I learned to blame the app. Instead of taking an app to be written in stone, I started prioritizing the user. That changed everything.
I’d just finished my first year at IIT Roorkee and was looking to give a shot at something new during the break… while randomly chatting with a fifth-year senior, I asked her what her field of professional interest was. She told me that she was a UX designer. This new term piqued my curiosity and I relentlessly started asking her questions. After patiently answering the first few of my questions, this is what she told me:
‘Try redesigning an app of your choice. Preferrably, an app that you use regularly. Just list down things which you believe might be problematic and try to find an alternate solution. It’ll give you a better introduction to the field than I ever can.’
I chose WhatsApp.
This blog post seeks to document my journey of the same.
Before I begin, I want my readers to know that I’d started out as an absolute beginner. I learned most of the things I needed to (including relevant software) by reading on the internet and talking to people along the way.
This was my dive into the pool without a tube. And I learned that there is no better way to learn how to stay afloat than thrashing your arms in every possible direction as you gasp for air.
Happy reading 😊
I got started by thoroughly familiarising myself with the app, inside and out. I also read up about it on the web in a bid to understand what makes it tick (This blog by Charles Deets was very helpful: One Year Designing at WhatsApp)
I refrained from searching for potential flaws in the app on purpose, it was something I wanted to figure out on my own.
Here’s what I gathered:
- WhatsApp is delightfully simple to use
- WhatsApp avoids using unnecessary features and that is what makes it so special. Almost anyone can use it. No special skills or education levels needed
- Whenever Whatsapp introduces a new feature, the app doesn’t prompt the user about it. The WhatsApp team designs features which are obviously useful and are extremely intuitive to use. This enables the users to discover them on their own. As Deets writes very crisply in his blog: “if the feature needs explanation, it's not ready”. This basic intuitiveness, I realised, was the core principle that WhatsApp, as a product, stood on.
This exercise of reading up on the app design and exploring the app on my own helped me understand that simplicity, utility and intuitiveness were the principles that united the different features of the app and if I wanted to introduce any new changes, I’d have to make sure that they adhered to these basic principles else they wouldn’t be consistent with the rest of the app.
Now, I tried listing down things that bothered me… I realised that even though I felt slightly uncomfortable in certain places, it was difficult to verbalize exactly why. That’s when I decided to ask other users.
I asked a bunch of friends about what annoyed them most as a WhatsApp user. Here is one input I found extremely relevant:
“Video and voice call buttons are way too easily accessible…I always end up calling people accidentally… It's embarrassing. Wish it wasn’t this easy to make a call.
Also, the fact that there’s no way to put a chat completely out of sight apart from blocking the person, kinda irks me. I wish there was a more diplomatic way out so that the messages could reach me but I would not have to know about them unless I actively sought to. That would be the best of both worlds.”
-Manan Jain, 3rd Year student, IIT Roorkee, avid coder, a friend of the author.
This was my moment of enlightenment.
So far I’d simply been a user… there were things that irked me and made me uncomfortable but to me, that was just how it was and I was supposed to deal with it. It had never occurred to me that that there could, in fact, be another way. That by simply repositioning the buttons a little and tweaking the features a bit, I could, in fact, change how users used the app and how it made them feel.
I realised that the reason behind an accidental WhatsApp call was not always “Gosh, I’m so clumsy!” sometimes it was also “Why on earth is it so easy to make a call on this app? Does the app not recognize that once a call is made, there’s no going back? That it’s always going to be there on record and that this can be awfully damaging in way too many situations?”.
I learned to blame the app. I learned how to actively observe where i was uncomfortable and try to figure out how minor tweaks could make me more comfortable. Instead of taking an app to be written in stone, I started prioritising myself (the user). That changed everything.
The problems and their solutions
Now that I’d learned how to identify user problems, I set about doing the same on my own and here’s what I squared in on
Problem: Making calls was way too simple. The buttons were way too accessible. This problem was identified on the basis of the following assumptions,
Assumption 1: Most users in India own a phone with a small to average size screen.
As is visible above, the call buttons
a) lie very close to the drop down menu
b) lie in the ok zone for most Indian users
Assumption 2: A significant chunk of the Indian user base is not very comfortable with tech
Defining the average Indian user, as observed by the author:
(Please note that this is a very rough and crude division. The Indian user base is very diverse and each of these divisions can be further divided on the basis of region, education levels, occupation, etc)
As is conveyed above, the working parent, the homemaker, and the cool grandparent(or most grandparents for that matter) are intimidated by smartphones (or technology in general) by varying degrees. These categories constitute a significant chunk of the userbase.
Therefore, it’s safe to say that they’d be happier if the chances of accidents are reduced.
Solution: Placing ‘call’ as the first option in the three dot menu
In the above solution,
- The call button is not as easily accessible, and yet, since its the first option in the three-dot menu, it’s not very difficult to find either.
