How Facebook Designs the 'Perfect Empty Vessel' for Your Mind

Tussling with the philosophy that's structuring a billion social lives


One day in March, I was sitting across from Facebook's design director, Kate Aronowitz, at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park when she told me, "It takes a lot of work to create the perfect empty vessel." In this near koan, lay a design philosophy and an explanation. Facebook as a series of beautiful empty vessels into which users pour their text and photographs, hearts and minds.

Over the next few weeks, I kept thinking about this near koan: How do you design an empty vessel? Is there any such thing? So I went back to Facebook and asked some more questions.

"We tend to think of everything in terms of social design. The box, for us, is a vehicle to allow one person to communicate with another. It's entirely about who's on the other end of that box, not really the box itself," Facebook designer Russ Maschmeyer told me in a different conference room. "Our overarching design goal is to make that box as invisible as possible, so that your content is the thing that's most important."

That is not as easy or as simple as it sounds. The seemingly small decisions about how boxes should look, how the text of the site reads, and what actions users can take are defining what Facebook is. Like the government backers of the institutionalization of the Postal Service, the monopolistic heads of Ma Bell, the nerds who developed email protocols, or the suits who've directed the deployment of the nation's cell phone networks, Facebook's designers are structuring the social experiences of vast numbers of people. Who they are and how they think will change the way a billion people experience the world, not to mention, what Facebook is.

The company clearly sees designers as a key to its future. Just look at how many they've snapped up. The spree began in June of 2011, when the company picked up Sofa, an Amsterdam-based design studio. Then, in August, they bought Push Pop press, which was seen as an acquihire of designers Kimon Tsinteris and Mike Matas, who designed several of key pieces of the iPhone interface. The next month, Maschmeyer joined up. In December, Facebook bought the check-in service Gowalla, largely for its design team. 2012's haul got started with Elizabeth Windram, who helped design Google Search and was lead designer for Google Maps. Rdio's head of design, Wilson Miner, was the next designer to fall in May of 2012, followed closely by the acquisition of the design research firm, Bolt Peters. In July, Justin Stahl, creator of The Font Game, came on board. In September, design researcher Marco De Sa came over from Yahoo. And finally, last month, Facebook bought Hot Studio, a design agency that had been independent for more than 15 years.

There has been some turnover -- Nichols Felton left this month after two years on duty, and Ben Blumenfeld recently left to work on his design-oriented angel fund -- but on the whole, Facebook's been stacking up design talent by any means necessary. A question posted on the Q&A site Quora even asked, "Is Facebook's stockpiling of design talent bad for the industry as a whole?" Designer and entrepreneur Zach Klein, of Vimeo fame, among other things, put it like this: "Facebook is the New York Yankees of design teams." And that was before Maschmeyer, Miner, Bolt Peters, and Hot Studio.

Aronowitz is the woman behind the hiring-acquiring binge. Elegant, smart, and self-possessed, I think of Aronowitz as the Theo Epstein (former Red Sox GM) of the design world: She seems to be able to create just the right circumstances to bring talent to Menlo Park. Her role is not like Apple's Jony Ive, though, pushing a particular design philosophy throughout the company. She's supposed to build the design team, and release them into the company to work side-by-side with the company's engineers.

As all these designers vanish into the bowels of the company, so, too, does their work. Facebook wants to create design that both allows and guides behavior without calling attention to itself. And what works in the Deep South must also work in southern India and South America. It must work for 16-year-olds and 86-year-olds.

Russ Maschmeyer (Alexis Madrigal).

In practical, want-to-send-a-message-to-my-sister terms, this is a good thing. As Maschmeyer put it, Facebook wants to "invite interaction in the most minimal way possible." That means killing as much "chrome" as possible. Chrome is all the little stuff that makes up what you see as the user interface. Chrome tells you what to do. User behavior researcher Jakob Nielsen came up with this general definition:

Chrome is the visual design elements that give users information about or commands to operate on the screen's content (as opposed to being part of that content). These design elements are provided by the underlying system -- whether it be an operating system, a website, or an application -- and surround the user's data.

Maschmeyer gave me a great example of this, which you will no doubt recognize from using the web. "Some sites, when you upload a photo, will take the photo and slap fake Polaroid borders on it and give it a drop shadow and put it in this fake stack with other photos," he said. "Those are all examples of chrome and our goal is to remove as many of those pixels as possible, so your content takes up as many pixels as it can."

