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.
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.
By Ellis hamburher

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