On eve of Instant Articles, a Q&A with Facebook’s Robyn Morris

Facebook's Robyn Morris

Facebook Product Design Manager Robyn Morris

Facebook Instant Articles is expected to go live in the next few days, a development that has the industry watching with a mix of trepidation and excitement. It might be a watershed moment for news media, or it might be an acknowledgment that the moment already has passed.

As far as SND goes, it’s already been a big year for Facebook. In April Facebook was named the World’s Best Designed news website, spurring much debate within the Society about the shifting parameters of design and experience.

With that in mind, I had an opportunity to catch up with Robyn Morris, who is Product Design Manager at Facebook. Morris, an Australian who lives in San Francisco, leads several design teams at Facebook. Two years ago, Morris led an overhaul of the News Feed, an exercise in decluttering and providing more Instagram and Pinterest-like visual experience. The redesign was dialed back — turns out that reprogramming and redesigning for 1 billion users on all types of devices, some state of the art, some relatively ancient, is a complicated endeavor.

Morris previously founded Digitalmash, a graphic design agency working for clients including Coca-Cola, Knowledge Network, Broadway.com, and hip hop artist JAY-Z. He is also a partner at HiiDef Inc., a privately held web incubator started by a team from Vimeo, Digg, Meetup, Zend, IAC, and Pentagram.

Can you tell me a little about your background in digital and the teams you coordinate, and the day-to-day work you do?
I studied and worked as a journalist in Australia before realizing I might be a better designer. I completed a Master’s in Internet Communication before freelancing as a design consultant for several years. I eventually found my way to working with a number of startups in the U.S. and that led me to Facebook in 2011.
When I joined Facebook, I led the News Feed redesign in 2011. Today I manage the design teams at Facebook working on Media, which means the things we’re doing around news, video & VR, celebrities & public figures, and music. My day-to-day can be a lot of different things from providing design feedback and direction to designers, reviewing work with Mark, meeting with publishers and creators, to working with our product team on strategy.

Based on the judges comments (and the fact that about 30% of the U.S. says it gets news from Facebook) how do you measure design success? What are the conversations you have about how design shapes experience?
For Facebook, successful news design is a number of things. At a high level it’s helping publishers tell the best stories they can and helping people to find and read them. That’s reflected in the design of how publisher’s stories are featured in News Feed and Instant Articles and also in the tools we offer them to understand their audience and why one story might resonate more than another.
Success can be measured in a number of ways — how well we’re connecting people with news can be measured quantitatively in referral traffic, time spent consuming news, etc. But qualitatively we’re asking: “how can we help make the experience more engaging? Can it be faster? Can it be more flexible for the publisher?”

The judges felt they wanted to make a statement with the award: to push traditional news organizations to see their own platforms as opportunities for innovation, engagement and sustainability. Do you agree with this assessment?
Obviously, we’re extremely flattered. The assessment is tough. Innovation is never easy whether you’re a tech company or traditional news organization. Our hope is that the tools we build for publishers will help them continue to make the art of informing, educating and entertaining people at the heart of their business.
There’s obviously a social aspect that’s key here too. The idea of spreading and discussing news organically through our social connections is not a new one, but it is certainly powerful.
It seems as though the decision received a mixed response from the audience. That’s understandable — we facilitate the delivery of the news, but certainly don’t create it. Nevertheless we’re extremely flattered. We take our responsibility to help connect the world’s news to the people who need it very seriously. We have a long way to go in making that experience as good as it should be for both publishers and the people they’re reaching.

With print or web site design, it’s easy for designer to show others their impact. Is it possible for you to show some of your work?
It’s indeed very difficult to show you static before/after images for designs that are so contingent on interaction to be consumed. Perhaps the best illustration is a side-by-side web links to the same article from Twitter and Facebook Instant Articles.

If you were asked to name the best news sites, who might appear on your list?
The best news is the news I’m reading.
On this particular day, that’s NYT, FastCompany, The New Yorker, and The California Sunday Magazine.