Remember, if you can, how life was earlier this year before everything changed. Only a few months ago, we shook hands in offices, sneezed in airports, and had birthday gatherings in restaurants. Across the globe, people squeezed into crowded elevators and snuggled friends’ new babies. The world spun as it always had, with little thought to how a global pandemic would soon shift the way we lived, worked, and showed our loved ones that we cared.
“We had always talked about adding a seventh reaction,” says Brian Frick, Creative Director for Iconography and Emoji at Facebook. Brian was one of the lead designers on the original reactions—Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry—that launched in 2015, and based on the team’s data on emoji, sticker usage, and qualitative research, creating a new reaction was next on the list. It would have a similar sentiment to Love—but with a twist.
“Love already works really well,” explains product manager Misbah Uraizee. “But we also tried to find a reaction that can work for use cases where it's not purely about love, like when someone wants to show an emotion like sympathy, support, or care. Something beyond Love.”
Tali Krakowsky Apel, Director of Facebook’s Visual Systems team, knows of the ocean of nuances that exist between what a heart icon represents and the human need for togetherness. “There was this notion around the idea of giving support,” she says. “That’s really where it began, and we started exploring different metaphors for how that can be expressed.”
A hug started to feel like the perfect sentiment. Fidji Simo, VP of Product Management, agreed that this was the direction to go in. "During this time, people really need to show care for each other in big and small ways, and we wanted this expression of compassion to be available on Facebook,” she says. But despite the buy-in from Facebook’s leadership for a hug reaction—as well as the desire for it from people who use the platform—a problem loomed.
“If you look at the history of emoji,” Brian says, “the hug has always been a spectacular failure. It just doesn’t track. It looks like jazz hands, or being excited, or two gummi bears squished together.” In addition to this design challenge, real estate in the reactions tray is exceedingly sparse, especially on mobile. Given the fact that the team had all of 16 pixels to work with, Brian also thought a hug was especially difficult to draw at a size that would resonate with people who use Facebook.
For these reasons, early design explorations of a hug reaction were largely devoid of anything resembling a human form. There were ribbons, flowers, globes, hands, arms, and a whole lot more. For a time, the team focused on studying the research and iterating on these designs, with the launch at an undetermined point in the future.
Then came COVID-19. And very quickly, this seventh reaction became more urgent.
For the team, it also got a lot more complicated. All of a sudden, hugging was something the world wanted to do, but couldn’t. Considerations about the potential discomfort that an unwanted hug brings also had to be addressed.
With so many ways a hug could be interpreted, the challenge then became creating a way of emoting that was relevant for the age of coronavirus, but could also extend beyond it. Something that lived across a spectrum of emotions, from an uplifting moment, to a sense of loss, sadness, or worry—and was distinct enough from the Love reaction to stand on its own.
Content strategists are hard-wired to be creative, empathetic problem solvers. “People wanted to be able to hug each other from far away,” says Talia Ledner, a content strategist on the Feed Experience team, “and we wanted to provide that for them in a lightweight way. Something genuine and helpful.”
Under the leadership of John Evans, VP of Product Design, designs were created, animation was added, and rounds of naming began. What exactly would the new reaction be called? Talia sought to create a name that captured the sentiment of the emotions that could be conveyed. After multiple discussions with Visual Systems content strategist Katie Heller and the larger team around togetherness, connection, and support, Care became the name.
At the same time, final designs were created and introduced to an internal group of employees. True to form, the fast-feedback culture of the Facebook company kicked in, and comments and suggestions quickly followed.
“There’s this old adage at Facebook,” says Katie, “that feedback is a gift. If this company wasn’t so feedback-driven, I don’t think we would have landed where we are.” With the clock ticking, a flood of new renderings and animations followed.
While tilting the heart to the side gives more space for the reaction’s facial features, the microexpressions on the face were especially important to get right. “We were looking to make sure that the expression was uplifting and caring, but not explicitly smiling,” Tali adds. “A lot of this work was done in the smile, the corners of the eyes, in the eyebrows and in the animation of the hug.”
Engineering teams faced their own related and unique set of challenges.
“One of the complexities around this was that it was the largest change to reactions since they were first launched in 2015,” explains Odil Nikadambaev, a software engineering manager on Newsfeed Experience. “Our biggest challenge was to go and figure out the impact of a seventh reaction across all of Facebook’s infrastructure. There’s Newsfeed and Stories and Live, as well as the dozens of lesser-known surfaces where reactions are used and viewed.”
It was paramount to have a smooth experience once Care was introduced, and with such a tight turnaround, the Quality Assurance team began testing as soon as they could, seeing whether or not Care showed up in the right places and in the right order on the reactions tray. Finally, Care was ready to be introduced to people who use Facebook.
The fact that the reaction also has to resonate with an audience of well over two billion people is something that everyone on the team was well aware of. Now, with public rollout at completion, Care can be a way for people to express what they’re feeling in different ways: showing comfort, empathy, sympathy, hope, and more.
“From the outside, it might seem like adding a reaction is technically and visually an easy thing to do,’” Misbah says. “But it’s actually extremely complex because of the unique position that Facebook is in. When you’re building for billions of people, there's so much diversity and so many different takes on how people can interpret things that you really have to take into account.”
Brian agrees. “It’s very rewarding to be involved in something like this, that touches so many in some little way.”