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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Facebook Unzips How Testing Is Done


     Credit: Matt Harnack/Facebook

 Article first published as Facebook Unzips How Testing is Done on Technorati. Republished 3/9/13.

A little over a week ago, Boz, the Director of Engineering at Facebook, published a write up on why Facebook tests.  He gave us a sneak peek as to how it’s done. You might say their way is a little Clark Kent”esque”.

Facebook holds a vision which “Boz” translated in that article…We believe that people want to connect with each other in a way that is personal and meaningful and that modern technology can provide opportunities for doing this in ways and at scales that were previously not possible…While this vision unifies us, it is sufficiently broad that the exact path to realizing it is unclear.

The beauty of testing allows a company to realize what is unclear and create data, on a small scale, that, for lack of a better word, tests whether or not the product is viable.  Facebook utilizes their users, aka customers, to test their new ideas and concepts.  These tests help answer questions and support decisions that might be made off of a gut feeling or future trend expectation.

“Sometimes the answer to these questions is intuitive. Sometimes we do user research. Sometimes we build prototypes and see how they feel. Often, however, we’re working on products that have no analog for comparison in research and whose merits are difficult to gauge in the abstract or at small scale,” says Boz.

One of the fastest ways to grow a company or product category is to test…iterate and reiterate. Learning how customers will respond and finding out how a product will perform is amazingly valuable. When a company tests a product, it is used on a small group of people, whom are usually hand picked by their need or end use.  The information gathered may translate into a broader customer base or may stay streamlined into a niche market.  

“In technology we are constantly looking to the future and trying to see things the way the could be. Once we have a vision we want to work towards we tend to choose the shortest path to get to that place. On projects of sufficiently narrow scope this is clearly the right thing to do. When it comes to strategy, however, our success has come from not concerning ourselves with the entire path to the goal but rather focusing primarily on the next step in that direction. By taking one step at a time and iterating we are able to adapt quickly to a constantly changing landscape and bring our users along for the ride.”

The data Facebook users provide through everyday use and testing can hold the key to answering many questions that is worth its weight in gold. One of the greatest benefits that social networking has provided is the use of real time data. Facebook is able to use the real time data generated from its tests and react. This is one of Zuckerberg’s strengths and mantras: moving fast and breaking things.  Responding to user needs and working on finding the answers when they break is what Zuck pushes his staff to do.

For Facebook, testing provides answers to questions that become building blocks to their future strategy, not to mention your future strategy if you market on Facebook.  Facebook makes hundreds of small code changes to make your user experience the best it can be.  Boz goes on to say,When you see such dramatic results from the smallest tweaks, you realize how much opportunity there is to improve things—and we feel a constant sense of urgency to do so.”
“When a test goes out we look at the data immediately and adapt the products quickly. We do this on a daily basis. This cycle of iteration is the engine of progress and the people who use Facebook are not just the beneficiaries but are also intimately a part of the process. We don’t just develop this product for them, we develop it with them.”

The one caveat Facebook must deal with while testing is that things often break and can make for an unhappy user experience. In the grand scheme of things, when talking about tests, we are talking about small user groups, therefore the unhappy user experience tends to be small but fixable and holds large benefits for those users in the future. When things break, people fix them, usually. Maybe this can teach us all to have more of an open mind.
 Boz says, To keep improving, we must constantly test different versions of Facebook with real people to even have a chance at creating the best possible experience.”

So, when you see something different on your Facebook profile page or newsfeed, think about it like a scientist. Ask questions while using it. Use it to figure out if you like it or if you don’t and why. Don’t just post…Facebook is stupid. In the end, you only end up with egg on your face and who really wants that on their Facebook page.  

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