The ingenuity of Snapchat

Understanding Snapchat’s product design and Tavel’s Hierarchy of Engagement

Snapchat reinvented the definition of social media as they pioneered the sharing of “real-time” user-generated content. The validation of this product-market fit was bettered by Instagram Stories, which remarkably surpassed Snapchat’s DAU in early 2017. Nonetheless, the ingenuity of Snapchat’s product design provides many learning points.

What is Snapchat at its core?

Through the combination of text and imagery, Snapchat is a way for users to share bite-sized content. The fact that the content would disappear after 24 hours meant that users could be more honest, fun and more like themselves. It reduced the cognitive load of worrying what others might think of the post. Nir Eyal says it best — If Instagram was like dressing up for a wedding, Snapchat is like wearing pyjamas at a friend’s house.

How it works?

Snapchat focused on ensuring that their users would never miss the opportunity to capture their best memories. Thus, they designed for the default screen to be the camera, which users could easily take pictures or videos using the same button (compared to how Android/IOS phones would require users to toggle between the two options). While competitors such as Instagram, Facebook or Twitter were showing the feed first, Snapchat stuck to their user-centric approach. Snapchat was also first to allow users to automatically apply filters in one swipe.

The platform empowered users to get creative by adding text, drawings, and geofilters, in which the compilation of snaps would be curated into a story for others to see. As mentioned in the previous post about the hook model, the infinite possibilities of designing a Snap fulfils the variable reward component.

The Magic moment

Snapchat’s magic lies in its root of being a messaging service. When users send Snaps, there is a strong sense of reciprocation, as we are obliged to reply, especially before the Snap disappears. Akin to WhatsApp’s blue-tick feature, Snapchat notifies users when their Snaps are viewed. This sense of reciprocation is much stronger compared to other social sites due to the 24 hour time limit, lest they forget the contents of the message.

The launch of Snapstreak drilled further into the element of reciprocity, as neither user in the conversation wanted to be the one to “end” the hard earned streak. Just as the number of Facebook/LinkedIn friends served as a proxy of one’s popularity and connectedness, the number of Snapstreak signalled the depth of your friendship. Revisiting the hook model, Snapchat had well established a user’s investment when sending a Snap, or maintaining a Snapstreak.

Utilising the hook model

  1. Internal trigger: The urge to share important snippets of a user’s life, or the stronger fear of losing the opportunity to capture the moment
  2. Action: Open the app and Snap with one tap
  3. Variable reward: Infinite possibilities of designing a snap, or viewing a friend’s snap
  4. Investment: Sending a Snap to another user loads the next trigger, in the form of a push notification when your friend replies. Snapchat also “stores value” through Snapstreaks and personalising your feed with the most frequent conversations ranked at the top.

Another framework I found useful in my understanding of product design and strategy was Tavel’s Hierarchy of Engagement.

Step 1: Grow engaged users, not just any users

Step 2: Focus on retention by making it hard to churn

Step 3: Create a virtuous loop

1. Growing engaged users

It is important to focus on growing engaged users instead of vanity metrics like DAU or MAU. The definition of engaged users would be those which complete the core action of a product. Sending a snap on SnapChat, getting a match on Tinder or taking a ride on Grab. At times, the core action is also closely related to product retention. For example, Facebook realised that users are retained when they got connected to 7 friends within 10 days. Similarly, the AHA moment for Pinterest was that users were almost guaranteed to return the next week if they pinned an item.

2. Retaining users

Product A: 5M new users, with 80% retention rates

Product B: 2.5M new users, with 95% retention rates

This is a classic case for retention, where Product A has much higher acquisition rates while Product B has slightly higher retention rates. After 3 years, Product A would have 25M users, while Product B would have a far superior 42M users! This is echoed by Airbnb co-founder, Brian Chesky, who stuck to the mantra that it is more important to have 10 users who really love your product, rather than 100 users who only like your product.

User retention can be achieved by reducing the subsequent effort required for repeat product usage through personalisation — like the ranking algorithm of YouTube or recommended items on Taobao. Another method is to keep users so invested that its hard to leave. Invested Instagram users are less likely to churn as they risk forsaking all their past posts and followers. It is the same for Evernote or Dropbox users as they risk giving up all their past input.

3. Create a virtuous loop

Now that a product has established an engaged user base and achieved high retention rates, how can this morph into a sustainable growth mechanism? The answer is — Network Effects. A well-designed product incorporates elements of the network effects, so existing users are continually compounding the benefits for existing and new users, creating more value for the company.

Pinterest: When existing users discovers a pin and shares them with a friend, the company acquires new users and re-engages existing users. This is the same for sharing YouTube videos.

Facebook: When users post images and tag their friends (manually or automatically), a push-notification triggers tagged users to open the app. Conversely, those who do not have an account are propelled to create one, lest they are left out.

Airbnb: For two-sided marketplace, increasing the demand of bookers makes it more profitable for Airbnb hosts, and allows them to improve their service for the next booker. Additionally, if the user leaves a positive comment or rating, it creates a sense of credibility which convinces the next undecided user. Thus, a single booking ends up creating value for both demand and supply side.

Creating a virtuous loop is difficult as not all products might allow for this. Tinder for example, does not fulfil this as a successful match does not directly translate into “measurable” value for the next user. In closing, Nir Eyal’s Hook model and Tavel’s Hierarchy of Engagement was helpful in shaping my perception and analysis of tech products, and hope it was for you too.

The inspiration for this post was based on external references I have chanced upon, which I try to elaborate to make it more digestible.

For those still interested: