Google and Facebook’s big breakthrough; focus on what we have in common


The designer responsible for the look and feel of two of the most used apps in the world has shared his insights into their development with the audience at TEDx Glasgow. Jonah Jones is a product design manager at Facebook. Previously, he managed the design team at Google Maps leading its biggest redesign in the company’s history. At Facebook, he has led a number of diverse product design teams, building tools to help nearly two billion people share on the platform.

Jones said that the Google Maps team had an overwhelmingly complex task; to create a universal experience that would help people navigate their world, no matter where in the world they are. “How do you create an experience that works for well-established road grids in New York City and dirt roads in rural India?” The Facebook Share team had a similarly complex task; to support the diverse interests of its users, a quarter of the world’s population. “How do you build tools that work just as well for a teenage girl in Japan as they do for an elderly man in rural France?”

An early problem for Google Maps were those countries that don’t use street names; India and Japan, for example. “Google Maps directions in India would say ‘turn left at unnamed street’. In Japan, where addresses are identified by district, block and apartment numbers, it would say ‘You have arrived at 1-235-228′” The breakthrough, said Jones, came with the recognition that people, no matter where they are in the world, use landmarks to provide directions, which is why those now feature so prominently on Google Maps.

With Facebook Share, the challenge was understanding what common factors would encourage people to share content. The breakthrough came in understanding not what people would share, but what was preventing them sharing. People, wherever they were in the world, had one thing in common; a psychological barrier to sharing, that was about the perceived quality of their pictures. Jones showed a simple vertical line with ‘Bad’ at the bottom, ‘Good enough’ in the middle, and ‘Awesome’ at the top. By introducing tools to augment photographs, Facebook found a way for users to both improve the perceived quality of their pictures and lower the psychological barrier to sharing.

“If we want to build great tools that make life better for billions around the world we should start focussing on what they have in common,” said Jones, “and it seems to me there has never been a better time to start.”