On working (in design) at Facebook

A set of thoughts rattling around my head.

Some facts, as of this writing:

  • ~360,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the USA
  • Botched rollout of Covid-19 vaccine in the USA
  • A stupid coup, including white supremacists storming DC
  • 74,000,000+ people voting for an incompetent and corrupt president

These facts have a common source—the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

That Trump was elected, ignored the science of the vaccine, flouted the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, and that over 74,000,000 people voted for him is evidence of a bizarrely polarized information environment in the US. On one pole are respectable (though not flawless) journalistic efforts such as The New York Times, CNN, nightly news programs, etc. On one pole are the grifters and wingnuts of OANN, Newsmax, Infowars, anti-vaxxers, etc.

The role of social media, and Facebook in particular

Prior to social media, wingnut press existed, but it’s reach was blunted due to the barriers of publishing and transmission. With social media, wingnuts found their platform grow, as their inciting, fiery rhetoric triggers engagement from readers, cause it to spread.

It is reasonable to state that Trump would not be president if it weren’t for social media. And that the Covid-is-a-hoax, anti-mask, anti-vax, rigged election sentiment would not be nearly as prevalent if it weren’t for the petri dish that is Facebook.

So, while Facebook isn’t the cause of the shitshow we’ve seen in America and much of the world the past 4 years, it’s most certain a contributor, a contributor that has seen it’s own fortunes grow as greater chaos was sowed.

The business of Facebook

I appreciated the analysis shared in this tweet thread:

Where he gets at the heart of the business model:

And the reality of working there:

And it’s for reasons like those that this following tweet got such traction:


On designers working at Facebook

Since the start of the pandemic, I know of 9 or 10 (I’m losing count) design leaders who have joined Facebook. And I understand it—in an uncertain hiring market, they were offering good-paying (great-paying, actually) jobs, and they have interesting problems to tackle and (as I just laid out) enormous impact.

[I should also note that about 2 years ago, after I had been laid off, I interviewed for a role at Facebook. It wasn’t a fit, and, honestly, I do wonder how I’d feel now if I had taken a job offer there.]

And I am sure that many, if not most, of those designers joined Facebook thinking that either a) I’m working on something that isn’t the core product, so I’m not part of the problem or b) I’m joining to help them ‘get better.’

My concern being, specifically with designers at Facebook, they serve as the glowing light to the business model that was outlined above.

Designers make the experience of using Facebook so delightful, palatable, enjoyable, that they actually make things worse, given how corrosive that core business model is.

Designers may be like the “good intention” attorneys working in Trump’s Department of Justice

Another unfortunate, but probable, path for designers at Facebook is explained in this Op-ed piece by a DoJ lawyer who started under Obama, and continued under Trump: I’m Haunted by What I Did as a Lawyer in the Trump Justice Department.

She knew that Trump was awful, but stayed at the Department because she felt she could do more by “pushing back from within.” She initially justified her decision because she felt she could make Trump less destructive by narrowing his administration’s potentially heinous actions (think: Muslim ban).

But what the result of her work in narrowing Trump’s executive orders was to make them more palatable to the courts. If she wasn’t there, the clown car running the place wouldn’t be able to get any traction. But by being an “adult in the room,” she abetted Trump’s harm.

I fear this is the fate of many designers at Facebook. They may ameliorate egregiousness, but in doing making company’s behavior palatable, they enable it to continue it’s toxic practices.

The strangeness of Facebook’s behavior, who essentially leave their employees out to dry

Throughout all the bad press that Facebook has gotten, specifically around how it handles misinformation and political advertising, I’ve been shocked that they’ve made no credible PR effort to challenge these assertions, that they haven’t shared their research, findings, whatever that, you know, actually, while there are some unfortunately consequences to how we approach things, there are also all these benefits.

Oh, and I haven’t even talked about research that shows mental health benefits of not using Facebook.

And Facebook’s big PR efforts are bizarre things like using “small business” as a rhetorical shield to take potshots at Apple for taking their users’ privacy seriously.

