Over a career spanning 20 years, Facebook’s director of Product Design Jon Lax has worked with some of the most recognisable names in tech to design and build their digital products. With a CV that reads like a who’s who of industry, Lax’s input is felt across Google, Medium, GM, YouTube and Delta Airlines, meaning the designer is no stranger to hard work and the challenges facing next generation technology. Today, he’s responsible for teams of designers working on Facebook across three offices on the kinds of features you use everyday, including Profile, Events, Search and Login. Safe to say, you’re familiar with his work and you don’t even know it.
Ahead of his appearance at annual design conference Semi-Permanent, he talks with GRAZIA about the future of the world’s most popular social media platform and confronts head-on the greatest challenge facing Facebook.
When I started in this industry in 1994, it was much harder to explain what I do. There were a lot of people back then who didn’t know what a Web site was. It is much easier now since technology is much more part of our lives. People generally understand what Facebook is. I tend to say ‘I work at Facebook. I work on a variety of things you use when you open Facebook on your phone or computer.’ If it’s a small child, I will grab their iPad or my phone, press the Facebook icon and point at the screen and say ‘I work here’. They seem to understand.
My first adult job was to run the website for a magazine in Toronto called Shift Magazine. The first thing I designed was a website for a band called The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. Sadly, the magazine and the band no longer exist. At Shift Magazine, I worked with a man called Evan Solomon. We only worked together for two years and I haven’t spoken to him in over 15 years but working with him and that team at the magazine was a very formative experience. Evan used to say ‘It’s the implication not the application’ when we were editing stories about technology. That taught me to think about the underlying trend rather than the specific tool or implementation.
When we started teehan+lax in 2002, I really needed a mentor. I had some ideas about what where I thought the industry was going like increased importance on product design, clients wanting more specialised help, new ways for pricing and getting compensated for work. When I spoke to people who were potential mentors, they all told me it wouldn’t work. A lot of these people were agency presidents who were just too invested in traditional business models and who didn’t understand what we were trying to do, so I stopped looking for mentors and just did what I thought was right.
“My instincts have served me well.”
Early in my career I quit a job for the wrong reasons. I quit because my ego was bruised. I regret that and it taught me to not be so impulsive. I now let things play out more and make more considered decisions, but I don’t view that decision as a failure. I learn all the time from things that don’t work the way I thought they would, but I don’t necessarily think of those experiences as failures. I can literally trace where I am today from that decision. Things happen for a reason. Most things that feel catastrophic or like failure rarely are given some time and perspective.
The greatest challenge facing Facebook is designing products that work for almost 1.6 billion people and growing. We need to come up with products that can be used by anyone in the world. Trying to consider the cultural, technical and social similarities and disparities and then design one thing that works equally well for everyone is very challenging. The greatest technical limitation is the disparity in connectivity and devices globally. The majority of the world is not even connected to the Internet. Many who are connected have older phones that cannot take full advantage of the things we are building today into Facebook. So I would like to see this get fixed more than building ton of new features that only people on the fastest networks and devices can use.
Competition is good. I think that it makes things better for people. I don’t worry too much about imitation. I see a lot of products imitating each other but the products that succeed understand the deeper dynamics at work. As for staying relevant [as a platform], I think our job is to make products that solve problems for people and that includes all generations. By being able to see patterns and themes in our work, I’m able to help designers and teams see how their decisions are part of something larger in the products that we’re working on.
Take Instagram for example. If I think about Instagram, there were other products that let you do similar things but Instagram figured out why people shared photos. They understood how to make your photos look good. The better your photos looked, the more likely you were to share them. Most imitation is surface and therefore never really gets at what makes something great.
Jon Lax, director of product design at Facebook, is speaking at Semi-Permanent on Friday May 28 on the ‘Future State’ of technology and communication, alongside Google’s Jon Wiley and Dantley Davis from Netflix hosted by IDEOs Dav Rauch and presented by Qantas. You can find out more information here.