Many things were written about the new video calling feature Facebook launched Wednesday—that it couldn’t compare to the new Google+ Hangouts, for example, because it didn’t have a group feature, or that it should be admired for its drop-dead simplicity.
But one thing that wasn’t written about was that the new feature that CEO Mark Zuckerberg trumpeted as being "awesome" was dreamt up almost entirely by a single baby-faced product designer, a recent hire who was tossed onto the project less than a month after stepping onto the company’s Mountain View campus last fall.
That designer, Rob Mason, pictured below, spoke with Fast Company about how he went about envisioning Facebook’s entrant into the video communication space—and along the way gave us insight both into why Facebook made some of the design choices it did (No mute button? What’s up with that?) and into Facebook’s overall process for designing new features.
Mason, 22, a recent graduate from England, arrived at Facebook last October. Before that, his employment history consisted mainly of doing contract design work on third-party Facebook apps.
Despite that seeming paucity of experience, Facebook leaders apparently didn’t hesitate to dump the important new feature into Mason’s virgin hands.
"We have a pretty rigorous process for hiring new designers," Soleio Cuervo, one of Facebook’s design veterans tells Fast Company.
Design at Facebook is a leadership role, he says. The company looks for people with strong vision, strong soup-to-nuts technical and design skills, and strong abilities to drive consensus.
"When we looked at Rob’s portfolio and the projects he had created on his own, we saw they were highly focused, dirt simple, and very clean," Cuervo says. "That high level of focus was something we thought was appropriate for this product."
Whereas design teams at other companies are inundated with marketing and product requirement documents, the only guidance Mason was given was the fact that the company would be implementing Skype’s video capabilities and that it was up to him to figure out what the new feature should do.
Mason then buckled down to the project, putting existing video chat products through the paces, sketching out new ideas, and building rough prototypes.
A month later, Mason sat down with Zuckerberg and vice president of product Chris Cox for his first design review. (Unlike at other companies where designers are separated by oodles of bureaucracy from the top dogs, at Facebook, designers work directly with Zuckerberg and Cox to hammer out new features.)
Mason pitched his idea: "A really minimal experience," he says, "with none of the clutter or legacy of any other product on the market."
"Making a video call today is very complex," Mason says. You have to make sure you and the other person are using the same software. If you’re not, you have to install that software on your computer. You have to create an account. And you have to get your friend’s user name and enter that into your software.
"There’s a huge untapped market of people who would get lots of value out of video calling," Mason says, "but it’s too complicated. They don’t even know where to start."
Which is why Facebook went in the completely opposite direction.
"If you want to send a message to someone in Facebook, you just click on them and type in your message," Mason says. "Video calling should be the same."
Over the following months, working in concert with Zuckerberg and Cox, and Philip Su, the engineer who built the feature, Mason refined the idea and nailed down its essential elements, including:
Once you’re inside the video calling window (you’ve called another person and they’ve accepted your call), the window in which you’re speaking to each other has no controls, other than the standard ones (full screen, minimize, and close).
If the goal is simply to enable two people to communicate, Mason says, bells and whistles risk getting in the way—even a mute button, which you’d think would be a core control for a calling service.
"It seems like such a simple feature," Mason says, "but if you accidentally mute a call, you can end up in a state where you have video but no sound."
"It adds a lot of confusion."
Placing The Call Window At The Top
Although you can move the call window around, when it first appears, Facebook positions it at the top of the screen, right below your camera. That way, when you’re looking at the person you’re talking with, your eyes are looking in the same general place as the camera, which increases the chance that it captures some measure of eye contact.
Similarly, the picture of you that’s embedded in the call window also appears at the top. That, says Mason, is so that if you check out your own picture during the call, you don’t lose eye contact with the person you’re speaking with.
Making Your Picture Tiny
The picture of you that gets embedded in the call window is noticeably small, thumbprint-sized, rather than profile-photo-size, or larger.
"That’s so that you’re not self-conscious," Mason says. "You can see that you’re in the frame, but you can’t see any imperfections."
Keeping The Video Window In The Foreground
Try bringing another window to the forefront of your screen when you’re on a Facebook video call, and you’ll quickly find that you can’t. That’s entirely intentional, Mason says, and again harks back to the idea of making video calls simple and easy even for the most novice users.
"It’s really important for our members to be confident that they know when they’re being seen and heard," Mason says. With the video window always on top, you never forget you’re in a call.
Cuervo says that, in an increasingly real-time world, making video calls—to chat with family and friends—is going to become increasingly commonplace. Requiring people to install software and click through setup wizards is "an archaic way of thinking about how people want to interact with their friends."
Facebook’s new service, on the other hand, is the kind of typical low-end disruption that Clayton Christensen pinpoints in his business classic The Innovator’s Dilemma—a product that can seem underwhelming at first when compared with legacy products but that strikes a chord with an emerging class of customer.
"My parents can now call me," Cuervo says. "All those years of frustration with video chat clients will finally be gone."