And when Facebook people speak publicly, well, I wrote this tweet recently:

This ham-handed corporate behavior results in their employees (at least my many friends who work there), from eliding that detail from their social media profiles and pretty much never talking publicly about their work there. Working for Facebook now has the cache of working in Big Oil or Big Tobacco.

Mark Zuckerberg is a cloistered person with too much power

One final thought. Mark Zuckerberg, who went from upper-middle class suburbs to Harvard to having ever had only one real job, is far too cloistered, isolated, and unworldly a person to wield the kind of influence at this disposal. I mean, such influence should never be concentrated in any individual, but particularly one with such limited experience and understanding of how the world, and people, work, behave, live, etc.

Why am I writing this?

Because I can’t stop thinking about it, and want it out of my head. The stupid coup that has (currently) resulted in armed domestic terrorists roaming the streets of DC and infiltrating the Capital building was definitely a trigger (Facebook has a history of harboring hate groups). I recognize I’ve pretty much eliminated any chance I’ll work there (either as an employee or consultant). I would love to hear from my friends who work there, what credible information they have ‘inside’ that they’re efforts are not heinous (as Stephen Diehl lays out), but have many positive aspects (though I recognize my friends have no obligation to me, at all). And I’d like to better understand why those benefits are not shared publicly.

Addendum after originally posting this

I posted this at around 4pm Pacific. At 7pm, I saw this tweet, which only further calls into question what it’s like to work at Facebook:

An additional thought is, while this post is all about Facebook, it should serve as an object lesson for anyone thinking about the company and the industry they work for. Erika’s anglerfish wasn’t specific to Facebook, or even social media—it’s about how well-meaning employees find themselves weaponized to serve socially harmful business models (I know that a particular bugaboo of hers are the food delivery services that are making it harder for restaurants to survive by taking so much money in each transaction.)

I’ve got a new job: VP of Design at Snagajob (and we’re hiring in Oakland, CA and Richmond, VA)

The new year brings some career news from me: I’m joined Snagajob, the leading marketplace for lightly skilled hourly work (think restaurant, retail, hotels), as their VP of Design.

This role strongly appealed to me for many reasons:

Orchestrating product and marketing into a single service experience. Most companies see marketing and product as distinct areas, which is a retrograde perspective beholden to a 20th century mindset. 21st century connected services should orient by customer journey, and that approach renders “marketing” and “product” as simply aspects of the broader service experience. My boss, Jocelyn Mangan, oversees both marketing and product, and my team delivers across both.

Building a marketplace. I love marketplace dynamics. Our marketplace has employers looking to hire and workers looking for work, and we’re looking at how we can do more to support their interactions.

The worker comes first. Talking to leadership at Snagajob before I joined, I found it reaffirming how clearly they stated that the company is “worker first.” Given our marketplace, it makes business sense: we need the job seekers to fill the roles that our employers pay us to staff. But I also believe it makes ethical sense, particularly in an economy where these lightly skilled workers are increasingly subject to inequality.

Building a presence in Oakland. I live in Oakland, and have wondered for years why more companies were establishing a presence here, instead opting to compete for the outrageous real estate prices and other costs of San Francisco. That is changing (thanks to companies like Pandora, VSCO, and 99 Designs), and I’m eager to help build a professional community in Oakland that reflects the residential community as well.

Speaking of building a presence, we are hiring in Oakland, two roles in particular – Senior/Lead Product Designer (for mobile) and Lead UX Researcher (this role could also be based in Richmond, VA). Reach out to me at Peter DOT Merholz AT Snagajob if you’re interested.

Holy shit! I co-wrote a book. You can read it right now!


Org Design for Design Orgs, the book I co-wrote with Kristin Skinner, is now available as an ebook. You can order it from Amazon or O’Reilly.

We’ve also launched a website which we hope will over time become a growing source of ideas and materials for people building in-house design teams.

