It’s definitely an interesting suggestion that Snapchat, by intentionally increasing the product’s learning curve, replaces explicitly communicative icons, with ‘growth hacking’ the creation of 3rd party content like blog posts, tutorials, etc and interpersonal conversation to communicate to users how to interact with the product.
What I see is two things happening here, a difference between what users are actually interacting with and how to gestures are understood.
In the case of Snapchat, instead of users tapping a face icon to launch the Lenses feature, they are able to tap their actual face on the screen. I’d make the argument that while not communicated well for those already versed in how to use other digital products, this is actually more explicit than tapping an icon. Exactly what users are interacting with and how users comprehend screens is changing. Instead of interacting with a screen with a fixed layout, apps like Snapchat and Youtube allow users to interact directly with components, where the screen simply acts as a container. Designing screens as deeper containers in which components live, allows for users to be more literal in their gestures; rather than clicking an ‘X’ to close a Youtube video, they can literally swipe it off screen.
What makes the learning curve so noticeably high with these kinds of gestures is that in many cases, these kinds of gestures break already learned conventions and force people to re-learn what they already know. For instance if you’ve learned to close a screen by tapping an icon, then swiping down is a huge departure.
This generally wouldn’t be a problem for most people if there were something that assisted in communicating the need for this action, however many gesture-driven interfaces such as Snapchat lack the kinds of visual indicators such as icons that tip users off to possible interaction.
These types of gesture-driven interfaces instead rely on an existing understanding of how to use the product, which could come from being taught by friends, as the article suggests, or from a shared convention among other UIs, which we can already see beginning to form.
I agree that a high learning curve definitely creates conversation and content, but it’s paid for with an increase in cognitive load. With Snapchat, the return user’s gain from the product is clearly more valuable than the time taken to learn it. However it’s important to remember that Snapchat gained it’s following with a traditionally designed UI and later moved into a more gesture-driven one. It will be interesting to see if new companies decide to hack conversation by using their own unique set of gestures for users to learn, or if they leverage the conventions already popularized by Snapchat to gain appeal to users already well versed in these now popularized gestures.