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How we built Facebook Shops during COVID-19

Facebook Shops is a big step we’ve taken to enable commerce across our apps. It lets businesses easily create an online store on Facebook and Instagram for free. But more than the story of launching a major new product, the story of Facebook Shops’ development is a story of facing the new realities of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. We saw businesses closing and accelerated our work to help them thrive online in these difficult times.

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Every last graphic and line of code in Facebook Shops was built remotely by teams spanning multiple products (the Facebook app, WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, and the central commerce teams) and offices (London, Tel Aviv, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Menlo Park).

Facebook Shops

Building a product at Facebook is typically a lively, in-person collaboration among engineers, product managers, designers, researchers, and data scientists. But in the case of Facebook Shops, the team that was meant to bring the product to market never made it into the office.

“We had a group of engineers in a hotel, ready to come into the [London] office for a war room,” says Gareth Reakes, the Director of Software Engineering for Commerce Opportunities in Facebook’s London office. “They all had to fly home.” Stay-at-home and social distancing restrictions meant that a planned acceleration in Shops’ development would now have to be done remotely.

Putting Facebook Shops on hold was simply not an option. “We know that connections between businesses and people are absolutely essential to livelihoods,” Reakes said. In 2019, Facebook apps helped businesses in the European Union alone generate sales of over 200 billion euros, which according to standard economic modeling techniques, created an estimated 3.1 million jobs. 

The lockdown was putting a strain on businesses — small businesses, in particular — making online commerce more important than ever. While many small businesses have found creative ways to stay open and serve customers during the pandemic, it has been impossible for others. Facebook’s own State of Small Business Report shows that 31 percent of small and medium-sized businesses are not currently operating.

For Reakes and the rest of the Shops team, there was a sense that Shops could help millions of businesses. What began as a commerce solution was becoming a potential lifeline for business owners and workers. And the race to release Facebook Shops had now gone from a marathon to a sprint. 

“We knew the product could provide relief to businesses affected by COVID-19,” says Reakes. “Now we’re hoping that having a stronger online presence across Facebook’s family of apps allows them to rebound faster.” 

The reality of remote

When thinking of remote work on any scale, it’s always easy to think of the challenges first. Internet connectivity issues, time zone differences, childcare, and travel complications all come to mind. That’s not to mention the difficulty of managing a remote team, whose members are all engaged in different workstreams and different problems and trying to move forward in parallel at an incredible pace on a complicated product.

Fortunately, Facebook was already well equipped for remote work, with tools like Workplace and Portal. “We’re fortunate to have a ton of communication tools that make remote working simpler,” says Tom Richards, a London-based product manager. “There’s also our culture. We always have a bold, clear vision of what we are trying to achieve … Project managers broadcasted decisions in all directions and kept people collaborating and aligned. Whether you were in London, New York, or Tel Aviv, you always knew how far work had progressed.”

Video calling on Workplace lets colleagues communicate easily while working remotely

Engineering Facebook Shops

Facebook Shops makes it easier for businesses to set up their digital storefront and sell products online. In addition to functioning as a single online store, Shops allows businesses to customize and curate their shop. Merchants can showcase their brand with a cover image and accent colors and create product collections themed around seasonal events, promotions, or trends.

Bringing this vision to life for customers meant building powerful artificial intelligence (AI) that could consistently provide shoppers with personalized recommendations within online stores and across pages and apps. 

But Facebook’s engineers rose to the challenge. “We used a mix of computer vision, natural language processing (NLP) techniques, and machine learning (ML) to try and solve some of these problems and provide the buyer with richer search insights,” says Ayelet Lejtman, a Software Engineer based in Facebook’s Tel Aviv office.

A computer vision model identifies and extracts features such as color, material, and design from a product image. Alongside this, an NLP model, which can analyze and contextualize text, pulls details such as color, size, and brand from the text description of a product. Working together, both of these models can create very finely tuned recommendations from someone’s search request.

Shops’ engineers also developed fine-tuned ML algorithms that cluster products into small groups, such as casual summer wear. Lejtman explains that these systems, working in conjunction, allow shoppers to conduct very specific searches (such as for a navy cotton V-neck T-shirt) and for the system to recommend related items (shorts or sandals for someone browsing summer clothing).

This slimmed-down setup allows the system to work efficiently and effectively across thousands of different verticals — from jewelry to clothing to cars — in several different languages. “It can calculate a lot of information from both the [product] image and the [product description] text as fast as possible,” says Lejtman.  

The same highly complex AI also needed to be embedded across Facebook’s family of apps to ensure a uniform customer experience.

The Commerce Manager inside Facebook Shops

Fortunately, engineers weren’t working from scratch in this domain. Shops is the end result of several sessions with different seller segments to gauge their reactions and incorporate some of their feedback.

“We had six years of knowledge about how people shop and how merchants sell across Facebook’s apps,” says Luke Warda, a product design manager in London. “So we took the things that already worked and used them to supercharge the product.” The team behind Shops expects to help onboard and establish tens of thousands of new businesses in the coming months.

Facebook Shop makes it easy for people to find products from businesses they love, discover new ones, and make purchases, all in one place.

But the product launch is just the start of Facebook’s ambitions for the world’s virtual high street. “In the longer term, we want to give merchants even more creative control over their shops,” says Warda. “Then they can stand out in the crowd and let their brand shine.” 

Since announcing Facebook Shops in May, the team has been hard at work making it easier for people to buy and sell across our family of apps. To help people on Facebook discover businesses and products, they’ve launched a new shopping destination in the Facebook app called Facebook Shop. They’ve also added new customization and messaging features, expanded checkout to all U.S. businesses, and added new insights to measure results. Finally, to help businesses connect with customers in new ways, they’ve expanded Live Shopping on Instagram and introduced news features to Live Shopping on Facebook. 

Ultimately, Facebook Shops aims to make shopping seamless for people, and empower anyone — from an entrepreneur to the largest brand — to use our apps to connect with customers and grow their business.

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