- Calling is a deliberate action and the user has no other alternative to making a call. This fact makes visibility a non-issue. Therefore, the increase in the number of steps to make a call will not affect the probability of the feature being used.
- There is a step in between pressing that button and the actual call. This step, where the user chooses what kind of call he wants to make, also acts as an indirect confirmation that the user actually intends to make the call.
- Chances of accidentally making a call will get significantly reduced.
2. Location of the search button:
Problem: The search button is not very accessible. It appears in the drop-down menu which made it difficult to locate the first few times and even after the user has become used to its location, scrolling always makes for the more intuitive option.
To gain more insight into this issue I conducted a test:
The test: I met a bunch of unsuspecting people(mom, dad and a couple of classmates) and pretended to search something on a group that we shared and then asked them to search for it because “my network was creating issues”. As they did so, I silently observed.
Result: Whenever a person had to search for something in a chat, they first scrolled and the idea of using the search option almost always hit them belatedly after they had already become pretty frustrated due to all the unnecessary scrolling.
New position for the search button:
- Searching is an optional function. One can always scroll instead(in most cases). In order to be truly helpful, the search button needs more visibility. It is unable to fully serve it’s purpose because people usually forget that it exists.
- The search button is a low-risk button. This means that pressing it accidentally doesn’t have any serious consequences as opposed to the call button where another person gets involved in case you end up pressing the button accidentally.
3. Search options:
- The search option is incredibly basic. For example, you can’t search by date or even by the name of a member.
- The relevant results are not displayed together instead they are highlighted and one has to scroll endlessly in order to be able to locate the relevant message.
- The fact that older messages take a little time to load as you scroll up makes the whole ordeal all the more exasperating.
In order to solve the above I decided to add two new features:
- Search by member (group chats only)
- Search by date (group and individual chats)
Search in conversation functions just like the current search does.
Search by date:
- Messages can be searched for by the date on which they were sent
- The arrow next to message directs the user to the original conversation(context)
Search by member:
- Messages can be searched for by name of the member who sent them
- All messages by the particular member come together(sorted according to date)
- The arrow next to message directs the user to the original conversation(context)
4. The absence of a diplomatic alternative to ‘block’:
Problem: Whatsapp has no feature which allows you to completely avoid reading a person’s texts without blocking them. Blocking implies that the messages won’t reach you at all which is great but sometimes all you want is to not see a certain chat in your inbox every morning but to still receive the texts and access them whenever you want to.
the IGNORE feature!
In the solution proposed above:
- The ignored messages have zero visibility. The user, therefore, doesn’t have to encounter these chats unless he actively desires to.
- The user doesn’t need to explicitly block people. Blocking is generally seen as an extreme measure and people don’t usually wish to resort to it unless their relationship with someone is explicitly sour. This is a more diplomatic way out.
- The user gains greater control over his/her inbox.
I understand that WhatsApp’s USP lies in the fact that it’s very simple and there is just one inbox where all categories of chats are displayed together. But, I have come to believe that the user comes first and the product should be centered around the user. I feel that no rule is unbreakable except for one: The user should feel as much in control as possible. I feel that this feature doesn’t break this one rule.
5. Changes in the drop menu:
- I feel the functions in the original drop menu (left screen) are not really important enough to be visible as soon as you open the drop menu. These options are also accessible from other places on the same screen.
- In the proposed solution, you know all the options that you have for a particular chat as soon as you open the drop-down menu. You instantly know that you can mute, ignore, block or even report a chat.
- The chances of actually opening and checking the more option are relatively lower. Therefore, the possibility that a chunk of users might never know that some functions(like a report) exist, is significantly reduced in the proposed solution.
- Also, wallpaper should be a part of the settings of the app as a whole and not be an option in every chat window. It is not important enough to be so easily accessible in every window. It's more of secondary action, a relatively vain indulgence, as compared to other functions.
- The younger generation is capable of differentiating between a well-designed app and a badly designed app, whereas the older generation is not. The older generation is also aware of their unease around technology. Whenever something goes wrong, the older generation tends to blame themselves and not technology and ends up losing confidence, even more, when it comes to using technology. It is incredibly crucial that apps be as well designed as possible for the older generation to feel comfortable with tech and for them to feel encouraged to use it.
- Empathy is a skill, not an emotion. To learn it and to be able to do it well, you need to practice it every day. And it is also perhaps one of the most invaluable skills you’ll ever learn.
- Things which seem the simplest were the toughest to build. It’s easy to complicate things. To simplify takes tons of effort and patience.
- I’ve started appreciating the fact that the smallest of things taken someone’s thought and effort to come into existence.
Thank You for reading. All suggestions and constructive criticisms are welcome.
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