Cameron Moll: why perfect isn’t good enough

Cameron Moll

Cameron Moll

Head of Product Design, Facebook Events, Facebook

Cameron Moll is a speaker, author, and design leader. His work has been featured by NPR, The Atlantic, Forrester Research, and many others.

Currently Cameron manages the design team for Facebook Events, which is used by 700 million people every month. Previously he founded Authentic Jobs in 2005 and was its CEO when it was acquired in 2016. He’s also the maker of Structures in Type, a series of letterpress posters that re-imagine buildings as if designed entirely with type. He’s is the co-author of the best-selling CSS Mastery (2006, 2009) and author of the self-published Mobile Web Design (2007). [via].

This article is from a series of interviews that took place at the Front Conference in 2018.

Eli: Cameron Moll, product design manager for Facebook Events, welcome to DesignBetter.Co Conversations.

Cameron: Glad to be here.

Eli: Awesome to have you. So I did a little background Googling, and I found an article you wrote, called “10 things I wish every design student knew.” I teach undergrads, I’ve been doing it for about five years, and a lot of what you said really resonated with me. Could you talk a little bit about why the greatest output of your career will be relationships?

Cameron: It’s a great question. I don’t think we realize—especially I didn’t realize it when I was younger—that we’re not just building products and building things, but we’re working with human beings in that process. It’s pretty rare that you have the luxury of doing something completely isolated from other people. I’m not as invested in them now, but I used to do letterpress posters as a side project, and it was just me. Or so I thought. I didn’t realize that there was this interplay with the person that would do the printing, with the audience that I was interacting with that was interested in the artwork and that would eventually buy the artwork. So when I started realizing younger in my career, and certainly now, that it’s human beings that we work with to ship the very things that we build, I really started to understand how important it is to get those relationships right and how much those are going to matter many years from now, long after the work is done.

Watch Cameron Moll discuss three aspects of alignment within systems, recorded at the Front Conference in June of 2018.

I have friends I forged relationships with on Twitter or at a conference 13 years ago or in other areas, and it’s like a high school reunion every time I got to a conference now. These are people that I just absolutely love being around, that I’ve learned from. So when I talk to students, I tell them, “Look, you and I might be sitting in a rocking chair on a porch at some point, and I’m pretty sure that we’re not going to care as much about the stuff we built as much as we’ll care about how we got there and how you and I worked together to make that happen.” So I try to, at least with design students—certainly with older professionals as well—but definitely with design students, help them understand you’re not just building product, you’re building relationships.

Eli: Students often come to me in this phase where they’re graduating, they’re really nervous about what the next steps are, what that first job is going to be. And then there’s also the secondary thing where “it’s spring in my senior year and what am I missing out on? What do I need to accomplish before I leave?”

And I tell them something very similar, that it’s really about the people you meet here, and to take advantage of the wonderful professors they have access to, and their friends, obviously, because that’s the stuff that they’re going to remember 15, 20, 40, who knows, maybe they’ll be living 90 years from now.

Cameron: We sometimes forget, too, that you really can’t ship great products without great relationships. And I’ve made the mistake before, too, of looking at a relationship with a peer as a tool to get a job done, rather than a critical input to getting a job done. It’s just a matter of changing your perspective about how you view the people that you work with.

Eli: In the same article, you also said that “the only way to successfully ship products is to ship imperfect products.” I really love that quote. Could you talk a little bit about why that’s the case?

Cameron: I’m a perfectionist at heart and have been for a very long time, and it’s really only in the last few years that I’ve realized that that approach has served me quite well throughout my life and career, but it’s also inhibited some of the things I would have put out into the world if I weren’t trying to approach it with a perfectionist lens.

Today especially, with how quickly we can put digital products out into the world and get data feedback and so forth on those products very quickly, it’s even more important that we look at shipping product as an opportunity to get it right instead of expecting that you’re going to get it 100 percent right the very first time. We never do. I never do.

If we realize that it’s only going to be 99 percent or 90 percent or even sometimes 50 percent right, then we put that out there and we allow the public, we allow ourselves if we’re dogfooding the products we build, to then get it to as close to 100 percent as we can. But we can’t do that without feedback.

I have made the horrible mistake before of spending almost a year on a project before really putting it out in the wild for critical feedback only to find that the year of time was not well spent because what I put out there was not exactly something that people needed. It wasn’t solving the problem that I thought it was solving and, had I taken time to ship something I wasn’t 100 percent satisfied with, but got it out sooner, it would have given me the opportunity to get to the right thing faster.

Eli: That also holds true, not just for your users, your customers, but also for other teams, your engineering team, that if you’re sitting in your design silo designing away and your not getting it to them in a rougher state, giving them a chance to give feedback, you’re going to hit a wall.

Cameron: We have to look at the other side of the spectrum, right? We don’t want to be shipping stuff that’s terrible. But the best designers that I’ve worked with will balance. They pit these two things as if they’re fighting against each other, and that is quality and shipping. So you’re trying to put the best quality thing out there but as quickly as you can.

When you allow those two things to be in this constant tussle, that’s kind of when you hit the sweet spot of, “Okay, I’m operating in a space where it’s not 100 percent, but it’s getting out there sooner to get feedback on it.” And it’s hard to operate in that state, but you know it’s an idealistic state that I think we can all strive for.

Eli: So Facebook has over 2 billion users, huge influence on the way that people across the world communicate and share information, and the events platform you work on is used by 700 million people every month. Have recent events changed how designers of Facebook are addressing challenges of designing product with such far-reaching impact?

Cameron: I don’t know that it’s changed how we build the products we build, how we concept those ideas, how we discuss those concepts internally. I have been absolutely astounded at the caliber of people that I work with every day. I’ve been in the industry almost 20 years, and for me to come to a company like Facebook relatively recently, as of about a year and a half ago, and to see the kinds of people that are at Facebook is to me just, it’s amazing that those kinds of individuals are working on the products we work on every day.

I think when you operate at the size that we operate at, at the scale that we operate, there will always be a critical audience of the things that you put out into the world. It’s very challenging for people to work at Facebook: on one hand because you have such a global, critical audience of everything you produce, but on the other hand, it gives you an opportunity to get things right, right? So we talked a little bit earlier about shipping imperfect products. We try to ship the best experience as we can build and to get that as close to perfection as possible. But we know that we’ll never get it there fully, so we inevitably we have to ship something that’s imperfect.

There’s a very genuine desire amongst the people I’ve seen and work with every day to try to put the best thing out there and then let the critical feedback that happens play out in the media or play out even in conversations with friends and family members and so forth and then respond to that feedback. One of the best things we can do as a company, one of the best things any company can do is respond to the feedback that you get from users as you put those products into the real world, because despite your best planning and despite your best intentions, things may not land as you expect them to. The way you adapt to that feedback is maybe just as critical as trying to get the thing right in the first place.

Eli: That makes sense. Let’s do one final two-part question here. Are there any books or blogs or podcasts you found recently that are having an impact on you?

Cameron: Of course. So I’ll start with the books question. This one comes up often and I’m pretty open about this. I don’t read books. I rarely ever read books. I’m a bit of an anomaly in that regard because I know a lot of my good friends read books regularly. I’ve just never found that for me to be the way that I consume information. I try to be open about that because I know there are other people out there that for them, books don’t resonate really well, and I think it’s okay, that if you’re not a book reader, that’s okay. There are other ways to consume that information. Blogs, podcasts, I don’t consume a lot of recurring content from sources nowadays. Part of it is a time constraint. At work I’m just on 100 percent with the products we’re dealing with. Outside of work, I’ve got five kids. My oldest is about to graduate high school, so I rarely have time to watch TV. The things you would do to consume information for me just don’t typically happen, and I’m okay with that at this point. I think I get enough information from the people I work with. I do check in on some daily tech news sites, and I listen to NPR One on the drive to work. You know, that kind of thing.

