Design notes from the Snapchat Spectacles shop in New York

Monday morning. November 21, 2016. 6:00 am EST. New York City wakes up to a new shop right off of Fifth Avenue, built without the public having any idea.

Pictured: Not New York. Definitely not Fifth Ave.

In case you missed it, Snap Inc. (creators of Snapchat) announced and released their newest product, Spectacles last month.

Spectacles are the anti-Google Glass. Where Glass wanted to boil the ocean, Spectacles want to be video sharing only. Where Glass wanted to be serious, Spectacles want to be cheeky, silly and playful. Snap is being precise in its playfulness. I think it’s awesome.

They started their release with exclusive drops of Snapbot, a Spectacles-selling vending machine. Venice Beach, Big Sur, Tulsa—all places Snapbot had sold its wares, until yesterday’s arrival in New York.

I was so interested in the launch of the shop that I had to go see what it was about. Being 15 minutes away, I yanked myself out of bed and got down there. When I arrived I was already over an hour into the line. Hype.

Here are my notes on the shop experience. They are pretty raw, so I might update this post as I think of more to write.

The facade

“Holy shit. What was here yesterday?”

That’s all I could think about as I approached the corner of 59th and Fifth Ave. There is an interesting, exciting interplay between the iconic Apple Cube, and the taller, more in-your-face cheeky Spectacles icon.

How’s that for iconic?

I am really amazed that not much information about the shop’s launch trickled out. I mean, that facade is HUGE.

Interestingly, the address used to host the New York Playboy Club, and was a mixed-use retail and office space that has since removed all tenants and closed down the ground-floor restaurant.

Believe it or not, this is the same place.

Looks like they’re using the space as a pop-up shop until the new year, while they figure out what the above office space is going to be used for. Amazing opportunity for a gigantic, in-your-face ad.

As an aside, people unfamiliar with the brand seemed to think that it was an ad for Minions. Something to think about, Snap Inc.

The space

In a word—sparse. In a few more—really really sparse. You’d think that’s a bad thing, dear reader, but please hear me out.

At its core, this space is two things:

  1. It’s a line (or a queue for our friends across the pond)
  2. It’s a vending machine at the end of said line

The space is very narrow and deep, with the vending machine all the way in the back.

There is a beautifully cut sign which is backlit at the very front of the space. But there’s also some magic in the space.

There are some screens around the perimeter of the shop, showing off videos shot with Spectacles. Okay cool fair enough. But the more I looked at these screens, the more amazed I got.

The screens are mounted on a circle, rotate around the circle, and the video remains upright.

Damn, this works really well, and damn does it subtly show off one of the cooler features of Spectacles—The video orientation is always relative to the horizon when you look at it on your phone. It doesn’t matter if you’re in portrait or landscape, it just works.

We’ll come back to the screens. They get even more awesome.

Snapbot

They nailed it. The machine looks, and functions beautifully, save for a few gripes.

Hardware

The machine looks solid. I don’t know what it’s made of (I should have… touched it more?) but it looks like heavy, solid metal, painted with a yellow semi-gloss.

The first thing I thought of when I saw it was my family, and Soviet Russia. My parents both grew up in Soviet Russia, and told me stories about Soviet Era sparkling water vending machines.

The cross between something strictly utilitarian but also something kind of fun to use is definitely apparent here. Both Snapbot and the soda machine have three buttons to make a selection, a place to pay, and an area to receive your purchase.

Snapbot’s screen is not a touchscreen. In a world of “stick an iPad on it” being the default design solution to a kiosk-style experience, this is a bold (good) decision.

Three buttons below the screen correspond to the three product color choices. Physical buttons. These buttons are big, and bubbly. They remind me of the buttons on the Konami Pop’n Music arcade games from Japan.

Maybe the simile is a bit of a stretch. I’m going with it.

The software

In a previous Medium post, I talk about how a big challenge for designers is displaying the right level of detail at the right time. I think Snapbot does a great job of showing off its utility both from afar and up close.

When no one uses Snapbot, it happily shows its cyclops eye, looking around and being playful. This is the at-a-distance experience, to draw the user in. As someone steps in-front of the machine, the screen changes to be a virtual try-on for the product, using the little camera above the screen. The typeface used is appropriately sized for a single user, but the screen gives others around enough of a sense of excitement around what’s going on.

