Jordan Honnette: I'm Not a Futurist


Jordan, we’re pretty excited to have you be the host of our upcoming event in April!
(Laughs) You know, you guys are making a huge mistake.

You keep telling me that – so, what do you do?
I’m a product designer for Facebook.

What do you design?
Yeah… you know I actually don’t know what I’m allowed to say about that.

Feel free to be as vague as possible as to the description…
Well, without getting into specifics that I probably can’t detail, my role is to essentially figure out how to inject the Facebook voice and brand and point of view into the product.

Facebook is a company often associated with forward thinking. Do you feel like you are a forward thinker?
No, I don’t.

That’s surprising. So you wouldn’t consider yourself a futurist?
Not in the way that I think a lot of people see it. I feel like that label has a lot of baggage to it. Do I think about the future? Yes – I mean, the first time I wore an Occulus headset, I immediately began to think of futures based on that. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying I am a futurist because as problem solvers I feel like we haven’t really solved our current problems. So I don’t feel called to waste my time predicting future ones until we solve the ones we have today.

So you believe that being a futurist is being consumed with tomorrow’s problems as opposed to todays?
Obviously that’s not 100% true because when you prevent future problems in the present, that’s solving the future – I get that time moves that way. But for me, I think back to grad school and how we were always talking about future problems and I always thought to myself, there’s like hundreds of problems that exist today that we still haven’t solved so why would I worry about solving new ones? Because of that, I think that my tie to the future is more about new technology and new ideas that we can apply to today’s problems, instead of fantasizing about the future problems that we don’t know about yet.

But by that definition you can say that as a designer you are investing in the future by trying to solve today’s problems.
Yeah, I mean Facebook was founded on the idea that a more connected world is a better one, so yeah – in that regard I can say I’m a futurist – I’m trying to make the world a better place. It’s hard not to have some doubts these days… I mean the one platform where people talk about politics the most and I worked on a product that helped register 2 million people to vote, but given today’s post-election climate (laughs) I wonder if I shouldn’t have worked so hard on that! But yeah, I 99% agree that I’m working on building a better future.

Is that why you chose Facebook to work at as opposed to another place where you’re solving other types of problems?
Yes, it’s hard to match the amount of impact that I feel like I have at Facebook – just because of the sheer scale of it. The stuff we’re doing is shaping tomorrow.

And as such, are you someone who chases that future in the way that you design?
5 Years ago I would have said yes. But today, I find myself now chasing after the idea of truths. Chasing after the future is misleading for me since I feel like there are truths that never change and if you find those than that prepares you for the future.

For those of us who also seek truth in the future of our own lives and as part of our spiritual journey, how do those worlds collide?
I think that’s one of the reasons that I love working at Facebook. Everyday I get to go to work and know that what I do is going to have a direct impact on human connection which I think is a big part of spirituality and a huge part of my walk with God. The idea that I can connect people to each other and have meaningful relationships and share love with each other and be kind to each other – I get to show care on such a large scale for people – it’s an impossible thing to do but it’s a pretty great way to live out what Jesus taught.

Is this a missions field of sorts for you? I mean you could go build a well in Africa as an example, but does the work you’re doing connecting the world through Facebook give you that feeling?
There’s a statistic that for every 10 people that are connected to the internet, 1 person is lifted out of poverty. There is proven power in connection to information and to other people, so even though I don’t directly work on projects for the under connected, I work for a company that does that so in everything I do, I need to be mindful of that. There are a couple of things that highlighted that for me, the first being when I had to work on the Android platform for the first time and realizing that I needed to serve the larger world audience than just the people on iPhones 7s and the second being when I had to test a product in Thailand. And I was like, I don’t know how to set characters in a non-Roman character alphabet! In doing these, you just begin to realize how big the world is that God created and the scale of that is unbelievable.