Now that there is a dedicated website, I’m going to be placing my org design thinking over there (and believe me, I have a lot of it!).

I’m so excited, and eager to hear what people think of the book!

Design can be so much more than “problem-solving”

I’m writing a book on building effective in-house design teams. I occasionally share passages from the book that stand on their own. What follows is something I’m have a beast of a time articulating. Feedback is welcome!

Design can be so much more than “problem-solving”

Business in the industrial and information ages of the 19th and 20th centuries was dominated by the analytical approaches typical in scientific management and engineering. These approaches are insufficient for tackling the complex challenges companies face now. This has lead to greater investment in design for the following reasons:

  • Squeezing greater efficiency has run its course, and design’s generative qualities are seen as means to realize new business value
  • By its very nature, software breeds complications that require design to rein in; with networked software, this complexity is exponentialized
  • The shift from products to services, with umpteen touchpoints by which someone chooses to interact, places greater reliance on design for coordination so as not to overwhelm the customer

While these challenges explain why corporations are willing to spend, focusing only on known problems limits the potential impact that design can have on a company. While design is often associated with “problem-solving,” the irony is that this view represents the same reductionist mindset that created the challenges that design is being brought in to address.

Problem-solving is only the tip of the iceberg for design. Beneath the surface, design is a powerful tool for problem-framing, ensuring that what is being addressed is worth tackling. Deeper still, and discover the core opportunity for design is to inject humanism into work. The best designed products and services don’t simply solve problems, they connect deeply with people. When design is combined with social sciences like anthropology and sociology, and other creative disciplines such as writing, there exists the possibility of creating a powerful expression of the human experience. As Steve Jobs said,

Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.

Principles for Recruiting and Hiring Designers [FEEDBACK DESIRED]

[The following is a passage from my book-in-progress on in-house design teams. It’s a (very) rough draft on the principles that should undergird the recruiting and hiring process for designers. I think I believe everything here, and I think it’s pretty complete, but I’d appreciate feedback, commentary, calling of bullshit…]


The recruiting and hiring process warrants the same design attention and intention of any other experience. Do not succumb to your company’s standard operating procedure.

Recruiting designers is different from other recruiting other roles. Recruiters, even those who work with other craftspeople such as engineers, are often surprised to find that what works for other disciplines falls flat with designers. What follows are generalizations, so will not be true in all cases, but have borne out over our careers in hiring. Generally, what we have learned is that designers want to do great work, work with interesting people, and get paid fairly for it, pretty much in that order.

Make the approach humanistic. While no one wants to feel like a cog in a machine, designers are more sensitive than most to feeling subjected to bureaucracy, and some recruiting processes feel like filing taxes or hospital visits–filling out forms, submitting material into a faceless system, uncertainty as to when to expect a response, shuttling from handler to handler. Make sure to provide a human touch at every step in the process. Beware of adopting approaches that make it easier for you, but less personable. Given the competitive talent market, it’s worth feeling some friction and taking on extra work if it makes the experience more pleasant for the candidate.

Money is table stakes, but not a strong motivator. This one is a little tricky, because it can be interpreted that “designers don’t care about money.” While that might be true for a few, most designers want good compensation for their work, particularly where the cost of living is high. That said, throwing money at designers does not guarantee they’ll accept an offer. In fact, many will find it suspicious, wondering what such largesse is masking. (Many designers have an uneasy relationship with money.) Don’t try to exploit designers’ antipathy towards money–they’ll ask around, and if they feel like they’re being taken advantage of, the deal is off. Commit to making offers that are fair for the market, and then spend time and effort on the other factors that will guide their final decision.

Emphasize the work to be done. For most designers, the primary motivation is the nature of what they will work on. Such inclinations vary widely–some designers love hairy content problems, others want to build complex enterprise software, others crave sexy consumer experiences. Recruiting efforts should stress what makes the work compelling from a designer’s standpoint. When Peter was at Groupon, the stock was in a bad place and the company had become a media whipping boy. However, he was able to direct attention to the interesting design probem, which was to figure out how to leverage Groupon’s success with daily deals and create other ways to connect shoppers and local businesses. Designers were attracted by the opportunity to to deliver new features and functionality that created a marketplace, and the meaningful challenge of working with small local businesses at scale.

