Facebook follows distinctive R&D path

8 March 2013

NEW YORK: Facebook, the social network, is attempting to further enhance its "build and prototype" innovation culture, especially as the firm tries to make in-roads in the mobile space.

Speaking to the Harvard Business Review, Kate Aronowitz, Facebook's director of design, stated that the company puts practical application, not theoretical appeal, at the heart of its R&D model.

"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.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, and Christopher Cox, its vice president of product, are also highly involved in developing new offerings. "It can be hard to judge something if you're not part of the process of making it," said Aronowitz.

"They are just other people on the team, in a way ... Our innovation process is less about getting approval, and more about getting these thinkers to participate."

Mobile is a particular priority for the company, as more daily users now log on via this channel than from PCs or laptops. As a result, Facebook has the leading app for both Android and Apple devices.

To continue this positive momentum, it formed a mobile design think tank in 2012, which is briefed to look two years ahead. Each product unit also contains a mobile design specialist.

Real-time "contextual sharing" is a priority for this medium, for example letting users request directions from a friend or ask for recommendations about places to visit.

A simplified site design and identifying the ideal level of notifications is also important, so as not to "flood" mobile users while still offering a "compelling" experience.

"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," said Aronowitz. "They're not focused, like they are at a desk."

Tapping a similar mindset, Facebook frequently relocates its staff to different positions around its office to encourage different patterns of thinking, and emphasises using a colour palette that is "residential and comforting".

"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.

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff