Let’s stop the senseless Snapchat speculation

28 Jan 2017

What’s all the fuss about? Image: wong yu liang/Shutterstock

Snapchat has exploded in popularity in recent years, but is it worth all the hype? Gareth Dunlop investigates why the app has blown all of its competitors out of the water.

Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of new social networks that have sought to replicate the extraordinary success of Facebook (before that, MySpace and, before that, Friends Reunited). The crowded race has seen frontrunners such as Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat emerge.

The focus of this piece, Snapchat, has been a remarkable success story due to:

  • its commercial performance (it is likely to have an IPO of between $25m and $40m in the early part of 2017)
  • its ability to challenge accepted wisdom (that digital products can only thrive with an intuitive interface and that social networks’ content must exist in perpetuity)
  • the engagement levels of its users (150m daily active users, 10bn daily video views, 30 minutes per day per user)

Snapchat’s interface, however, has become a conundrum to digital product designers everywhere. They are struggling to understand how a social network with more daily users than Twitter (150m v 140m, according to Bloomberg), and which has enjoyed extraordinary growth over the past 24 months, can simultaneously be so incredibly difficult to use.

This author writes from personal experience, having had not one, but two one-to-one tutorials from his teenage daughter on how to navigate the product and its features, and remaining as clueless as ever about how to work it. (More widely, this is a recurring theme in the author’s life, which would require many more words than this article to explain.) Not only is the interface difficult to navigate, the product has also introduced its own lexicon, with innovations such as Streaks and Stories.

The observation that the product is difficult to use, and the question that that inevitably leads us to – what does this tell us about digital product design? – are important and deserve time, attention and a thoughtful response from user-experience design professionals. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon such people that their responses embrace the best traditions of their discipline, such as a reliance on research, empirical evidence from users and an inquisitive, positively sceptical mindset.

‘Replace Snapchat for VCR, millennial with Gen X, and 2017 with 1987, and you’ll understand why I’m calling time on this madness’

Instead, we’ve received a deluge of frankly unhelpful speculation, reminiscent of the web’s frontier days of the late ’90s. Josh Elman at Greylock Partners suggests that the interface has been designed to be difficult on purpose, so teenagers can be sure their parents won’t be on it. If I might paraphrase: “Gen X, don’t worry your pretty little greying heads about the interface – the millennials have this covered.” Patronised much? Yes, me too.

Elman suggested that “mobile makes everything physical and social” and that mobile users are “often surrounded by other people: friends, family, classmates and coworkers”. (You know the way that laptop and desktop users spend their lives in solitary isolation?) Therefore, there is a ‘new thing’ called shareable design, where it’s better to design something that someone has to explain to you than the ‘old thing’ that we boring Gen Xers were brought up on called ‘intuitive design’, where you could just work it out for yourself.

If only we had shareable design back in the ’80s when our parents asked us to help them use the remote control or program the VCR. We could just have explained how unrealistic their aspirations to use the product intuitively were, and how they simply needed a shared experience by getting their friends to show them how it worked.

He admits: “We don’t yet have any great books on shareable design.” Yes – that’s because it’s not really a thing. It’s a made-up thing that doesn’t exist. Or, if it does, you’ve given us no evidence of it.

“Each of those seemingly obscure features,” Elman notes,“is an opportunity for its users to show their friends how to do something cool.”

He gets some muscular back-up in the form of Inc staff writer Kevin Ryan, whose piece championing Elman’s theories opens with: “Very few aspects of the app are self-explanatory – which is perfect.”

‘To use one of the oldest and best-established product design maxims of all, the product solves problems for its users better than all its competitors’

Replace Snapchat for VCR, millennial with Gen X, and 2017 with 1987, and you’ll understand why I’m calling time on this madness. Neither Ryan nor Elman offer us a single relevant statistic, a fact related to how users use the product, or any insight from the Snapchat product team. Rather, they conveniently retrofit design strategy with this thing called shareable design.

Furthermore, they appear to ignore much more probable reasons why Snapchat is such a wonderful product – which is that it solves problems for it users – and, thus, they are prepared to invest in learning its interface. This doesn’t mean that the interface is right, or perfect, or couldn’t be improved.  It just reminds us that a product and its interface are two different things.

Might I suggest any number of the following reasons why the app is so popular? Its features suit hyper-socially aware teenagers who have greater motivation to be on it than their parents. It’s temporal, so embarrassing pictures or videos will disappear in time. It works really neatly with video. Its filters are clever, funny and up-to-the-minute relevant. Its streaks are binding and reward loyalty and reuse. Its playlists are convenient and helpful.

Users are prepared to invest in the product because it gives them brilliant outcomes. To use one of the oldest and best-established product design maxims of all, the product solves problems for its users better than all its competitors.

Surely that’s all we need to know?

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.