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Talking heads: how a late-night hack turned into Facebook's next big thing

Facebook gambles on private messages as the future of mobile

On a Wednesday almost one year ago, Facebook product designers Joey Flynn and Brandon Walkin decided to work from home. They discussed how frustrating it is that modern smartphones aren't designed with texting in mind, since that’s what we’re doing most of the time. It's impossible to multitask while texting with friends — who are, more often than not, faceless entities organized by row inside a texting app.

"We had always talked about how apps with messaging components inside them are always the best," Flynn says. "We thought that it would be awesome if every app could have a messaging component." Or, what if your friends could somehow be one tap away as you found directions, looked up a restaurant, or responded to an email? Nearly two days later, "Chat Heads" started coming into focus — icons of your friends that stay with you no matter what app you're using. Tapping a friend pops your conversation with them into the foreground. With a flick, the conversation zips into the background.

They spent hours mocking up the idea, putting faces inside circles, and then squares, and then rounded rectangles. They decided on circles, a recent trend for avatar pictures, then added white borders, and then scrapped the borders. They stacked faces vertically, and then horizontally, and tooled with rubber-banding animations inside Apple’s Quartz Composer software. "It was one long night, one crazy idea, and that's how it started," says Flynn.

The duo threw together a pitch video and received a green light to begin production on Chat Heads: a new form of interactive and omnipresent notifications for your phone. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was impressed. "Everyone liked the idea," Flynn says. Chat Heads were to be the very literal faces of Facebook's new messaging platform on Android and iOS. These faces were impossible to miss, representative of a new vision of Facebook where your friends are their own floating heads.

Chat Heads started as an "experiment," like most new Facebook products, but was quickly turning into something much bigger. "Status updates and photo posts get more visibility, so people think that we only think about News Feed," Flynn says, "but private sharing is a really, really, important thing for Facebook." That message came through most clearly at the company's Home launch event, where Chat Heads were shown to sit (and bounce) on top of Home, a piece of Android software CEO Mark Zuckerberg called "the best version of Facebook ever." The News Feed may get stale, but Facebook's betting that private messaging never will.


Hacked together

In early 2012, Mark Zuckerberg initiated a company-wide shift towards putting "mobile first." From Messenger to News Feed, each team was responsible for its own mobile experiences across all platforms. The Photos team had recently launched Facebook Camera (in late-May 2012), and Facebook wanted to create more experiences that felt as natively mobile. But among all of Facebook’s mobile products, one was growing fastest: Messenger, which had launched in August 2011. Today, more than ten billion messages are sent each day using Facebook — up from one billion back in 2009. Facebook will not disclose what portion was sent using Messenger, but says that mobile messages have quadrupled since last year. Also worth noting is the number of private messages sent using Facebook for Every Phone, a pared down version of the social network for feature phones, which has has increased by 10x in the last year, Facebook says.

Director of Product for messaging Peter Deng saw the writing on the wall: the next age of Facebook might not be about the public web space, but about the more private mobile space. While Mark Zuckerberg's mission has always been "to make the world more open and connected," users were flocking to private mobile experiences like Messenger and apps like WhatsApp, Kik, Viber, Skype, KakaoTalk, and others. At the time, the mobile version of Facebook was essentially a mobile web News Feed filled with photos that took forever to load. Aside from a late-summer update that improved Facebook’s notoriously slow mobile app, the company seemed to be stuck in a rut, turning out new mobile features a few weeks after competitors proved them viable. The company’s first mobile phone collaborations with HTC were essentially feature phones with blue buttons to post status updates.

"We realized there's a huge opportunity here," Deng says, "because these devices are always logged on as you. They're always on and always with you." New private messaging services continued to pop up all over the board, each with its own special feature. Voxer popularized sharing voice clips, Snapchat introduced self-destructing "ephemeral" pictures, and LINE introduced stickers, enormous emojis you can buy by the pack. One by one Facebook assimilated these concepts into Messenger.

Mobile-screensThe next age of Facebook might not be about the public web, but about the more private mobile space

"Move fast and break things," read countless signs on the walls of Facebook headquarters. A long string of experiments led Facebook to imitate others, but also to build a holistic vision for how messaging should work across platforms. Zuckerberg described the "Hacker Way" in a letter to investors in February 2012: "Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once."

Poke, a shameless Snapchat clone, notoriously took just ten days to produce — suggesting that Facebook had plenty of great engineers, but lacked inspiration. "At the end of the day, we look at what users are demanding," Deng says. "Every week, I get an email from the user operations team saying 'here are the top requested features and here are the top bugs.'" Yet when asked about what make "ephemeral" sharing apps like Snapchat appealing to Facebook, Deng responded: "I don't really think much about, to be honest." He's more interested in finding out what makes a Snapchat conversation richer than a text conversation.

