Feature Hierarchy: Twitter and Snapchat

Twitter’s greatest product weakness is Snapchat’s strength

Alternatively: tech people love to talk themselves blue in the face about Twitter and Snapchat, and I’m no exception! 🎙😜🤓📡

It’s no secret that Twitter has a user growth and retention problem. In their last earnings report, the data suggested their truly active user base may actually be shrinking. On the other end of the spectrum, Snapchat is the most lauded consumer software success story since the birth of mobile. Their exact audience size is unknown, but recent reports had daily video views at 7 billion, and it seems inevitable they’ll reach the 1-billion user club.

The first thing you see when you open 👻 Snapchat (L) and 🐣 Twitter (R) as a new user.

👥Consumer is hard

One major challenge about building a consumer product is that, at scale, they have to serve a wide range of people. A wide range demographically, and a wide range in terms of engagement patterns. Catering to super users exclusively comes at the cost of new user experience. Which is a large part of the story with Twitter.

One way to think about this balance is the average number of sessions (or any time/effort metric) a user needs to invest before first experiencing the core value of a product — an “aha” moment 🔑key to retention. Snapchat promotes creating, sharing and receiving content right up front. The home screen of the app is a full-bleed camera, with a shutter button three times the size of any other element in the interface. And that’s arguably the core feature of Snapchat: you create a picture or video, send it, receive some, realize how low-pressure this is because content disappears, and you’re off to the races.

Mansplaining the core value of Twitter is one of tech’s favorite inconclusive existential debates, and has been discussed for a decade. But I don’t think it’s too controversial to say it relates to following and gaining perspective on important events as they unfold, or participating in rich, multi-perspective conversation. Finding your way to the right bundle of perspectives as a new user can be daunting. Look at the amount of blank space in these new user flows.

Notifications, Messages, Me, Compose… all blindingly blank.

How do I go from “new install” to my first rewarding experience following an event or engaging in discussion? Twitter has been working on the “graph investment” problem for years, but can’t seem to crack it.

🗺Feature hierarchy

Twitter’s woes and Snapchat’s success in this area come from a concept I’ll call feature hierarchy. Visual hierarchy is a common and important concept in software interface design, defined by Wikipedia as “the arrangement or presentation of elements in a way that implies importance.” It’s often applied to information design in an app or website. It can be applied to features just as effectively.

👻

Snapchat has more bells and whistles than I can count. Many new users love to complain (ironically, often on Tech Twitter) they “don’t know how to use Snapchat” because of all these easter egg-esque features. Yet Snapchat continues to grow. This is because Snapchat’s user experience has a strong feature hierarchy.

Capture, send, and some bright purple!

When you open Snapchat, you see the aforementioned camera and shutter. Post-capture, an animation highlights your way to the send flow.

The only color used in the home screen appears to indicate you’ve received Snaps, and, when you consider the push notification part of the app’s user experience (which you should), the “new snaps” flag is even louder. Snapchat has worked hard to make sure, from the first second of your first session, the core experience is right in your face.

🐣

With Twitter, this isn’t the case. The first thing I see is a registration wall.

Twitter onboarding (sign up) flow

Countless features have attempted to reduce the effort needed to get to an “aha moment.” Yet, none of them seem to be solving the engagement or retention problem. They’ve invested in signed out timelines, but that hasn’t led to increased user desire to sign up and start engaging. They’ve experimented with bundled, topic-based groups of suggested users to follow, but that hasn’t worked either. The feature hierarchy is weak, leading to a new user experience, retention and re-engagement issues. It’s also led to an experimentation issue.

🛠Enabling experimentation

When Twitter launched Moments, it was a much-hyped release that took the prime real estate on the mobile homescreen. They even tried switching it with the notifications tab in the web app. This completely blew up the weak feature hierarchy that existed in Twitter, and caused user confusion and uproar. Similarly, as Twitter rolls out an algorithmic timeline, power users have backlashed. This is partly because Twitter’s loudest and most studious critics are also invested power users who hate change, but it is also partly because of a weak feature hierarchy.

Snapchat has a strong feature hierarchy. This enables them to experiment with new features without obstructing their core value or alienating users.

Take Snapcash, for example. This feature allows users to send each other money through Snapchat’s texting feature, backed by Square Cash. It’s an interesting and unintuitive addition to the Snapchat experience. It’s also pretty buried in the feature hierarchy.

Hidden but accessible

It doesn’t detract from the core experience at all. I have to swipe two screens deep, select a friend, and then know that adding a dollar sign to my text body will trigger Square Cash. And even then I need to input credit card info. It’s a testament to Snapchat’s interaction design that they can launch a feature like this, do so without removing focus from their core functionality, but still make it accessible in two swipes and a tap.

Experimentation is a core part of growing any software product, especially a big consumer property trying to strengthen (or invent) its’ revenue model. And in the era of broken app stores and awful app discovery, large app audiences are an incredibly valuable asset. It’s important to be able to test new avenues for product and business growth without jeopardizing that core asset: your users.

A strong feature hierarchy enables experimentation. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use Snapcash, or find Snapchat’s face-recognition filters — you can still easily use the core feature. Twitter’s lack of a strong feature hierarchy up front makes it harder for them to launch Snapcash-style experiments, leading them to launch new things Moments-style, risking user backlash and generally raising the internal barrier to experimentation.

🚀Designing for growth

Snapchat has a great new user experience, is accessible to non-power users, and continues to engage actives users and bring them up the power user curve with iterative feature experiments and product growth. Plenty of its feature experiments fail, but its barrier to experimentation, both internally and to its user base, is very low — just like another giant mobile property not named in this article. Strong feature hierarchy enables this.

Twitter has a new user experience problem and has trouble with experimentation. Its feature hierarchy is unclear. You could argue the lack of clear hierarchy comes from the fact that Twitter is many things to many people — but so is Snapchat. Twitter’s product reflects a lack of decision-making about feature priority and core value. To fix their new user experience problems, and enable growth, they should take a page out of Snapchat’s book and establish a strong feature hierarchy.

Thanks to Jonathan for edits.