This Couple Wants To Change Your Facebook Feed

Sharon Hwang and Mike Matas want you to think of Facebook, and the content and information portals that you and your friends follow, as a museum. This doesn't mean Grumpy Cat's troubled visage should hang alongside Mona Lisa's smile (or should it?), but that Internet denizens ought to remember to take their time and enjoy the photos, articles, statuses, and information absorbed online.
"If you provide better tools for people to create content, it will inspire people to create better content," says Hwang. Also the food aficionado behind MyCookingDiary, she wanted to launch an app that wouldn't just make Facebook more digestible, but be one that she would use to share her amazing snaps and recipes, as well. Instead of having your perfectly crafted status update be a part of the clutter, the intrepid couple want you to think of it as something that can be presented and preserved, well, on paper. And, Facebook itself is letting them do it. "This project is built as a little start-up inside of Facebook...We are going to be launching it just like a start-up," says Mike.
Oh, and if they look familiar to you, it's because Sharon and Mike (and their incredible, jet-set journeys and endeavors) have been on our radar since they shared with us their inspiring San Francisco pad. At the time we spoke to them, we knew they were onto something big at Facebook. Today, we find out just how big.
18-sharon-and-mike-0570Photographed by Michael O'Neal.
What is it like to have your partner in creativity be your partner in life? Did that lead to any interesting challenges or revelations?
Matas: "It's been interesting — and also really nice — working together."
Hwang: "I agree."
Matas: "For starters, we are both designers. But, we have unique points of view of design. I am more on the interactive side of design. I want to see what it is to unfold an article and what are the mechanics behind that. What is the overall structure of the application? And, Sharon is interested in the more detailed design work, like what the typography and layout looks like."
Hwang: "Think about it. Facebook offers such a rich variety of content. It's not just text or photos, but it is a large or short form of text; it's a type of photo, of video, or even a map. So, one of the challenges was to design a very holistic but simplistic system to visually represent all its content. And, when you experience Paper, it is very seamless. You just focus on the content. There is a grid-like graphic design system."
Matas: "Working so closely together has made it possible for us to put our heads together and make these two aspects of the project not separated but integrated."
Hwang: "A lot of collaborations can happen in the same way, but just because we work so closely together, it requires a lot of curating and trial and error. And, by working so closely, we can kind of change things, try things out, experience things, add something, try something else. It makes the working process a lot more organic and flexible."
Matas: "We have a really good understanding of what the other person does, which allows us to function as one unit really well. The project is pretty close to us, personally, because we both enjoy using a product like this ourselves. Sharon does a lot of food blogging and taking amazing food photos and posting them, and I love to take photos when we go on trips and post albums. And, that's something that we do together. This project has been an awesome way for us to not just create what we like to share, but the place we want to share it in."

Do you ever have to work at adjusting work/life boundaries? Working with your partner, do you ever have to clarify a stopping point?

Hwang: "I don't think we have thought that hard about that. It all happens really naturally. We never consciously say, 'Oh, we have to stop working now.' We care so much about this project, but it doesn't affect our personal life or enjoying each other's company."
Matas: "It's not like, when we come home, we can't talk about work. We still want to talk about it. It's kind of cool that we get to work together, and when we come home we can talk about our day together."

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So, what does this mean for the Facebook app? Are you hoping people will use Paper over their old Facebook one?
Matas: "Well, we are releasing it as a separate app, so the existing Facebook app will continue to behave exactly as people use it today. If they are more interested in this experience, they can do that, and if they like the old experience, they can do that. It's leaving it up to audience to see what is best for them."

What sort of user are you imagining will prefer this app?

Matas: "We really don't know. We are not really thinking too much in terms of demographic like that. It honestly has been this project that we started as something because we recognized that it would be great to create an experience that is really focused around presenting content in a focused way. We spent a while building this out, and we are going to wait and see. Hopefully people like it. But, we don't have too many expectations in terms of demographics."