I feel like as designers or builders of the future, we have to do the same thing that Christ followers are doing when we think about the future, which is die to ourselves and our preconceived ideas of what we think we know.
Yeah, that comes right away when you sit in your first user focus session and the user does everything you think they wouldn’t be doing. You learn pretty quickly you do not know what is going on. I mean, the biggest thing for me – and it’s so cliché since I work in tech and for the company that has the largest audience in the world – but everytime I think about scale I’m reminded of how small of a part that I play. And that’s something that’s so beautiful that can only be explained by God. It kind of draws me near to Him.

Is that what also draws you to designing for the future? What is the most attractive thing for you?
The trend that I’m most excited about is bringing the care of humanity to technology. There’s some brutalism involved in algorithms as they are today, sure they’re advanced but we can’t solve for every fringe case. We’re working with artificial intelligence to get things to that place, but it’s not there yet. To see a future where we can genuinely express care and compassion to one another at scale is really, really fascinating. All of a sudden someone could put on a headset and be transported to an environment of extreme poverty and can experience that scene first hand. The power to create empathy would be unmatched to this point. Sure, we’ve had film and photography, but to interact, investigate and look around – there’s something that’s so much more real when you can control the viewing and narrative which brings a lot more empathy to the table.

Not a lot of people get into design for reasons like care and empathy, is this where you began?Honestly, I didn’t start caring about people until recently.

What drew you to design originally?
A cracked copy of photoshop and turning my family photos into really funny things.

Did you know you would always be a designer?
No. I was never pushed to be creative in any sense. I still don’t see myself as artistic as far as that word goes.

Have you always cared about the future and design?
No (laughs). I wanted to go to school, I liked computers and I didn’t want to work that hard and I saw movies where designers got to play ping pong at lunch. I was in. I saw them having nerf battles and said, that looks pretty cool. Better than being in a cubicle! As you start to learn about design in school, you realize that the whole premise of design is that it is a care for the future. Milton Glaser spoke at Facebook the other day and talked about the difference between art and design and his definition of design is taking something that already exists and you’re making it better. That definition in itself shows a care for the future – you’re talking about something that was and something that it’s going to be and that we may as well make it better in the time that we have it for. It’s just something that comes naturally to designers. Also, I’ve always been a competitive person and when I was at school I guess I looked around the classroom and said If I’m going to do this, I want to be good at it.

When did it turn from a care for yourself to one for others where you began to take this calling more seriously?
I had this silly idea that was … well maybe it wasn’t so bad. I was working at a startup that was focused on a mobile wallet for the cashless consumer. I started to look at the use case of the homeless person asking for change. I realized that I didn’t have a problem giving them money, but I would always answer that I didn’t have change which was true. The problem I had was that I didn’t get to make a choice because there was a fundamental difference in the way we were trying to exchange currency. It lead me to go on this long thought journey of how can give change to people in a world that doesn’t use change?

Do you feel a lot of your colleagues think this way?
Yes and no, sometimes when they say a word like pattern they’re talking about UI patterns and interaction patterns, visual components. And that can be true, but I feel like it can also apply to the ways in which we think bigger about bigger things. So we’re saying the same words but we’re talking about two different things. It’s not always just about the medium. Because learning a medium isn’t hard. Learning the truths are hard. I feel like in order to be future proof you just have to be really good at distilling your thoughts and finding the truths that travel between these mediums.

So, future proof this statement – in 10 years, design will be …
The same.

And earlier you said that truth should be our pursuit. Some would say that there are always new truths to discover, does this give you hope, even in design?
Naively, yes (laughs). It gives me personal hope that there is good in the world and it can translate. I’m fully drinking the cool-aid on this but what gives me hope is the power of connection. I may as well be wearing a Facebook T-shirt. The value of hosting your brunch photos will always be questioned, but there are certain things that have happened because we’ve become more connected that are unquestionably valuable. A product that comes to mind is Facebook Safety Check – when there’s a natural disaster and you’re in the Geo-Date of that event, you get automatically pinged and you can alert friends and families as to your safety. Power, water and support are also now being made available in those locations because of these greater connections – that gives me hope. There are crappy people in the world, but there are also great people in the world.

One for the road …
The idea that we can connect to great people and leave the crappy people in the Youtube comments section, that gives me great hope.