Timeline, Facebook’s new profile view that lets you make a collage out of your life, started as an overnight “hack” built by four people.
Timeline has been rolling out over the last couple weeks to much fanfare.
What you don’t hear about as much is the mobile team who tirelessly ported Timeline to your iPhone and Android devices.
Why is this so important?
We talked to Joey Flynn, the guy who brought Timeline to the iPhone. Because hundreds of millions of people use Facebook’s mobile app, this was probably the world’s biggest mobile product launch in the last six months. Here’s what we learned:
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Up All Night Coding
“We pulled so many all nighters,” Flynn said. “Everyone’s there at 4 a.m. on a Saturday night, but there’s no second guessing your life choices. A real sense of camaraderie got us through it.”
The first step to building Timeline was putting a bunch of ideas on the table. Is Timeline horizontal or vertical? Will people understand that they can swipe sideways to see the rest of a photo album? “We had to lay out all the pros and cons, and fortunately, we all arrived at pretty much the same place: what works on the web doesn’t always work on mobile.”
Flynn repeated the word “camaraderie” several times during our chat. The mobile Timeline team wasn’t staying all night because they had to, but because they wanted to.
“We are all just so psyched to be making the best stuff. It’s a group of super smart, super talented dudes, solving difficult problems.”
The Best Thing About Mobile Timeline
Flynn’s favourite feature, believe it or not, is the in-line Cover Photo taker inside the Facebook mobile app.
If you tap the camera icon at the bottom right of your Cover Photo, you can actually use your smartphone’s camera to shoot a picture that fits exactly how you’d like it to.
Flynn loves the feature because it’s something his team could only accomplish on smartphones, which increasingly have front-facing cameras.
“If you’re out on a hot date want to capture the moment immediately and make it your cover photo, you can. It’s really special.”
While Flynn worked closely with the web team for Timeline, this is the feature he and his team can brag about.
Building Timeline For Hundreds Of Different Phones Was Challenging
Despite Flynn and his team’s best efforts, Timeline for Android isn’t as smooth as Timeline on iPhone.
Flynn cited the huge variety of Android devices, versions, and screen sizes as an obstacle that can make developing unpredictable. “Some Android phones have forced landscape orientations, which means we have to make sure Timeline looks good on that, too.”
The mobile team views scenarios like these as puzzles to be solved, and not annoyances or setbacks.
“Safari for iOS has its own share of problems,” Flynn said, “like a persistent navigation bar on its bottom that takes up space.”
Therein lies the hardest part about building Timeline for mobile: distributing one design to a whole lot of people. The goal is to make the experience as similar as possible across all platforms. One cool thing Flynn noted was that if you have an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S, Facebook actually serves you higher quality images to take advantage of your device’s Retina display.
I couldn’t help but throw out a question about whether Timeline would be coming to Windows Phone and iPad some time soon. No luck getting an answer.
What Got Left Out
The team had a big celebration after Timeline launched, but Timeline is a product that’s never really finished.
“The hardest part is taking out stuff,” Flynn mused. “We spent a lot of time on a ‘scrubber’ that let you navigate your Timeline really quickly, but we ended up excluding it. It’s not out of the question for future releases, though.”
Ultimately, the impression I got from Flynn was that the Timeline team wants to give people a richer way to express themselves, in whatever way possible. There are a million features you could add to Timeline, but the team chose to keep it as simple as possible.
Facebook’s Real Goal With Timeline
Until Timeline launched, there was no good way to dig back into wall posts from months or years past.
These posts were “in purgatory,” Flynn said with a chuckle. “These are important life events that can’t just disappear. Timeline brings value to everything you’ve ever put in to Facebook.”