Hwang: "We basically had built a product we all loved. And, by building something we loved so much, we hope that other people will like it, too."
01-sharon-and-mike-0480Photographed by Michael O'Neal.
What was the design inspiration, outside of other apps or projects? What objects or moments did you draw from to create Paper?
Matas: "I personally came from a previous company where we were doing digital-book software that produced really rich, interactive books. When I came to Facebook, I started thinking about how we could take some of those tools that we were building for bigger publishers and scale it down to something that we can give to more people at a more consumer level. That whole thinking came from, well, if you flip through your favorite magazine or a really well-crafted book, that level of production is so much higher than what we get today with a social network. Now that social networks are one of the biggest ways we are communicating, it would be great if we could combine all the good things that we have: being connected to so many people and tools and production-level quality. People shouldn't have to choose. 'Do I want to share this with a lot of people and the people I care about, or do I want to share something that is really nicely presented?' If we could do something that could do both — well, that's something I wanted myself, and I think other people are going to want."
Hwang: "Mike obviously has a really successful history in UI design, and my background is in more graphic design and art direction. And, I actually have worked in a lot of traditional print media in my previous jobs, with book and magazine designs. In a way, it is really interesting to combine our skills together in this project. What I bring in would be a knowledge of traditional typography and layout, and a good system found in traditional books and print design, and Mike knows about things that are presented very well in modern and digital technologies. So, combining the two is actually really interesting and powerful."
What sort of external, non-digital things do you find inspiration in when considering something to be used virtually?

Hwang: "I find inspiration in a lot of things. It is really hard to say just one publication or a few designers. I think, in general, design books and objects have been a great inspiration for both of us. The tactility and experience of holding something in your hand. It would be nice to transport this into digital or social media."
Matas: "If you take a really nice magazine or book, and you are flipping through it, the experience is just so focused or clean. Books don't have that level of technology overlaid in them, like you typically have with a piece of software. When you are holding a book, all you have is a white page with a nice clean layout. As a part of this project, a big goal was to get anything that was not content out of the way in order to let producers have the whole canvas to themselves."
What do you think that these kind of changes mean for news organizations? Does it change the way we consume news or information?
Matas: "We haven't been too focused on news. This app has different sections that you can configure, and the first section is your Facebook news feed, but then you can add other sections around different topics. And, one of those is news, but most of them are general-interest stuff. There is the creator's section with a lot of up-and-coming artists and creative people doing interesting projects."
Hwang: "We have a great section about food and recipes, from larger publications who are publishing some great food articles, but also smaller independent sources, like a food blogger, who might not have a lot of audience yet but have a lot of great content."
Matas: "We wanted to build some new formats and better ways to display content in a social network and make it easier to for people to create that. But, on the other side, we wanted to make it easier to discover stuff that is out there, outside of your friend's circle. If you create something really amazing and want to share it publicly, but you have no audience, it's not very fun. So, by creating some of these other sections, it is like an outlet for some of the other awesome stuff that is happening in the community that you might not have any way of finding out about before.
"It's not just about surfacing content, but about the creators behind the content. Because as you are going through the Flavor section, for example, and you come across a food blogger you really like, you can tap on their name and go into their profile, and then follow them and be a lifetime subscriber."
There is a huge element of discovery, it appears.
Hwang: "Definitely."
Is personalized web and content the future for us?
Matas: "On Facebook, people really think about their friends. But, there is so much outside of that circle that you know that is happening that is really incredible, from big publishers to smaller people who are doing really cool stuff. So, lots of services will do a little sidebar that says, 'Here are some people you may want to follow.' And, instead, this is a way of collecting some of the best examples of content, so you can go through and discover stuff that jumps out at you, and then find the publisher afterward."
How do you maintain a balance when your work is so heavily based on creativity? How do you stay creative?
Matas: "Go in nature. Go on a hike somewhere. Do something that is inspiring but not related to our job."
Hwang: "I love cooking. It's part of my life. For me, I am actually using my hands. It has a crafty aspect that I really enjoy. It is another creative process, but not literally tied to the work I am doing during the day. Small things like that are really important to gain perspective."
Matas: "Both of us always like to have a little project on the side. An extracurricular. Sharon just designed a kimchi label for a Korean restaurant next door."

What are some of your favorite hidden details?

Hwang: "When you share a link to an article, it shows up as a booklet, and you can unfold each of these and it opens up to a really simple browser. We have actually designed a set of special covers for a handful of publishers — from The New York Times, you get The New York Times masthead, or for Time, you get the red border around a cover. It draws from the iconic aspects of the publication and makes it recognizable. We are rolling it out and hoping to add more."

Are you nervous about today's launch?

Matas: "I'm excited! We've been working on it for a while, so it will be cool to have other people be able to play with it, finally."
Download Paper here.

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