I rely on some of the inputs from the people around me at this point, not to inform and shape my views and the information I have, but I work with some great people who are tapped into what’s happening and, inevitably, with social media, all it takes is scanning your timeline on Twitter or Facebook to quickly come up to speed with what’s happening out there.

I do think there is a need to be more intentional, even for me, to be more intentional about the kinds of information I consume, and I am. There are some things in my life that I consume daily with a lot of great intent. It’s just at this point 20 years in, it’s not necessarily tech that I’m starving for.

Eli: I appreciate you being frank about the reading thing. There’s probably even intra-family variability around this because I have three brothers, I read a lot, and two of my brothers don’t read much at all and one of them reads sometimes. So it’s a roll of the dice, where you land on that particular interest.

Earlier in your career, or even now, is there one person or people that have really influenced the way you approach your work?

Cameron: Yeah, there’s a ton of people. Let me see if I can just give you a couple of examples off the top of my head. I’ll share one mentor who was very frank and direct with me. I don’t think that’s the approach to take all the time, but he was. It was when I was in college. I started college wanting to be a music composer for film scores, and I was prepping for full entrance into the program. I was working, I was playing percussion at the time, working with my percussion coach, and I, quite frankly, wasn’t as good as I should have been at that point.

So we were practicing one day, and he stops me and he says, “You know, you might want to think about a different career, because I’m not sure this music thing is going to work out for you.” I was just absolutely floored. I fought against that feedback and tried to coach myself, saying, “You did great.” I let it sit for a couple weeks and came to grips with what he was talking about—it wasn’t that I didn’t have the self esteem to recognize that I could push through that, but I saw in his feedback something that I wasn’t seeing.

I took that to heart and ended up changing majors later because of that, not just because of that one experience but other things too. And that path, that change, that pivot, put me on the path that I followed today, so I have a lot of gratitude for his candor and directness in giving me that feedback. I still like to think at some point I’ll compose film scores, maybe that’s still in the cards for me, but that’s down the road. So that’s an example that sticks out in my mind.

I’ll give you one more example. I won’t say who it is because this might give away some of the backstory behind this, but I was working on a project and I was rendering some letterforms. I’ve not studied typography formally. The pivot that I made was not into design, it was actually into business management, and from that, I kind of fell into web design in the late 90s, so everything I’ve learned has been self taught. So I was doing letterforms for a project, and I took it to a mentor who I admire just a ton. If I told you who it was, you would be impressed with who this individual is and how much knowledge they have about letterforms, type, and so forth.

I took it to this individual and I said, “Can you give me some feedback? I’m not sure if these letterforms are where they need to be.” His feedback to me was a glowing review of the work I had done, and it gave me the confidence that I needed to get that project to completion. It definitely was not anywhere close to perfect. It was far from it. But that boost of confidence was what I needed to get over the hurdle of feeling like I suck and then finishing the project and putting it out there.

And it did end up being quite successful, but when I go back, this is now maybe eight years removed from that experience, when I go back and look at that work, I’m like, “This is horrific work.” I don’t think this individual was being honest with me at all, but rather chose to look at maybe the strengths of where it was headed and say, “This is great. It’s getting there. Here’s what you need to do.” Instead of saying like that percussion teacher, “This is horrific. You should go find a different career.”

For me the best mentors have been the ones that have said the thing that needed to be said at the right time. Because there is no perfect approach to mentoring or to receiving mentorship, a lot of it has to do with context and timing and for me those mentors over the years have really helped me understand how important it is to land the right message at the right time.

Eli: One of my mentors over the years as an undergrad, my advisor, had a really great knack for giving that right advice at the right time. I really appreciate that still because whenever I get stuck, it’s pretty powerful to think back on. Well Cameron, thank you so much for being on Conversations. We really appreciated having you here.

Cameron: Thanks so much. This has been great.


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