In some cases, as with Maschmeyer's project, Graph Search, Facebook is willing to force its users through a quick demonstration -- known as a new user experience, or NUX -- so that they can keep the permanent design even simpler. Even though the grammar required by Graph Search is only sort of intuitive, a couple of simple examples taught most people how to use it. That let Maschmeyer reduce all the permanent user instructions for a complex and powerful search tool into exactly one line of text on a blue background:


"Some of the best architecture isn't about, 'Look at this amazing beautiful building I made," Maschmeyer told me, "But look at the amazing activities that I'm allowing people to undertake within this space. And designing the space to facilitate in the best possible way those activities. I think we take the exact same approach with our 'boxes.'"

He continued, "We want to create the space in which people can communicate the emotions, ideas, thoughts, wonderful things they find, beautiful images that they see in the most efficient and clean way possible," he concluded.

"I think we're lucky at Facebook, people share a lot of really beautiful content. We don't really need to add any more to that," another designer Vivian Wang told me.

Vivian Wang (Alexis Madrigal).

Similar sentiments have been expressed all the way up the chain and into the mouth of Mark Zuckerberg himself. And I think Facebook has created the most efficient engine for sharing, archiving, and monetizing text and pictures that the world has ever known.

And that goes for private as well as public communications. A large percentage of the interactions on Facebook happen privately, outside all the mechanisms Facebook has for rewarding and encouraging sharing. Peter Deng, who manages Facebook's communications platforms, told me that people spend a lot of time communicating with close friends on Facebook. In fact, for any given user, 80 percent of the messages that he or she sends, goes to a group of about four people.

It is just a fact that there is no better designed way online to talk with friends (who are on Facebook, of course). The grumbling you hear about Facebook -- some on these very pages -- is a testament to how powerful the system is, how well it works, and the level of usage it inspires.

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Disappearing from the user's view doesn't just happen through the graphical user interface elements. The text also has to communicate without drawing attention to itself. Content strategist Alicia Dougherty-Wold is responsible for the words that you see on Facebook. "The content strategy team is a really important part of that holistic experience disappearing. In all of the prompts on the site like, 'What's on your mind?' we are using a voice and tone is deliberately very conversational to make you feel at ease," Dougherty-Wold said. "We're trying to set that feeling that you are in a comfortable room on a comfortable sofa in a comfortable place to talk to the people you care about the most. And we're trying to do that very subtly with language."

They even take care not to create any emotional friction as you enter your life details into Facebook. One fantastic example that Dougherty-Wold gave me was adding a "life event" on Timeline. "There's a menu of those events and a typical menu would list the options alphabetically," she said, "but if we did, you'd have divorce sitting on top of engagement. The content strategist who worked on that menu had a tremendous amount of empathy." The list was reordered to follow the arc of a relationship. "Just by not making you think about divorce at the same time that you're thinking about engagement," she concluded, "we're getting out of your way."

Alicia Dougherty-Wold (Alexis Madrigal).

In fact, they have three rules for disappearing from sight: "Keep it simple, get to the point, and talk like a human." These are not too far away from the rules we try to use here on The Atlantic Tech.

But one thing kept sticking for me as I thought about how remarkably and cleverly constructed the Facebook world really is: While the interface and words might not attract your attention, they are still structuring your behavior. And you'll probably never even notice. It's kinda nice that Facebook doesn't guide you to think about divorce while you're entering in your engagement. But that decision is still a reflection of an ethos, and that's something the company doesn't seem to want to own.

This crystallized for me during an exchange I had with Dougherty-Wold towards the end of our conversation. After she told me that Facebook's writers try to talk like humans, I replied "But it is fundamentally still the voice of the borg. It's not like [users] are talking to a human. It is still a system that they are interacting with and not another person."

"They are talking to each other, right?" she countered. "If you're using Facebook, you're telling your story to whoever you choose to be friends with."

"But it's still mediated through the structure and you're the voice of that layer of mediation," I said

"I think if we're doing our job, you're not feeling like it's mediated," she said

"But it is," I insisted.

"When you call your mom on the phone, are you thinking, 'I am talking on a device'?"

"That's an interesting question," I said. "I would say yes. But I can understand why people say no."

"I would say, I'm talking to my mom. The only time I would say I'm talking to a device is when my cell carrier drops."

At any given moment, yes, it is probably more important to you that you're talking to your mother than talking on a phone. But what about the system that allows that voice to come through that particular handset? I see Doughtery-Wold's point, but I wonder, what responsibility do the system makers have in helping us think about the system?

Can we wave away the structure of our tools so easily? And are we comfortable with doing so around the highway system or the way food is produced in this country or gun ownership? Are all technologies neutral? ("Facebook doesn't friend request, people do.")

