanged with your friends.

Facebook tackled the problems many people feel like they have with digital communications these days: the feeling that our communications are all fragmented, and that email is frequently too cumbersome for the kinds of short, casual communications many of us would rather have. In the process, they designed an entirely new product, one that no one anticipated.

Plenty of people immediately questioned how Facebook planned to cash in on the new service, but Facebook chiefs stuck closely to the idea that this was born not out of profit motives (Facebook has some cash to spare) but out of a desire to create a better service for users. Plus, they've learned that whatever keeps users on Facebook longer is ultimately good for the bottom line. Ultimately, innovation’s about identifying opportunities that few others see and designing new products and services to meet them. Whether Facebook’s new Messages features are a hit remains to be seen. But we thought it would be compelling nonetheless to sit down with Facebook engineering director Andrew "Boz" Bosworth (pictured, above) and engineering manager Joel Seligstein, who headed the team which built the new features, to find out how their process played out.

It started with someone’s sister…

At the launch event yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recounted a conversation he had with a bunch of high schoolers two years ago, friends of his girlfriend's sister. "Whenever I get a chance to talk to high schoolers, I always want to ask them what kind of software they’re using…. So I asked them: What do you use for email? [And they answered,] ‘Some of us use Gmail. Some of us use Yahoo. But we don’t really use email.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t use email? Everyone uses email.’ And they said, ‘No. It’s too slow.’"

The teens told Zuckerberg it was too much trouble to think of a subject and to compose a formal message. They wanted to communicate more quickly, more casually the way you do in real life. They could do that with text messaging, but email was too cumbersome.

…and people on the street

Both Bosworth and Seligstein say they frequently wear Facebook T-shirts when they’re out and about. The clothes attract users who tell the staffers what they like, what they don't like, and what they want the social network to do for them. "A lot of this happens anecdotally," Seligstein says. "I wear a Facebook shirt out a lot, and people give me their mind."

Then they look at the data…

"One of the things we have access to, that’s uncommon, is data," Bosworth says. One of the things they noticed when they poured through data on how Facebook users use its communication features was that while the use of regular messages grew proportionally with the user base, the use of chat grew much faster. The network’s 350 million active monthly users send about 4-500 million regular Facebook messages a day. But they send 4 billion messages on Facebook chat. "This speaks to the trends we were seeing, of messages being smaller, more real-time, more casual," Bosworth says.

…and applied the principle of "social design"…

"Social design" is the framework that guides Facebook’s approach to designing features. "[Technologists] bring lots of algorithmic solutions and feature-based solutions to problems that aren’t problems in real life, because humans have solved them," Bosworth says. "[In everyday life] I don’t have a problem in getting information from people that I don’t care about, because it would be super awkward for people to come to my face and say, ‘Hey, let me tell you what happened at Harvard this year,’" he says, mimicking the kinds of emails college alumni associations send to their members. The new messaging system prioritizes messages from people who are either friends with you on Facebook, or friends of friends. Other messages, that Facebook’s system decides are not spam, end up in an "Other" folder.

"You design technology to put people front and center. We should allow the community to do what it does naturally, at a party, or in life," Bosworth says. "So you design technology so that people can help each other and can connect in ways they already do connect in real life, and you’re not getting in the way."

…along with "beginner’s mind"

"We believe that when you design a new product, rather than inheriting what came before, you have to rethink those things," Bosworth says. "People [speculating on what Facebook was going to launch] thought the evolution in messaging was [to add] more features. Actually, the answer is [to make it] simpler, make [the user have to do] the fewest number of things as possible to send a message."

So to summarize

"It starts with intuition," Bosworth said. "It starts with a feeling that there’s an opportunity here. Something has to tell you to look at the data. That feeling was that our Inboxes weren’t ‘high signal.’ There’s a lot of noise in those. [That came up in] all these discussions we had, with people who stopped us on the streets and told us what they want. And we have the user requests. So we have an intuition that’s well informed from just being people who use products, and people who communicate with their friends and think it should be easier. Then you look at the data, and you see the trends, where they’re going, and that either confirms your suspicions or it doesn’t. And then you look at social design and you say, let’s rethink this. If we were starting from scratch, what would it look like?"

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  • Erik Hatfield

    Google had something like this called the Google Wave. It was not adopted by enough people fast enough and was considered a bit cumbersome. Maybe Facebook can make it work.