Meet The Recent College Grad Behind Facebook's Minimalist Video Call Design

Rob Mason was, until recently, a lowly designer of third-party Facebook apps. Now he's at Facebook, where he's designed the most exciting new feature in recent history. He gives us the scoop on how he made it do just one thing—well.

Rob Maison on Facebook

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:

No Controls

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.”

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com’s Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

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7 Comments

  • Jonathan Morris

    I agree with the comments here.. I kept reading this post while saying, "Well, duh." I don't really find Skype or gchat to be all that cluttered or complicated to use.  Okay, with skype you need to find and add your contacts... ONCE. And with gchat you need to install their video/audio software.. ONCE. But past that it's seemless and completely intuitive. What's the deal with making a big deal here?

  • Bhaskar Jha

    I am pretty impressed that being the young entrepreneur himself, Mark has entrusted his company' virtue (at least in Product department) on young designers and engineers and personally interacts with them.  As for UI design decision, IMHO, with no disrespect to standard practices, is all depends on the context of the program where it will be use and intended audiences/users.

    Though I haven't used the Video chat function in FB yet, but i can say a minimal or clean-slate approach in design is definitely good choice for Facebook where most of the users will come for casual chats and most of the traditional "whistles and bells" of video chat app will not be required. But, some controls are basic like end chat and mute. Suppose i m talking to one of my girlfriends on Facebook video chat and suddenly other girlfriend of mine (in real) comes lurking from behind who doesn't want me to talk to her. What would be my first reaction? In current case I would close the chat window instantly, but that would be disruptive. I would minimize the window, but in this case if chat session will not  be paused my FB girl friend will be able to see my real girl friend in her chat window and this would be another kind of problem.  So, I as a philandering user (not really I am!) must have a function where I can instantly switch live cam off with accompanying message without disrupting the flow of communication. More soever the minimize and mute button should function the same action.

    As Don Jarell mentioned, a toggle button or mouse over controls will definitely be good which also will not interfere with no-control scheme.

    I am also impressed by the Mason for considering psychology of face-to-face interaction (channelizing negative emotions through your tiny image), Eye-Cam angle for better eye contact.

  • Elliott SMith

    David Pogue recently wrote a great article on the concept of just doing one thing really well, using the awesome Flipcam as an example (Cisco notwithstanding). Everyone said it was a dumb idea, but it sold millions. I have to say, I'm not surprised by the comments below. Every time someone launches a  product that doesn't do everything (the Flip being one, but check out the first comments about what a fail the iPad was, even!) there's a backlash of folks saying it doesn't do <insert feature="" here="">. Personally I have no idea what I'd even do with a "pause" button. I'd just close the screen if I don't want to talk. I don't have a "pause" on my phone either, and no, "hold" doesn't count because we all hate that.

    No disrespect, but I think JDA and Dev WILL be using it, only because everyone else will. FTW.</insert>

  • Don Jarrell

    I think this article, and the comments above, reflect the nuanced disconnect between pure design and real, studied UE. "Clean", and the expressions like that in the article are immediate impressions of design.  Great to not be troubled by seeing something you don't need in the first 30 seconds of exposure, but in the course of time the need for certain tools/functions does become much more obvious.

    Having been a software product manager for decades, and *not* claiming UI or design expert creds, I still know that the UI/UE review needs to be done relative to several stages of involvement:  immediate; novice; learning curve; power user, and; expert.  Sometimes there are not enough distinctions to justify different decisions for all 5 stages, but those perspectives need to be assessed.  Look what happened to MS Office 2007 when Microsoft threw that thinking out the window.

    For Facebook's video calling, why not a compromise with a toggling icon to hide/show control buttons ?

  • JDA

    I agree with Dev-

    I won't be using this feature inside facebook, as I leave myself set to offline anyway... If I want to call somebody, I'll do it on skype. Skype is already 'clean and minimal' and incredibly easy to use, in fact so easy to use, it can almost create confusion, with people expecting something more complex. 

    So to remove a mute button is just bare ridiculous... as is including an image of yourself so small and insignificant, you can't even see. That just eliminates the possibility to show somebody something, like an object, picture, or whatever... as for the 'self-conscious' people out there, they're even more UNLIKELY to use the service if they cannot distinguish how they appear easily. 

    Seemingly easy and incredibly obvious decisions, over-looked, by yes,we now know, the CEO and founder Suckerberg. 

  • Dev

    It's pretty obvious that the author of this article has very little experience with UI design and understanding of software usability.

    Not including a "Mute" or "Video Pause" button is not an example of a brilliant design but rather an example of a software that lacks basic features. Most users will want to have "Mute" or "Video Pause" at some point or another.

    Too bad E.B.Boyd does not get it.

  • Tyler Gray

    Two points: Does a person have to be a UI expert to write about UI? I've never designed an electric chair. Couldn't tell you how one even fully works. But I'm pretty sure I don't want to sit in one to watch the latest episode of Franklin & Bash. What about the U in UI? E.B., like me, like most Fast Company readers, are those U's. I'd love to see the full results of the study you undertook to find out that "most" users want a mute button. Because (anecdotally I admit) many of the people I've talked to about this new video calling find the stripped-down UI refreshing. If anything, there's some fuss over how to install it initially, but that's not Rob's deal. Secondly, couldn't you make your same criticism of Apple products, which eliminate features all the time (watch your ass, Ping)? That seems to have worked out. Design is about making bold choices--often for fewer doodads. In this case, the designer made that choice, and, again, anecdotally, people are liking it. Disagree, but let's not dictate who is or isn't allowed to critique UI. Thanks for the comment.