Explain the context in which that work is done. While some designers are dedicated to solving problems in specific industries, such as healthcare or education, many designers can root out what is interesting in any sufficiently complex problem. So when they’re choosing between job options, they seek to better understand the context in which they will work. Will they be expected to work on their own, or will they be part of a team? Are there opportunities to mentor or be mentored? What kind of authority and ownership will they have over their work? Is design respected within the organization? How does the company treat its employees? No one context works for all designers, so be clear about the characteristics of yours.

Be honest, even frank. Don’t just tell them what they want to hear. Engaging with candidates reveals their preferences and desires. For design leaders hungry for talent, it can be tempting to tell candidates what they want to hear, to get them through the door and at a desk. However, if it contradicts what they then experience, the working relationship starts off on the wrong foot. That person is now less likely to suggest others to join, may themselves be looking for exits, and the effort invested in bringing them proves for nought.

If a candidate makes clear they want to manage others, but there’s no opportunity for that in the foreseeable future, don’t tell them, “Oh sure, let’s discuss that in 6 months and see where we’re at.” Whatever the pain in losing a great prospect, say, “I don’t think we have a fit at this time,” and move on. Bring that person on, even if they have been told there are not management opportunities, and every discussion is clouded by that management desire.  

Be direct and honest about what it is like to work there. Don’t sugarcoat troubles. Don’t dwell on them, but acknowledge them and make clear the steps being taken to address them. The design community can prove surprisingly small and tight-knit, and word gets around. Bullshit is found out.

[There you go. Thanks for reading.]

“Head of Design”: Defining this role

I’m co-writing a book on building in-house design teams. I’m also currently in the job market, so I’ve been thinking about, and talking about, the role of “Head of Design,” which you’re starting to see pop up across Silicon Valley. Here’s what I wrote to define the role.

Head of Design

For design to realize its potential requires focused, empowered leadership. “Head of Design” has emerged as a title for this role, which works regardless of whether they are considered a manager, director, or VP.

Whatever the level, the head of design is the “CEO” of the design organization, ultimately accountable for the team’s results. That impact is the result of how they handle three types of leadership:

  • creative
  • managerial
  • operational

A Head of Design provides a creative vision not just for the design team but the whole organization. They establish processes and practices for realizing that vision, and set the bar for quality. They contribute to the development of brand definition and experience principles, and ensure that those are appropriately interpreted through the team’s work.

Their managerial leadership is realized through the tone they set for their team. What kind of work environment do they foster? How are team members treated, and what opportunities are they given to grow? How is feedback given? How do they hire, and who does that bring in? The sum of these decisions defines the Head of Design’s managerial style.

Operational leadership is a combination of very little things and very big things, all in the interest of optimizing the design organization’s effectiveness. The little things are what the rest of the team sees, in terms of how communications are handled, which tools are supported, how work is scheduled, how team meetings are run. The big things tend to happen behind the scenes, and involve interactions with a company’s core operations teams such as finance, HR, IT, and facilities. These include opening requisitions for headcount, adjusting salaries to ensure market competitiveness, establishing employee growth paths, acquiring the necessary hardware and software, and claiming physical spaces.

A common mistake made by company leaders when hiring a Head of Design is to favor creative leadership qualities over the managerial and operational. They bring in a creative visionary with big ideas and a beautiful portfolio, but often those folks don’t have the patience or mindset for the mechanics needed to actually make an organization run. Team members struggle without good management, flail without tight operations, and the team proves far less effective than they could be. Admittedly, it’s a challenge to find an individual skilled in all three forms of leadership. Remember, this role is the “CEO” of the design team, and as such, managerial and operational excellence are crucial.

