Why Snapchat Wins

The product decisions that have driven insane levels of engagement

I’ve been following Snapchat’s rise for a while (it’s nearly impossible not to) and have been a passive user for some time. But until lately, my initial reaction to it was similar to that of many friends: “I don’t really get it. I need someone to teach me to use it”. Yet I was so perplexed that something that has become such an enormous part of the lives of tens of millions of people was often inaccessible to lots of people over 25.

So I finally took a plunge over the past few months and actually started using Snapchat — a lot. And once I got in, it quickly spiraled into near-addiction. It was so bad that I actually had dreams where I was re-enacting different UX flows! I’ve never come across a mobile product (that’s not a game) that sucked me in so quickly.

Most of my friends/peers don’t use Snapchat and hold lots of misconceptions about it. No, it’s not just about sexting and selfies. It has defined a new paradigm for how the entire smartphone can be used as a medium for communication and self-expression. And along the way it has been amassing a fortress of user engagement not seen at this scale, ever (just look at some of the stats: 8B video views daily, 100M DAUs, average usage of 30 minutes/day).

Perhaps most impressively, Snapchat has followed a wholly original product design path. In a world where nearly every social-based app has a notion of like, favorite, follow, share, and robust social graphs — and often even the similar shade of blue (e.g. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, et al) — Snapchat is unconventional. Below I point out a few things Snapchat has done from a product and design perspective that are subtle yet powerful:

Unconventional UX and design paradigms. At first, Snapchat is not intuitive to use. Most people, especially those over the age of 25, are confused when they first try it. This is partly because we’re so accustomed to near-identical app UX and interaction paradigms (menu in the top left, clear touch targets, etc) . Meantime, Snapchat is a near-black box. No instructions, no conventional information architectural, and very few common UX paradigms (e.g. the camera button, the list of contacts). Upon using it for the first time, most people, including myself, initially think it’s bad design or kludgy. Now I see how brilliant it is. Here’s why: making the app non-intuitive has profound implications:

  1. It separates the world into those in the know and not, creating a sense of exclusivity (especially when those not in the know are older). Further, Snapchat rewards power users with subtle surprises or “Easter eggs” throughout the app. Here’s one I was just told about: instead of adding a friend manually, focus the camera on their profile page, which doubles as a QR code.
  2. It reinforces the need for and desire to drive WOM adoption and IRL interaction. It often takes a friend to show you a new Snapchat trick, which naturally drives evangelization. I can just imagine Snapchat spreading across high schools and college campuses much like the Magic Eye posters.

Using photos/video for communication. This is a subtle but extremely profound point. Throughout the history of photography, from Daguerrotypes to Instagram, photos were primarily meant for posterity and documentation. Video has used as a communications medium in utilitarian ways like video conferences. But the idea that photos and videos could be primarily a means of conversing is novel. What’s perhaps more impressive, as high-performance smartphone cameras have become ubiquitous and cloud storage limitless, most companies’ instinct is to find ways to allow more storage and help you organize your gigabytes of photos and videos (see Google Photos). Snapchat, meantime, is moving the exact opposite direction by deleting your media each day.

Forcing engagement. Once you open the app, you’re forced to go ‘all in’. There’s no way to passively engage with Snapchat. This is the result of a bunch of subtle design elements, and in the aggregate I think these are where most of the magic is. Here are a few examples:

  1. Full screen takeover
  2. No links/urls out, and you can’t upload a photo or video
  3. When recording video, the record button has to be pressed the entire time
  4. No user feedback actions via likes/comments (though there are other reply actions
  5. Most content (i.e. Stories) has audio, but source audio is not cut off. This means that you can have your headphones in, listening to music on Spotify while also scrolling through your friends’ Stories and Discover.

Ephemeral content. Here-today gone-tomorrow content is what made Snapchat famous, but the auto-erase serve many other purposes. At the very least, the scarcity created forces users to check back each day, driving DAUs through the roof. But more than that, it enables more authentic, raw interactions. Your photos/videos on Instagram or Facebook are hand-picked best of dozens that you took — Snapchat forces you to go with one. And because you’re less concerned about the stuff you post on Snapchat, you’re more inclined to share more.

Enabling people and even brands to be entertaining. Twitter proved that “life-logging” by random people isn’t entertaining (remember the days of “I’m at a café having a bagel” tweets?). But Snapchat is challenging that notion, and the combination of the above plus tools to enhance photos and videos has created a revolutionary consumption experience. While viewing friends’ stories on Snapchat, I find it amazing how much more compelling and real the experience is than what they share on other platforms. The same is true for brands. I follow Taco Bell on Snapchat because they post funny, original content. After years of talk of ‘native’ ads (that ultimately still look like ads), I’ve never seen ads like the ones on Snapchat.