For billions of people around the world, WhatsApp is an integral part of daily life. Designing technology that is reliable and easy to use for anyone, anywhere in the world, is no simple task, but the product design leaders at WhatsApp love the challenge and the impact they’re able to have with their work. In this Q&A, Idit Y., VP, Head of WhatsApp Design, Product Design Manager Sheta C. and Product Design Director Cat N. discuss how design impacts the evolution of WhatsApp for the people who depend on it.
To me, designing for WhatsApp is an opportunity of a lifetime. I feel lucky to be working on a product I personally feel so passionate about. I use WhatsApp every day with the people who are closest to me. The most important moments in my life that have not been face-to-face have been on WhatsApp. Designing for people all around the world who rely on this product is simply an honor and the most challenging role I’ve had in my career.
I had the privilege of designing for people in emerging markets for years before I joined WhatsApp, and it’s still what drives me every day. I’m from Israel, and in 2013 I helped build out Meta’s (then Facebook’s) first office in Tel Aviv. At the time, I was one of the first designers at the company who was working outside of the US. That really built up my empathy muscle. You need to understand what it means to be in a country where a lot of features are actually not made for you, and often not even available to you. Before joining WhatsApp, I worked on Facebook Connectivity, helping people to connect to the internet in emerging markets, and Facebook Lite, which is the lightweight version of Facebook for Android phones. I also collaborated with Instagram on their Instagram Lite app.
When people think about designing apps and websites, they often think about the coolest, flashiest experience. But what makes designing for WhatsApp so incredible is creating something that is universal and inclusive, because so many people around the world use it, and their lives are often very different from what we, the designers, experience. Many people who use WhatsApp have limited literacy, low digital fluency or little experience using the internet. It’s a difficult design challenge to develop solutions that feel simple and predictable for everyone who uses WhatsApp, but it’s very important. One key goal for us is to make sure that we’re inclusive from a language standpoint. For example, we recently launched a language selector in Ethiopia and Nigeria that includes Amharic, Oromo and Hausa, languages that many apps don’t support. It’s very powerful to see the reaction from people when they experience a product that is designed for them. Additionally, WhatsApp is an economic lifeline for many businesses, small and large, that use it every day to talk to customers and make sales. That makes it crucial for us to be extra intentional and consistent in every experience we design. I think simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. It’s so much easier to just tack on a new feature or create a button. It takes a lot of effort to get to a design solution that feels intuitive to all the different people who use WhatsApp, but that is what makes it really rewarding.
Empathy is the main driver for everyone across the team, and I think empathy in design is one of the strongest tools that we have to make sure that what we design is actually valuable. When we design, we ask very simple questions: “Would this flow make sense to someone with low digital literacy?” “How can we simplify more?” “How can we help people get the job done?” We use our empathy and knowledge, and we also work closely with UX research to drive insights back to the team to answer these questions. When we focus on the problems we solve for people and really hold ourselves to a high bar for simplicity, the design decisions and craft naturally follow. And we care a lot about the details. It’s incredibly inspiring to me to see how designers at WhatsApp can zoom out and drive strategy for features and systems and a minute later discuss the stroke width of an icon or the exact shade of gray we use for a divider. It shows the level of accountability every designer has for the overall experience. Billions of people rely on WhatsApp. We owe it to them to create features that are genuinely valuable, paying attention to the details and continuously looking for ways to improve our craft.
I’m a design addict, so being surrounded by individuals who have the same drive and passion for design is, first off, what motivates me and makes me excited about being a leader in the community. A big part of what drives me now is the opportunity we have to evolve and shape that community. For so long, there has been a low percentage of women, non-binary people and underrepresented minorities in design. Now more than ever, what motivates me is my ability to advocate for and inspire others who are underrepresented and help build a design community with diverse perspectives. Part of that is showing the different directions design careers can take — there’s not a one-size-fits-all leadership style or career path. Diversity is fostered at all levels at WhatsApp, from encouraging all designers to have a voice in design crits and reviews to the way we shape our culture, recruit and hire. I am based in London, where I lead WhatsApp’s EMEA-wide task force for defining how we create and maintain a positive culture in our new hybrid working environment, and we are laser focused on ensuring every team member feels a sense of belonging.
I see privacy as a fundamental human right. People should be able to trust that the things they hold dear to them are protected, and they should have control over what they share, how they share it and who they share it with. WhatsApp was the first app to bring the security of end-to-end encryption to the masses, and privacy has always been a huge part of our values. One of the things I love about WhatsApp is that it’s private by default. You don’t need to look in your settings and turn something on. The way privacy is built into the design is part of what makes WhatsApp so powerful, and it also speaks to how much we value inclusivity. As WhatsApp evolves, a lot of what we’re designing is aimed at giving people even more control and finding more ways to help people understand what privacy can mean in their experience. For example, we recently added end-to-end encryption for backups. Another important feature for our users is disappearing messages. People can set a timer to determine when a message will disappear, and we also have a feature called “view once,” which allows you to send media that disappears after the recipient has seen it once. In addition, the team just launched many new privacy features — one that enables you to control who can see that you’ve been online and another that gives you the ability to exit a group without notifying everyone in that group. These are great examples of features that help make people feel comfortable being their authentic selves while using WhatsApp.
Good design doesn’t come from working in a vacuum. It’s important to be in lockstep with our cross-functional partners and align on the problem we’re working to solve. The most important thing to consider when we design is the people who will use our product and making sure no one is left behind. WhatsApp has a pillar-based organizational structure, and each pillar has its own high-level strategic goals that ladder up to our overall mission, which is to provide the most private, simplest and seamless messaging experience. Every pillar has cross-functional leads who work together to drive product strategy for their part of the organization. Each function provides a perspective that helps us ensure we are coming up with the right solutions in a holistic way, and design is an integral part of that.
As designers, we always want to look into the future and try to predict people’s needs. By tracing the steps back to the present, we can focus on the ways we need to refine our design thinking today. For WhatsApp, the core mission is focused on communication and connection, and everything we do is about privacy, reliability and simplicity. We all have a fundamental human need to feel connected to the people who are dear to us, and we need to have a sense of belonging within a community. After more than two years of living through a pandemic, we all know more than ever how important it is to have products that help us feel connected to people even when we are physically apart. At WhatsApp, we always aim to design a space where people feel that sense of closeness with the people they care about. In the future, we will have more ways to connect, and that’s exciting to me. I think the biggest inspiration for the new experiences we’ll build moving forward will be our fundamental human need for closeness and community.
How Meta product designers are shaping the future of social connection
Whether you’re a product designer, writer, creative strategist, researcher, project manager, team leader or all-around systems-thinker, there’s something here for you.