As the team grows, the Head of Design will not be able to perform detailed duties across these three areas. This is when you bring on Design Managers and Directors (for people management), Creative Directors (for creative vision), and Directors of Design Program Management (to run operations). With these lieutenants in place, there is still plenty to do. At that point, a Head of Design focuses on:

Recruiting and hiring. Always. There may be nothing more important in the organization than identifying talent and getting them to join the team.

Living the culture. Addressed in depth in Chapter 7, the culture of a design team is essential to its long-term success. A Head of Design not only establishes the team’s cultural values, but demonstrates them every day through their actions.

Process and practices. Working with design managers and creative directors, establish a methodological toolkit, and make sure it is shared, understood, and used throughout the team.

Vision. Developing a “north star” for the company is not a one-time act, but an ongoing process of refinement and evolution.

Represent design for the organization. The Head is the primary voice of design inside and outside the company, sharing its work, evangelizing its success, articulating its vision. And sometimes this representation means fighting for design in the face of policies, procedures, and bureaucracy that limits the team’s potential.


THE best conference for UX/Design managers and leaders…

…is Adaptive Path’s MX Conference, taking place on March 29-30 2016 in San Francisco.

I’m biased. After a few years away, I’m back and helping program and host this year’s event. We have a stellar line-up, including Bob Baxley (formerly Apple and Pinterest), Hyo Yeon (leading the design charge at McKinsey), Janaki Kumar (VP Design at SAP), Kim Scott (spreading the gospel of Radical Candor, a philosophy I can totally get behind), and many others. Oh, and me (I’ll be co-teaching, with Kristin Skinner, a workshop on “Org Design for Design Orgs”, based on what we’ve been writing in our book).

No other conference packs so much value into two days for folks who are managing/directing/leading design teams.

AND: Use the promotional code FOPM to get 15% off the registration price!

Design Team Leads

My friend Dane Petersen asked on Twitter: “Honest, unsnarky question: If design is thinking by doing and leadership means someone else does the doing, how does a design leader think?”

I’ve written a bunch about this in the book I’m writing. Here is what I wrote about the “team lead”, the person responsible for a 3-7 person design team tackling a problem.

Team Lead

Regardless of size, each design team benefits from a single point of authority and leadership, an individual with vision and high standards who can get the most out of their team. This is the most important role on the team, and the hardest job to do well.

Team leads must be able to:
Manage down. Leads are responsible for overall team performance. They need to create a space (whether physical or conceptual) where great design work can happen. They must coach, guide, mentor, and prod. They address collaboration challenges, personality conflicts, unclear mandates, and people’s emotions.

Manage across. Design leads coordinate with product leads, business leads, technology leads, and people in other functions in order to make sure their teams’ work is appropriately integrated with the larger whole. They must also be able to credibly push back on unreasonable requirements, and goad when others claim that the design team’s work is too difficult to be delivered.

Manage up. It’s crucial that these leads are comfortable talking to executives, whether it’s to explain the rationale behind design decisions or to make the case for spending money, whether on people or facilities. Design leads must present clear arguments, delivered without anger or frustration, that demonstrate how their work ties into the larger goals and objectives of the business.

In short, the best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman. And they are folks who, through, experience, find they can span the conceptual scale from 1,000 feet all the way down to 1 foot. They oversee the end-to-end experience, ensuring that user needs are understood, business objectives are clear, design solutions are appropriate, and the final quality is high. To achieve coherence, they must integrate efforts across product design, communication design, user experience research, and content strategy. They are responsible for articulating a design vision shared not just by their immediate team, but their cross-functional partners as well. No wonder it’s so hard to find such people!

Facilitation is a necessary design skill

(I’m writing a book on building in-house design teams. This brief passage struck me as worth sharing.)