When it comes to the system that Doughtery-Wold uses to talk with her mother, cell phone companies' unreliable services unintentionally highlight their weaknesses -- and perhaps the weaknesses of the way spectrum is allocated in the United States, which might motivate people to some kind of political or consumer action. Facebook does the same when it has privacy snafus or switches up the way the service works. Wait, there was a structure all along?

Designer Dylan Fareed, former director of technology at 20x200, disputed the idea that Facebook's mediumness could simply disappear.

"Pure conduits don't actually exist. Ideas communicated over Facebook/Twitter/SMS/emoji/passenger pigeon/smoke signal are as much about the medium shaping the idea as they are actually about the idea itself," Fareed told me via email. "And without any doubt a primary purpose for interface is to make legible what is otherwise happening invisibly. You don't improve the experience of nailing things by pretending the hammer doesn't exist."

And Facebook, Fareed argued, being as integrated into a billion people's lives as it is, "has a responsibility to be more communicative about what happens under the surface when we interact with their services."

After all, the UX researcher Nielsen had a simple argument for chrome, the very thing Facebook is seeking to minimize. "Chrome empowers users," he wrote, "by providing a steady set of commands and options that are always visible." Less Chrome means less options for users. Less chrome means being funneled down paths without even knowing that others might exist. Of course, they might be the very paths that you would be most likely to choose -- in fact, they almost certainly are.


Last year, Facebook compared itself to a chair, the consummate tool, in an advertisement that's been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube.

Chairs. Chairs are made so that people can sit down and take a break. Anyone can sit on a chair. And if the chair is large enough, they can sit down together and tell jokes and make up stories or just listen. Chairs are for people. And that is why chairs are like Facebook. Doorbells. Airplanes. Bridges. These are things people use to get together so they can open up and connect about ideas and music and other things people share.

But is this an apt comparison? If Facebook was a chair, what kind of chair would it be? Mike Without any prompting or sending him the advertisement, Mike Monteiro of Mule Design had a harsher take on Facebook's status as a designed object.

A well-designed chair not only feels good to sit in, it also entices your ass towards it. So this is nothing new to Facebook. Where it gets interesting to me is when you start asking to what end you are designing. The big why. In the chair example, the relationship is clear. If I can design a chair that entices your ass, then you will buy it. I've traded money for ass happiness (and back happiness, but that's less sexy). But it's clear who the vendor and who the customer is in that case.

Where I have issues with Facebook is that they're dishonest about who the customer is. They've built an enticing chair, and they let me sit in it for free, but they're selling my farts to the highest bidder.

Monteiro admits that 90 percent of the web works the same way. "Facebook bothers me more than most because they're both so blatant and so good at it," he said.

While these things might seem like a problem solely for users, I think they're a problem for Facebook, too. Facebook has relentlessly focused on what their users want, according to the metrics they can capture. The company itself, its goals and aspirations, profit and growth targets, are subsumed into the quest to put the user first. And yet, Facebook is a company. They are a mediating force. They are not a chair or a doorbell or a bridge, even if that fiction creates the most convenient experience for the company and its users.

But there's something that happens when the reality shows through. People get so used to Facebook disappearing that when the company or the technology inevitable rears its head, they are appalled to find that they've been communicating on a tightly managed, for-profit system all along.  Which is why, oddly, it might help Facebook to design in more signs of mediation, a little more chrome, a little less perfection.

Take a look at what happened with Facebook Home. It feels simple, but underneath the hood, it's all data-driven to be a great phone experience. Facebook knows that people look at their lock screens much more often than their phones. Facebook knows that people open up Facebook more often than anything else on their phones. And Facebook knows that picture content is the most engaging they have. Ergo, their differentiating experience is to show you Facebook photo content on the lock screen.

This is exactly what people should want, or rather, do on their phones. And yet, there are overwhelmingly negative reviews for Home on the Android Store, where the opperating system has an average rating of 2.2 out of 5, with more than half the current ratings coming in at 1, the lowest score possible. User after user says things to the effect of: "Great, but now I can't use the rest of my phone except for Facebook."

Even if what they want to do most is use Facebook and this makes it better and easier, they don't want their phones' possibilities foreclosed. When Facebook's power -- as reflected in its designers' ability to control your experience -- runs up against your own perceived power, what do you do? What happens when you notice the opportunities, limitations, and obligations that are packed down into this term, user?

It's a genuine dilemma that users don't have the collective power to solve and that Facebook doesn't have the incentive to address. Warily, warily, we roll along.