Usability as the enemy

Snapchat’s identity and branding is mysterious and esoteric, just like their UX

I love the concept of usability as an anti-pattern. It’s highly counterintuitive but fun to contemplate. I’ve often said, “If the product needs an instruction manual, it’s not good UI.” I’m going to explore the other side of that argument and go so far as to say that sometimes, making things harder to use can improve engagement in the long run…


If you’ve used a complex app before, you’ve most certainly seen something like a guided tour at the beginning of your experience. Slack, Mailchimp, and even us over at Minbox use tooltips to help the user understand the interface. It’s used to help improve learnability of the app so there’s no confusion > frustration > churn.

It makes sense: teach your users step by step so they don’t have any questions about what they just spent time or money on. There are some cases, though, where reducing the learnability can improve retention if users make it over the hurdle.

Rite of passage

How is it possible that something that’s hard to use would in fact improve engagement? In some cases, it can be a deterrent: I’m not going to go to a gas station if I can’t easily figure out how to use the pump. But in other cases, the barrier to entry can become a rite of passage…

When a product is hard to use, some people just give up. But others forge on and figure it out. And once they do, they’re more wedded to the experience than ever before. Maybe because they want to justify the time they put in to learn it (escalation of commitment). Or maybe because they spent a lot of money and need to ‘get their money’s worth’ (value attribution). Could be that they also feel like they’re a part of something. That only a small group of people, like them, took the time to care, so now they’re involved with not just the app but the community and culture that surrounds it.

But most of the time, because of this esoteric UX, a friend has to explain it to you in order for you to ‘get it’. And they probably WANT to explain it to you. Doing so means they know something that you don’t—they have the inside track. They made it through the iron doors and can give you the 🔑.

And thus, they become evangelists for that product. And the product spreads. Not just because it’s cool, but because it’s novel, different, and not obvious. This counter-intuitive quality is a key component in being different and making products more human. I’ll touch on that in a future post…


Snapchat is an ideal example of this. My tweenage sister is still showing me some of the hidden gestures and features. Tap to skip through a story, swipe for filters, etc. (Here’s a great writeup highlighting a handful of buried features you likely never knew about.) The UX isn’t intuitive but that’s what makes it special. The paradigm is hard to grasp at first. But once you do, and the mental model is forged, it seems obvious. As a result, Snapchat’s users are incredibly engaged, with over two thirds of their actives uploading content.

Another one is Peach, a new consumer app from the founders of Vine. At first blush, it doesn’t look too different. I actually wrote it off as yet another chat app initially. But it wasn’t until a friend walked me through the app that I actually grasped its originality. They’re using new patterns and connecting people in new (looser) ways via the friends of friends view.

Peach’s friends view

Their heavy use of emojis and UI touches make the UX truly delightful. It might be a perfect example of usability as the enemy (despite their clever onboarding flow).

Think about the first time you used Twitter. I guess it depends how late you joined, but for me, I signed up when they were an SMS service. I remember attempting to use it and not grokking it at all. It evolved over time but for a while it still contained esoteric elements like RTs and @replies. It was relatively simple (especially in hindsight) but those patterns were new.

Another (non-tech) example is Starbucks. Its success was initially tied to the quality of their coffee and the ‘third place’ concept but over time they built up a culture that eventually went mainstream. Try it out: go to a Starbucks and order a small coffee. They don’t have a small coffee. It’s called something else (I still have no idea). They also had a million combinations and permutations that were unique to them — like the ‘single-pump decaf vanilla no-whip frappuccino’. (Yes, I just made that up, and yes, it’s probably real). They built a lexicon that their customers had to learn and once they did, they could speak a new language that not many knew at the time. They were a part of the club.

Not for everyone

So when should you challenge usability? What types of products do barriers like these work for? Well, not every app or type of app can get away with such a tricky maneuver. There’s a great post over at UX Booth that breaks down the cases where this can work (and work well). Attempt this if your app:

  • has no substitutes
  • has high switching costs
  • benefits from exclusivity
  • appeals to early adopters
  • is not a utility or SaaS app

You’ll often see consumer apps purposefully create new interactions and patterns to achieve this level of exclusivity. But it’s a tough balancing act: if you make it too convoluted, your users won’t just abandon the app, they’ll get angry.

I’ll bet that these types of experiences are going to grow in popularity. The raw, honest, different, new, quirky ones. Especially in consumer. Humans like inconsistency, diversity and imperfection. And, in what feels like a perfect world of polished interfaces, I have a feeling we’ll start seeking out the apps that buck the trend.

Thx to Greg Isenberg for helping draft this. 👊