It’s not everyday that Facebook shows off new products by the flicker of candlelight.
But for the team of a dozen Facebook employees travelling the world, adapting to unpredictable situations and local customs was inevitable.
Over the course of several weeks, the 12 Facebook employees toured Brazil, India and Germany on a quest to help Facebook forge stronger ties with international app developers and to expand Facebook’s reach overseas — a vital effort as Facebook’s growth in the US reaches its limit.
When the team met with a group of German developers at a Berlin coffee shop one evening, the plan was to have a series of 2-minute “speed dating” chats between Facebook staffers and local developers. The team had printed screenshots of the first version of a new product aimed at overseas app developers.
But the big reveal was sullied by coffee shop lighting so dim, nobody could actually see anything. The Facebook team had to run out to the store so they could do their first demonstration by candlelight.
Luckily, the public debut of the product’s final version several months later went more smoothly.
At Facebook’s F8 conference in April, Director of Product Management Deborah Liu officially unveiled the product of the group’s worldwide travels, dubbed Account Kit.
As soon as it was announced, the Facebook team started to see their emails and Messenger accounts light up with praise from the developers they had met with in their travels, and more besides. It looked like Account Kit was a hit.
“That was just a really exciting moment,” says Facebook Research Manager Shivani Mohan, a member of the travelling team. “We worked so hard.”
Account Kit lets app developers choose to sign up new users without forcing those users to create new accounts and passwords. It gives them the option of letting their users sign up with a phone number, rather than a Facebook account.
It’s an extension of Facebook Login, the company’s existing universal login system in which a person can use their Facebook credentials to start using third-party apps.
But Account Kit takes it one step further. Users don’t even need a Facebook account anymore, and can simply use a mobile phone number as a universal log in. That makes it easier for users and for developers in certain countries where people often have mobile phones but not necessarily Facebook accounts.
And as the “next billion” internet users come online, making things “convenient and easy” is very important, says Mohan.
Another Facebook traveller, Product Manager Amee Kamdar, talked to one developer who told her “he would rather sit next to a crying baby on a plane than remember another username and password.”
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
Instead of just doing focus groups and one-on-one sessions, the Account Kit team brought along designers and programmers, too.
As the Facebook customers and developers they talked to gave feedback on how this should all work, the designers and programmers were able to mock up new ideas on the spot, rather than send it back to Menlo Park and wait for a turnaround.
What seems straightforward — a simple way for developers to use a phone number with Facebook Login, with a pin number as a password — actually has a bunch of moving parts, as Facebook Product Designer Ravit Cohen explains.
The danger is giving developers “too much freedom,” Cohen says: The goal is to keep the experience of using Facebook Login consistent enough across apps that users don’t get confused as to how to use it, while also giving developers enough options and controls to make it a seamless part of their app.
Two big things
The knowledge the team gathered on the trips resulted in a product that Facebook hopes will give it a leg up as it courts new users overseas. But it’s not the only thing Facebook team took away from the experience.
First, was a renewed understanding of just how important Facebook is to these developers all over the world. Big companies and small entrepreneurs alike who build apps rely on the social network to work with their customers, and the Account Kit team found themselves with a certain weight of responsibility to do right by all of them.
“There’s a trust we’ll do the right thing for them,” says Product Marketing Manager Pat Lai.
The second big thing is that, as you may have noticed by now, the Account Kit team’s leadership is comprised of all women — a relative rarity anywhere in Silicon Valley, let alone at the male-dominated Facebook.
It was the first time in that situation for the whole team, and Product Designer Emilia Dallman Howley says that they all benefitted from the support as they undertook their global journeys.
“It’s a really, really refreshing change,” says Howley.
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