CX Insights

Conversation Is the End Goal: an Interview With Eric Fisher

8 min read

Eric Fisher is a storyteller turned product architect. He was the Social Design Evangelist at Facebook where he wrote the guidelines on Social Design. Eric has also worked as a designer at both Google and Apple and he independently works with startup companies to help architect their products.

Anneke had the opportunity to interview Eric for our readers. Here are some great insights into the role of a designer at big companies, how design will change because of all the data we are collecting, ethics, and much more.

You have quite an impressive resume: User Interface Engineer at Apple Inc.; Interaction Designer at Google; Social Design Evangelist at Facebook; and now Co-Founder / Design at TownSquared, Inc…

I should note from the start that I’m not and never was a “tech” guy. I don’t have several screens of apps on my phone and I don’t have dozens of apps on my laptop. I didn’t program as a kid or build computers. I don’t keep up with the latest tech news and I don’t make pixel-perfect mockups. I’m just a regular guy who – like everyone else – wants to connect with the world and its people, and technology is helping me do so.

To get a better understanding of what it is you do, could you describe what a regular working day looked like for you at Facebook? How does a regular working day look like for you now?

These days I’m working on my own projects, so my daily schedule is far different than it’s been before. When I was working at Facebook, a typical work day was usually filled with a variety of product meetings mixed with me spending time on the computer working on a mockup or blog post. It’s actually pretty similar to the workdays I had at both Google and Apple previously. The big tech companies have a pretty relaxed environment … sometimes you can go a couple days without actually doing anything. At a startup however, where I am currently, every day it’s important to make progress on what you’re working on.

Having worked for market leaders the likes of Facebook, Apple and Google, what do you think are the core qualities a designer needs to have to get hired by these companies?

The big companies are looking for designers who love to iterate and try every idea in the book. It’s generally not in your job description to make the final product call on anything; rather, you’re expected to take a problem and explore every possible alternative, make an educated decision on what you prefer and then present to the product manager for review. I’ve tended to shy away from this job description because it personally doesn’t fit my style (I like to be the decision-maker), but I’ve seen throughout my experience that this type of person does very well.

In addition, it’s imperative to have a very varied portfolio of past projects that demonstrate experience in all different kinds of design: layout, graphics, interaction, user experience, etc. The people at these companies want to know that you think deeply about a given problem and are able to devise solutions that make sense and speak to the bigger picture.

In ‘Facebook’s guidelines on Social Design’ you define Social Design as “a way of thinking about product design that puts social experiences at the core”. How do you think social experiences on the Web will evolve? And from your perspective, what are the biggest challenges web designers will face?

Everything in life follows a waveform, a pulse. As such, we tend to see a pendulum effect in history, where we fluctuate back and forth from one end of a spectrum to another. The web, when it first gained popularity, was primarily focused on data and static content. Still, there were many social outlets from AOL chat rooms to instant messaging to the multitude of forums on so many websites. But with so much anonymity and poor data structuring, it was hard to do anything valuable with this information. So the web was restructured around friends so people would feel more comfortable putting information about themselves online and using it as a medium through which to communicate.

Now, of course, we’re using a far different Internet than we did 10 years ago and I expect that it will continue to evolve as a communication platform, perhaps now starting to focus on helping you to meet people you don’t already know.

Structured data has gotten simpler, but more important and ubiquitous. Since we’ve spent so much time adding data about everything, the real challenge for designers is what to do with it and how to use it to enhance our experiences.

Relationships and trust are the foundations of any social network. As a web designer, how can one promote trust through one’s designs?

Conversation is the end goal. Everything else is superfluous

Transparency is key. If you’re designing systems that allow people to interact with each other, the technology should recede into the background so the focus is on the conversation. If the technology is getting in the way, or if it’s designed so that it makes the interaction confusing or unclear, then it’s failing. With communication becoming the center point of the Internet, it’s imperative that social systems are designed such that conversation is the end goal. Everything else is superfluous.

From a more tangible point of view, there are a few ways to promote trust. 1) Use clear messaging, so users always understand what is actually going on. 2) Show friends’ faces and activity everywhere so the user never feels alone while using the product. 3) Design to meet expectation, which means design things that are familiar to people, not new. No need to be unique or reinvent the wheel if there’s already a standard people are used to. They’ll spend more time figuring out how to learn the thing than actually using it.

We recently interviewed Don Norman on the importance of emotional design and he stated: You want new technology to become a more fundamental part of your life, and you want pleasurable things. What is your take on this?

The history of technology has shown a trend towards making it more humanistic and integrated with our day-to-day lives. The first computers were giants that sat in a room and could only be interacted with by very smart, technical people. Now everyone and their mother is walking around with a far more robust computer in their pockets that they use all the time to look up information and converse with others. These devices and technologies are tools for us to engage with the world more efficiently and because they help solve a fundamental need of ours (namely the need for belonging and self expression) we form a very tight emotional bond with them. Therefore the bar is set very high for social technology now… we tolerate far less than we used to.

Social design should be organic, which is something organizations may have problems with –especially big ones. How can they avoid a top-down approach, but still bring some order into the process? What would the ideal team ―within an organization― look like to achieve this?

For big businesses, social design is a transition from a transactional strategy to an interaction strategy. That is, instead of telling the public what they want and what they need through one-way advertisements, such as the ones you’d see on billboards, TV, magazines, newspapers, flyers and the like, we’ve started to move into a two-way conversation, where the consumer has just as much power – if not more – in deciding what he/she wants.

Many big businesses will have trouble with this shift because for decades, they’ve been the one solely in charge of the messaging. Now their challenge is to stop preaching and start listening. What do consumers want? What will they not tolerate? Now more than ever, the consumer voice reigns supreme and if a business is going to survive, it has to be far more attentive than it used to be.

What role do ethics play in social design?

People are entrusting the conversation tools they use to help them communicate better. That’s a big burden on the technology. With the world becoming more open and more engaged with these social tools, we still need to be careful about how much we share. This is the first time in human history that people from all backgrounds are able to speak together in one room. As such, we see a chaotic collection of everyone’s thoughts, ranging from the most profound to the most dull, from the most humdrum to the most enraging.

Our freedom of expression allows us to say and be whoever we want, but our next challenge is clarity. Can we learn to really express ourselves better and hear each other better? Can we learn to understand everyone’s point of view and accept each other? That’ll be the real test, in my opinion, of whether or not social design succeeds.

Are there any interesting projects you are currently working on that you would like to share with us? For those of us who are interested in following your projects, what is the best way to stay updated?

I’m working on a community platform at the moment that encourages conversation around themed content. If you’re curious to learn more, you can check out my blog where I discuss and elaborate on all the points I’ve made above and more.

Anneke Schapelhouman
Interested in user experience, social media, and anything design.