Pinterest’s Evan Sharp is building a kinder social network

In an era when Facebook and Twitter have often punted their responsibilities when it comes to politics, harassment, privacy, and our very democracy, an unlikely company has made a series of notable changes focused on the health and happiness of its users: Pinterest.

Within the last two years, Pinterest has banned political ads (well before Twitter), deleted harmful anti-vax content, created clinical resources for users searching for topics like self-harm, introduced the option to specify more inclusive skin colors (handy for finding applicable makeup tips, but also a way to break out of omnipresent Disney stereotypes of beauty), and created a way for users to tweak the content of targeted ads which is a godsend to anyone who ever planned a nursery on Pinterest only to lose the child that room was meant for.

In the latest design of the app, which launches today, Pinterest has gone a step further. The new site makes some changes that are just good design sense: It eliminates some of the old design’s white space to increase information density, and the search bar is losing its top spot for a list of personalized suggestions instead. But more importantly, the redesigned site includes major changes to user profiles, including minimizing your photo and eliminating follower counts. The move is intended to break Pinterest users out of the popularity contest that can make services like Instagram and Facebook so miserable. Businesses and influencers can still display this metric, but individuals, who just want to use Pinterest, won’t display their popularity metrics. All you can see is the things they’ve pinned their interests and tastes.

“Before the redesign, [profiles] looked more traditional with your face, name, number of followers. Now we’ve made that space much more about you and the ideas saved, and much less about how other people see you on Pinterest,” says Sharp, the cofounder and head of design at Pinterest. “Because it’s not a social network, it’s personal.”

It’s all part of a larger strategy for the company, which focuses not only on understanding how people use Pinterest, but also on changing how people feel while they use it. Sharp has begun to call this approach “compassionate design.”

“In a few years, the idea that emotional outcomes matter in internet services will be so obvious to companies,” says Sharp.

Pinterest’s peers, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have all come under fire for making users less happy in their own ways. That makes a more empathetic social network more than just the right thing to do; it’s a shrewd move for Pinterest’s bottom line.

Compassionate design

If you talk to Sharp for more than 15 minutes, you realize that he is a deeply philosophical person—as many titans of Silicon Valley tend to be. The architect-by-training is more likely to talk about Pinterest as a building, rather than as an app.

“When we think about [Pinterest as a] home for inspiration, what is it like to walk into your home rather than an office?” he asks. “It’s personal. A place you’re in control. A place where you can do what you want and you don’t have to worry about other people seeing you.”

About 18 months ago, for reasons Sharp can’t fully articulate when I ask, he began to suspect that Pinterest was a good place for inspiration but a lousy home. The site wasn’t always as comforting or safe as it could have been, and that was specifically because of the design and programming decisions Pinterest had made in building the app.

“Partly, it was my own emotional maturation, to be honest,” says Sharp when I ask where these thoughts stemmed from. “I think . . . a lot of people I know struggle to understand how to relate to how they feel, and I’m no different. I’ve been on my own journey the last couple years to become more connected to myself.”

As part of that self-assessment, Sharp began rethinking the internal culture at Pinterest, down to its very mission of the company. The old motto, “Help people discover and do the things they love,” has been updated to a phrase that puts the onus on Pinterest to actually deliver something meaningful: “Bring everyone the inspiration to create a life they love.”

The new mantra was informed by qualitative research conducted at the request of Sharp himself. The Pinterest design team embarked on a deep user research project, in which about 40 users were interviewed for hours on end about their lives and habits not just how they used Pinterest, but how they felt about their smartphones, its role in their lives, and their own feelings as a result.

“One thing I realized in that project, for a lot of people, and I include myself in this: all this connection to the world, the news, celebrities, sports, and to friends and family, is amazing, but it also comes with a downside . . . it can really disconnect us from ourselves, and a vision of the future that spans beyond now,” says Sharp. “And the reason that came out in the research is, for a lot of folks, Pinterest was one of the few places or only place in their digital life that they found they could spend time on them.”

For loyalists, Pinterest was essentially a form of self-care.

It became clear that Pinterest needed to not only tune out the damaging content and patterns it still housed. It also needed to serve as a resource for people who came to Pinterest looking for help with anxiety or depression, providing fact-checked resources from real experts in the medical community. Sharp sees this approach as the site’s practical duty.

“If you’re building pipes, you have to make sure they don’t carry sewage, that they’re carrying clean water,” says Sharp. “That’s our responsibility.”

The research and design process also helped Sharp, for the first time, understand why particular areas of Pinterest got so much traffic.

“When we talk about Pinterest, we typically talk about use cases like cooking, or decorating your home . . . these are all very much project-oriented, goal-oriented behaviors,” says Sharp. “[But] there are lots of categories that aren’t about doing something. Like inspirational quotes, which have been huge on Pinterest. Or looking at dog photos! We didn’t know how to take those uses for Pinterest seriously until we realized, sometimes even I look at Pinterest to feel better, not just do something but feel happier, to feel connection, to feel humor, to know everyone goes through difficult times.”

 

Now that Pinterest is owning its own role in its users’ well-being, Sharp doesn’t want to stop with what it’s launched thus far. In fact, he’s directing his product teams to apply all their engagement know-how to ensure people are actually using and benefitting from the platform’s health and wellness resources, which will evolve over time. The goal is to make these tools more than a nice PR moment for the company, and instead, something functional for people in duress.

“The bread and butter of any internet service is user behavior,” says Sharp. “If you ship a change, and clicks go up 5% or down 5%, it changes the business. What we layered on is emotional outcomes.”

In the meantime, Pinterest is no longer a startup but a publicly traded company with 300 million users and more than a billion dollars in ad revenue. It has to answer to the whims of Wall Street now, and Wall Street typically rewards profits more than ethics. Sharp admits that changes in the emotional well-being of Pinterest’s users won’t show up in the next quarter or two of results. It’s a much longer-term play that should show benefits in two to three years, he estimates.

“We have a lot of faith that if we build a great experience, it will build a great business,” he says.

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