Poke may be more polished than Snapchat, but it didn't go viral and received mostly negative publicity. Yet, what matters most to the ex-Googler Deng is gathering data and making the most of his experiments, whether they succeed or fail. "What Poke showed us was that there’s a desire for both intimacy and reach," says Aaron Goldsmid, Product Manager on iOS. Facebook discovered that Poke users often sent the same message to multiple friends, and subsequently built an as-.yet-unnamed feature that lets you contact multiple friends individually within Messenger. The new feature may be useful when it launches in the coming weeks, but it sounds a lot like "broadcast," a feature WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messenger have offered for years.

Stickers, also launching today on iOS and Android, help paint yet another picture of Facebook miles behind mobile rivals. The company partnered with the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, as well as with some top-tier digital illustrators like David Lanham, but as with Poke, well-constructed features have never been the issue. Snapchat hit the streets first, as did LINE, which reportedly earns more than $3.75 million per month selling stickers.

The goal is to encompass "the full spectrum of communication," as Goldsmid says. "When you look at what people are gravitating towards, the things we should focus on are very obvious," Deng says, but what about trying something new, or something innovative, or something bold? Along with turning out features that ape other messenger clients, Facebook was also working on something unique and innovative. Chat Heads were ready for prime time. It was a fresh UI idea combining SMS and Messenger to form something much more important: an always-on connection with friends.


Facebook finds a new home

Two weeks ago, Facebook made clear that the next big step for Messenger, but also for Facebook, lies on Android. The company partnered with HTC to produce a smartphone — a phone that elevates messaging above sharing statuses and taking photos. It spent months rewiring Android to serve one end goal: keeping you better connected with Facebook friends. "If you think about the problem we're trying to solve, we can solve it on Android 100 percent of the time, because we can have Chat Heads available inside other apps," says Henry Bridge, Product Manager on Facebook Messenger for Android and Chat Heads. Since the summer of 2012, what’s changed is the problem Facebook is addressing. During the presentation, Zuckerberg repeated over and over that 23 percent of the time spent on smartphones is spent using Facebook.

The first step was designing a new user interface from scratch. "I'd always heard these horror stories, where everybody [says] ‘are you gonna learn all the Android paradigms?’ and ‘Is it gonna take a long time to get up to speed on designing for Android?’" Flynn says, "and really, none of it makes sense. You're designing a product for people, and it doesn't matter if it's on Android or iPhone or Windows Phone or whatever it is." Facebook approached building Home and Chat Heads not as if they were apps, but as if they were something new. "We built an entire physics engine that everything runs on," he says. "It's more like your app is built like a game, as opposed to built with app components."

"Nobody was shouting at us asking ‘Where's the blue bar? This is a Facebook product!'"

"There's a difference between the aesthetic we've chosen for Facebook Home and for Chat Heads from other traditional Android apps," Bridge said, "but really we just wanted to create something that felt great and looked beautiful for users." And what they came up with is barely recognizable as Facebook. "Nobody was shouting at us asking ‘Where's the blue bar! This is a Facebook product!’" Flynn says.

The second step was actually building Home and Chat Heads using the Android SDK. Bridge and the Android team spent months rewriting key parts of Android like "scroll view," "list view," and "pagers" so popping in and out of chat conversations felt silky smooth. They also had to optimize system resources so an always-running version of Messenger wouldn’t zap battery life. Flynn insists that they’ve only scratched the surface of what Facebook could do with Android. Messenger for Android already integrates your onboard SMS texts, a smart way to consolidate your conversations while keeping you inside Facebook. Google Maps, Flynn says, could let you send a location by picking up a map and dropping it on a friend’s Chat Head.


The next all-nighter

In Facebook’s latest commercial for Home, a nameless employee idly flips through his Cover Feed and texts friends as Mark Zuckerberg drones on, unable to tear his eyes away from his phone’s screen. The nameless employee is none other than Joey Flynn. Chat Heads wasn’t the first time Flynn had his hands (and his mouse) on something big. He previously led design work on Timeline for mobile, a key part of Facebook’s mobile strategy. "We pulled so many all nighters," Flynn once said. "Everyone's there at 4AM on a Saturday night, but there's no second guessing your life choices. A real sense of camaraderie got us through it."

The story doesn’t seem all so different with Chat Heads, which in hindsight feel like much more than handy icons for access to texting. They feel like part of the "next Facebook," a social network — but also a utility, like Gmail, for communicating with friends. With Home and Chat Heads, Facebook is preying off the most addictive experiences it can currently provide: News Feed and private messaging.

Back when Flynn designed Timeline for mobile, he remarked that Android presented a great challenge. Today, Android is a big opportunity for Facebook. Flynn and co's invention works best on Android, and it’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Facebook, like Google, will continue dedicating resources to its iOS apps, but Android offers a more potent strategic opportunity. It also offers a chance for Facebook to be creative in ways it hadn’t before, to build a mobile communications experience from the ground up. A year and a half later, Facebook is finally mobile-first, but may have just found its first killer app.

Additional reporting by Dieter Bohn
Video shot by Jordan Oplinger and Billy Disney
Edited by Billy Disney
Sound mix by John Lagomarsino
Design by Scott Kellum