In a networked-software-services world, to render an entire customer journey is a matter of managing overwhelming complexity. No team of designers, no matter how talented and capable, can acquire the necessary deep knowledge across so many domains to deliver robust work. This means that the design team can no longer rely solely on the hard skills of their practice and craft to succeed. In order to arrive at the most suitable solution regardless of context, the design team needs to practice the soft skill of facilitation. This is because designers are not the sole creators – there are too many moving parts, too much specialized knowledge necessary to fully appreciate a situation. Designers need to facilitate the creative output of others throughout the organization, tapping into a resource often left dormant. If working in a hospital setting, get nurses, technicians, and doctors to ideate around their specific problems. In a call center, have the customer service representatives pitch how they think things should be. The point isn’t to be slavish to the input from other functions – the design team still has the crucial responsibility of refining, honing, and executing these ideas. But it’s a recognition that the problems we’re solving are too big for any one team to have a complete handle on.

How to structure your centralized design team

I’m co-authoring a book on building in-house design organizations. In it, we advocate for what I call the “Centralized Partnership,” where design remains wholly centralized, and broken up into teams that are committed to different aspects of the business. We propose some radical ways of structuring your design organization, and I thought I’d share a rough draft of what we’re thinking.


Don’t just mirror the product organization or business units. In order for your team to successfully collaborate with others, it’s important to understand how the rest of your company is organized. However, it’s insufficient to have your design teams simply reflect that structure. Organizations grow and evolve over time, and the reasons for how they arrive at a particular structure are varied (e.g., acquisitions, firings, failed initiatives) and might not make sense for your team. A design organization that is not wedded to the structure of the broader company can help maintain a stable customer experience when the inevitable reorganizations occur.

If you can organize by customer type, do so. A fallacy is to have designers obsessed with the products and services they work on. Product and service features are just manifestations of parts of a user’s relationship with your company. Instead, you want your designers obsessed with their entire user’s experience. So, organize your teams by types of users. Many companies have clearly distinguished audiences — marketplaces have buyers and sellers; banks have personal/consumer, small business, and institutional customers; educational services have teachers, administrators, students, and parents; and so on. When a design team focuses on a type of user, it can go very deep in understanding them, and that empathy leads to stronger designs that fit the users’ contexts and abilities. So, for a marketplace, have a “Buyer Design Team” and a “Seller Design Team.”

This kind of organization proves quite radical in certain companies. Banks and other financial institutions typically organize their teams around products or lines of business (basic banking, credit and debit cards, loans, mortgages, etc.) that behave as if in silos, and rarely coordinate. However, the same customer is engaging across these products, and can find the lack of coherence frustrating. To have a “retail consumer” design team that works across these products should lead to a better customer experience but will be difficult to maintain in the face of a company that incentivizes business units through their specific products’ success. This might require executive sponsorship to demonstrate just how crucial a cohesive customer experience is for the whole company.

Organize by the customer’s journey. If your company is successful, you’ll need to grow those teams. Keeping in mind that no team should have more than 7 people, consider splitting them up along a customer’s journey. For example, if you’re a travel service, you could section the teams into “Plan Your Trip,” “Book Your Trip,” “Take Your Trip” and “After the Trip.” Remember, this is regardless of whether the product or business teams are organized this way. Organizing by the journey allows each team to shift focus from features (search, browse, booking) to the overall experience, and the design work on those features will fit within the broader whole.

These specific teams will still roll up into a broader “Traveler Design Team.” It’s important that they remain in contact, even if it’s just a weekly meeting to share out what each sub-team is working on.

A ramification of this approach is that you might have designers from two different teams work on the same feature where your different customer types interact. One example of this is in a marketplace, where a buyer wants to book an appointment with a seller. From a product management and engineering perspective, “Book an appointment” would likely be the responsibility of a single feature team. In a decentralized organization, the same designers would work on the user experience for both the buyer and the seller. When you organize by customer journey, however, the concern shifts to figuring how this feature fits in the buyer’s and seller’s respective workflows. You want the Buyer Team to design the appointment feature in the context of the broader Buyer experience, and likewise on the Seller side. It might feel like inefficient overhead, but it should result in better conversion as the designs are mindful of context.