Honestly, the virtual try-on is kind of meh. It’s a great idea, but I didn’t see anyone actually paying attention to it, and some people were WAY too short for the camera to be of any use. They have a secondary mode which displays a rotating model of Spectacle in the selected color. I feel this works a lot better—people knew what color they wanted when I was in-store, it did not seem like the virtual try-on was helping make any purchasing decisions.

The secondary mode. A user would be using this up-close and personal, so the scale of the typeface matches.

Once a color is selected, all the buyer needs to do is dip his or her card to complete the purchase. Here comes a world of pain.

Payment

Sadly, banks haven’t caught up with Snap Inc. Probably 10–15% of transactions were being declined. Well… I don’t know how much can be done on Snap’s side. I think a big piece of the issue was one transaction per item, so if people buy two Spectacles back to back, this sets off a fraud alert on his or her credit card. It happened to me too.

I will say the payment mechanism is sturdy. It read my magnetic strip every single time.

The biggest issue I found with the payment process and software in general were the error states.

Error states

When a payment doesn’t go through, the system does not do a good enough job of describing the issue and a resolution to the user. In fact, there were often times where the user did not know that there was an issue, and would reach to grab the product they thought they had purchased, and it was not there.

Something went wrong, try again.

That is the error messaging displayed when a payment doesn’t go through. Not very descriptive, Snapbot! Good error states offer precise descriptions of exact problems—rather than vague generalities—and suggest constructive advice on how to fix the problem. In this case, Snapbot does neither.

Additionally, the sound that Snapbot makes when an error occurred sounds very similar to the successful transaction sound, to the point where if I wasn’t watching ahead of me, I wouldn’t know whether another customer had successfully transacted.

Restocking state

As I got to about the 15th position in line, my fear had been realized—Snapbot was out of stock. But wow was I in for a treat.

The employees working at the pop-up (typically helping with traffic flow, etc.) quickly pulled a black and white curtain over the area where Snapbot was positioned. A surprisingly low-tech, manual move which I thought was cute and fitting—almost like Snapbot was on some stage, or needed to get its makeup touched up.

Then, I realized that this whole process was calculated and thought-through. The shop has a restocking state.

Remember those rotating screens from before? They suddenly become upright. They display a countdown for 10 minutes, similar to the way Snapbot is being deployed across its USA roadtrip. The countdown displays how long one can expect restocking to take.

Yeah I know it’s not a great photo.

Other screens also show Snapbot as sleeping.

And finally, the music in the room changes, and the lighting changes as well. Beyond the curtain and across the shop, the coloring changes from white to a continuously-changing spectrum of light.

Pay no attention to the rave behind the curtain.

I ain’t even mad. Not all all. This awesome attention to detail actually got me excited about the fact that they’re restocking. They took this possibly awkward situation of customers standing around, and used it as an opportunity to surprise customers. Really nice thinking.

As an aside, I am even more impressed with the screens on the walls. They become perfectly upright and stationary in this mode. What other secrets do they hold?

Personnel and uniform

The last design detail I want to touch on is the people working at the shop. It’s a small one, but an important one.

I noticed that they were all wearing all black with white shoes. Really simple. Nice touch. But then I looked more closely.

They all wear the same model shoes, laced the same way. Damn, that is impressive.

Standard issue Snap Inc. shoes

Paying attention to uniform, down to the model of shoes, is something I really respect. I was really impressed. I wish I got a photo of them laced up.

Final thoughts

As one of the very first people at the Snap Inc. New York pop-up, I’m amazed by how well they were able to pull this whole thing off.

From a shroud of secrecy to a massive first-day launch, I think they nailed it in many respects. The Spectacle pop-up shop is a story of how digital brands can tie their products to a retail experience with personality. This is far from an Apple Store copycat, or anything else for that matter. The experience is uniquely Snap.

I’m sure they will continue to improve on the process, and I hope part of that will be refining the workflow with the Snapbot software and payment. How can I be sure they will continue to improve? As I left the shop, they were still busy adding some signage.


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I am a user experience designer from New York. I grew up in Toronto. I’m also the co-founder of SIBlings, a group of designers and developers that design and bring crazy ideas to life. We’re the co-creators of Emoji Salad, an emoji Pictionary SMS game that makes friends out of enemies and enemies out of friends.