Insights from Twitter's design team on adapting through the COVID-19 pandemic
At Design Council we're embracing digital bravery as demonstrated by our initiatives to work with our clients virtually. As Senior Digital Manager, I was interested in exploring the recent increased use of Social Media, and more specifically, how their internal teams were using other design-led initiatives to transform ways of working. I caught up with Lisa Ding, a senior product designer at Twitter to find out more.
Currently, Lisa is the design lead on a project that aims to improve the experience of reading conversations on Twitter. Previously, Lisa worked on the Health and Direct Messages teams, as well as, a project to explore strategic design initiatives through research, storytelling, and prototyping. Before Twitter, Lisa worked at Google and attended Carnegie Mellon University for her master's degree in Human-Computer Interaction.
What are the main goals and objectives of Twitter this year?
Like many other companies, we’ve had to shift our strategy this year to adapt to life during COVID-19, both in terms of how we work and the areas that we’re focusing on. Our goal is to serve the public conversation, and a great deal of that conversation at the moment revolves around this global pandemic that’s affecting almost everyone.
There are a few specific things that I’m proud to see Twitter working on. We have a dedicated Explore page about COVID-19-related news, so there’s an easy access point for people seeking out reliable information from credible sources. We’re also verifying Twitter accounts that are providing credible updates around COVID-19, and we are working with global public health authorities to identify experts. Lastly, we’ve built a new dedicated search prompt to ensure that when you come to the service for news about COVID-19, you’re met with credible, authoritative information first.
In terms of how the Design team aims to support the objective of helping to serve the public conversation, we are driving the process for creating a vision of what specific features might help us achieve this feat in the short and long term. We are partnering with stakeholders across Product, Engineering, Data Science, and Research to make sure we are solving the right problems and formulating solutions that directly address those problems.
How has the COVID-19 outbreak changed the way you have had to work?
Twitter had already been in the process of building a more distributed workforce, so the transition to working from home has been pretty seamless for the most part. The company uses Slack and Google Hangouts for most of our internal communications, and the Design team uses Figma for most of our design work. I was based in San Francisco and worked at the Twitter office there for four years before requesting to move to a smaller, distributed office in Boulder, Colorado. Among the deciding factors for making that move was the feeling that the company was already moving towards more distributed and remote work, so I thought I would have plenty of support in this transition.
Just recently, Twitter's CEO, Jack Dorsey, announced that Employees can work from home indefinitely if we choose to.
What processes have you started to adapt that will change the way you and your team would work in the long-run?
My current project has always had at least one person among Product, Engineering, or Design who wasn’t based in San Francisco, so we’ve implemented good processes for making sure that we had proper documentation of ideas and discussions, and that work could be done asynchronously. We use a combination of Slack channels, Google Docs, Hangouts, and JIRA tickets to make progress on and track our work.
On the Design team, we’ve also adapted to working across different locations. For example, the Conversations Design Team, which I’m a part of, is currently spread across locations with 3 time zones: San Francisco, Boulder, and New York City. When we’ve set up brainstorms and other collaborative workshops, such as Design Sprints, we’ve done so through Figma boards that allow us to write virtual sticky notes that we can sort and vote on.
We’ve also become quite efficient at providing critiques in a more distributed setting. In the past, when I’ve been dialled into design critiques that were mostly based in San Francisco, I was the only person on Hangouts. My participation was quite a different experience than now, and I struggled to feel like I could participate in the same way as everyone else who was sitting in the same room. Our current circumstances have ushered in a remote-first approach to doing our work which seems to have levelled the playing field in terms of communication norms.
Has there been a noticeable impact on the way your users are engaging with Twitter?
In our last earnings report, Twitter announced that user growth (measured by mDAU, or monetizable daily active users) went up by 24%. I can’t speak for the whole company but the fact that people are turning to Twitter during the pandemic has instilled in me a sense of responsibility to make sure that Twitter is dependable as a service and providing the most credible information. Twitter has historically also been a place for people to have meaningful conversations, connect with like-minded people, and to find humour during stressful times, so we should make sure those needs are satisfied, as well. We have a number of projects on our roadmap that continue to explore ideas in those areas and to encourage those who are using Twitter for news to use the service for other purposes, such as connecting with communities.
Are there any design / UX areas you are working on in response to the huge incline on working from home culture and social distancing being the 'new norm'?
I think it’s natural that during times of social distancing and isolation, more people are using platforms like Twitter to find connections with people that they’d normally get from being at a place of work. Just today, I came across a Tweet that observed more developers (software engineers) seem to be active on Twitter recently, and if that is indeed the case, I can venture a guess that more discussions among that community are happening on Twitter.
One area that I’m personally interested in and have been working on for the last year is helping to improve the experience of reading conversations on Twitter. We’ve heard from our users that they have a hard time following the flow of and navigating through conversations. Twitter is unique in that any Tweet can have an infinite number of replies, but for many, it’s difficult to find those multiple branches of replies. Our hypothesis is that if we can keep most of the conversation on one page, with the ability to expand and collapse parts of it, people will have an easier time navigating and reading the replies. There are plenty of interesting discussions happening on our services, and we want to make sure that we can surface all the best ones.
What would be your advice to other organisations looking to embrace the world of design and digital to improve internal processes and ways of working?
Building team culture is an important facet of being a distributed/remote workforce, and my team has adapted to this over a period of time. Because we were already distributed before COVID-19, we had some processes in place that facilitated doing our work asynchronously and from different locations. Now, with everyone being remote, we have just extended those practices. While I don’t enjoy spending my whole day on video conferences, I see occasional team meetings and social events as a good way to connect with people.
While being a largely distributed company has its challenges, I do think that Twitter’s shift to that way of working has revealed many advantages. Based on my observations, the Twitter Design team has been able to attract some amazing new talent because of our willingness to be flexible with geography.
Another positive change is how much more documentation is a part of our process. In the past, I have often had to seek out people who have been at the company for a long time to get historical context about a previous project because so many conversations were done in person. Now, at least on my team, whenever we have a new topic that requires input across the team, we collaborate on a Google Doc to discuss the ideas and to document the pros and cons of each. I imagine that in a few years, those documents will still be useful for people looking to fill in their knowledge gaps.
It takes investment for a company to improve its processes to support distributed and remote work, but once those are in place, the company can really reap the benefits of that flexibility.
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