Designing (for) Facebook compared to Designing (for) WhatsApp

WhatsApp Product Design Culture

Charlie Deets recently switched design teams from Facebook to WhatsApp, and he shared some of his key insights comparing the design approaches at both companies.

The first thing which stood out for me was that it became clear that Facebook only guides its product teams with an incredibly broad company vision (‘connect the world’) and let them derive new ideas and the execution (+testing) from there.
While at WhatsApp, the company is lead by core product principles.

  • The interface should feel native to the device the person is using
  • The app should be lightweight and require as little storage as possible
  • The interface should be simple
  • User actions and animations should be quick to respond
  • Features should provide obvious utility, so they require little introduction

You might say that this approach seems small-minded, but I’d argue that WhatsApp is still the most focused and carefully evolved app out there on an incredible scale. And even though Facebook’s impact and reach are not to be discussed, it indeed isn’t known for particular small steps following imaginative strict product principles driving the decision making process.

This becomes even more clear when you take a look how features are designed, built and tested at both companies:

At Facebook, you start with a problem. Then you propose a solution to that problem. If that gets the team excited, you test it in research. If it tests well, you start to build it and you take it, out for a small test to see if it solves the problem. If it solves the problem well, you build it out to have a rich feature set and release to a wider audience. The process is iterative and it has a lot of checks and balances naturally built in. It’s a mature process and it works well.
Compared to the design approach he experienced at WhatsApp:
At WhatsApp, you start with a problem. You work on a spectrum of solutions. You start to whittle it down to the solutions that seem to solve it best and adhere to the principles of the app. You grind on the best solution until you think nothing is wrong with it. Then you keep grinding on the solution until nothing is actually wrong with it. Developers build the solution and you roll it out to everyone in an app update. The process is also iterative to some degree, but mainly in the design portion. There is additional pressure on design to get it right out the gate.

Facebook is known for experimentation in public, but WhatsApp doesn’t seem to have adopted this radical approach. I think it’s hard to say which direction is ‘better’ but it’s interesting to see that an obviously product-driven company is focussed on designing within its own environment before ‘putting it out there’.

I love insights like this and hope we see more like that getting shared within the community.The good thing about this comparison is that you can use either side to support your own way of building and releasing new products. 😉