(This piece was originally published in INNOVATION magazine, Winter 2016)
As soon as I opened the app, I saw my knees through the camera. I swiped to the right and came to a white page. One more time, a white page with circles. I swiped all the way back past the camera, white page again. Where was I supposed to land? On my knees? I looked up from my phone; we were all doing the same futile swiping dance.
Our project space was dead quiet. We were sitting in chairs facing one another but tending to our phones. Our project brief was to design an app to help college students on the road to graduation. That morning we had met with yet another student who used Snapchat more than any other app. We knew we had to download it and give it a try.
“How is this so successful?” Assaf was the first to break the silence. He is an interaction designer with a keen eye for what makes people tick. “There is something bigger here that we are not getting, and we are not that much older than them.”
I’d heard that Snapchat had been made to be deliberately hard to use, to keep parents from making the jump from Facebook. None of us were parents, though. The team’s age averaged in the mid 30s.
“Where is the video I just recorded?” Assaf asked. KK jumped to his rescue. She’s a copywriter with a little more Snapchat mileage than Assaf and I. “We are designers and we don’t know how Snapchat works. It’s heartbreaking,” Assaf said.
“At least we can still Google.” I turned to my computer and started looking for interesting characters to follow and images of famous snaps. I learned that Snapchat is good for taking photos of passed-out friends and drawing on their faces to make them look like Sleeping Beauty, for putting cat faces on human bodies and for recording oneself rambling in the back of an Uber. I looked through thousands of snaps on Google Images, trying to make sense of them. I thought of the day I tried to explain to my grandma why sending angry replies to offers of “growing a few inches” wouldn’t stop the spam from appearing in her email account.
Learning the Snapchat Vibe
Every year, thousands of first-generation college students drop out. We were working with Beyond 12, a nonprofit organization that aims to solve that problem. They employed a team of coaches to help students successfully navigate college — from helping them answer detailed questions like, how do I complete my financial aid forms? or how do I register for classes? to bigger questions like, is college for me?
Our challenge was to bring the Beyond 12 coach support to hundreds of thousands of students through an app. But the problem was that, at its core, this app was asking students to do things like budgeting and planning that was way less fun than chatting with their friends or playing games.
We needed to find a way to make the app resonate with students, and we had a hunch that Snapchat was a key piece of inspiration. We just needed to learn how to speak in its all-in-one language of video, picture, text, emoji and filters.
We decided to take the plunge and make a snapchat-like video. I enlisted KK’s help to write a fun script and asked our young colleague Andrea to star in it. In my head a voice was saying, this has to be perfect. Not only would this be embedded in our app prototype, it would serve as a model for future video productions. We set up our equipment. Great lighting. Check. Vibrant background in the IDEO office. Check.
After an hour of filming, we plugged the phone into a computer and hit play. “Hey guys, it’s Coach Andrea. I’m really happy that you’re here! Let’s talk about college! I know it can be overwhelming, but I have six great tips to help you get oriented on your college campus.”
It felt good enough for YouTube but lacked the intimate Snapchat vibe. So we rewrote the script and tried again.
“What up, it’s Andrea with your weekly tip. I’m here to talk about your college campus. Sometimes it’ll be like, yes, college, I have arrived. [Andrea did a dance move.] Sometimes you might be like…” She paused while a subtitle appeared reading: “WTF??”
We filmed it with Snapchat and made enthusiastic use of the emoji and filters. Then Assaf cheated and finalized it with professional editing software, trimming the clips to speed up the pace and adding some extra sound.
To premiere our new app prototype, we met a student in the cafeteria of his community college and handed him the phone. The interface design was only half-baked and there wasn’t much to hint at how the app worked. To our surprise, he started swiping around comfortably. Interface buttons are officially a thing of the past. We can communicate how things work on the screen simply by the way they move and behave.
When he found the video page and hit play, I stared at his face, ready to absorb every tiny reaction as he watched it. He looked serious and attentive. I said to myself, “OK, there’s a funny bit coming; he’s going to chuckle.” But his expression didn’t change. I saw the same non-reaction from every single student we showed it to. It was crushing.
I later came across Victor Nevarez, a pro Snapchatter who goes by the name of Internet Shaquille, and asked him to describe a bad Snapchat video. “It probably starts with a ‘Hello, kids,’” he said. “Then there’ll be some dad dance move to keep people’s attention. Plus lots of jump cuts and weird visual effects, and you drop a few words that you think they use, like ‘swag.’ It’s easy to see through when it’s not authentic.”
Facepalm. All those students had seen through our desperation to be cool. With our forced script, cheap FX and lack of selfie flair, we had managed to muffle Andrea’s natural energy and personality.
A few days later, a colleague suggested her sister might be able to rescue us. She was something of a Snapchat celebrity. When she sent her interpretation, we gathered around the monitor.
“Oh, what’s up, friends? I was just making dank memes on the web. Hey, does now feel like a good time to fill out your FAFSA, or what? It sounds like a giant pain in the hooha, but it’ll do nothing but save you money!”
She wore a baseball cap backward, as if to say, “I’m obviously playing a character.” She was a selfie black belt and made a two-minute video feel dynamic and fun, sliding through expressions and voices, up-the-nostrils shots and close-ups of her eyes.
We rolled out this video in our next prototype, only to learn that while we’d gained authenticity and entertainment points with the students, we had lost on tone. Students didn’t want entertainment at the cost of information, especially when it came to sensitive stuff like financial aid. We’d made fun of it, without acknowledging the emotions the topic can stir.
In fact, we’d been off on tone with both the video and the visual design. By watching the responses from the students, we were learning that the app had to be friendly but expert, cartoony but restrained, vibrant but palatable. Brian, our communications designer, took inspiration from artists like Yves Klein, and gave us an anchor for the visual identity: a digital-only electric blue.
Finding the Magic Formula
For the video, we had one more chance to get it right. So we decided to reach out to Victor, the pro Snapchatter. We sent him a script on how to register for classes and asked him to make it his own. When he sent back his file, the first thing I saw was a badly lit selfie of a guy in an unexciting living room. I thought to myself, “The light is not good; we’ll have to film it again.”
But then he started to talk. “Hey. Have you signed up for classes yet? If not, it’s probably because signing up for classes suuuucks.” The video zoomed in and he got close up, as if pulling the viewer by the collar. Now I felt I had no choice but to tune in and wait for what was to come next.
“There’s a ton of choices, and each choice feels like it influences your career goals, your life path, your eternal fate. And it’s just a treacherous obstacle course of emotions.”
His face exuded agony, then switched quickly to a temporary optimism. “You already know what you’re going to take? Or do you feel like a wandering beacon of uncertainty traversing a parallel hellscape?” He paused with an inquisitive look. And in that moment, I felt what it was like to register for classes. The guy had a knack for speaking in images.
Victor started doing short stories and videos as a kid, inspired by the MTV show Jackass. When Vine came out, Victor had a notebook full of ideas for shorts that he put into action, and quickly amassed over 70,000 followers.
In our video he was authoritative without nagging. He told you what to do and made you feel stupid if you didn’t do it — but always let you see that you were in control. “Hot tip number two: Meet with your adviser. Don’t be scared, get over it! These guys are experts. Their whole job is talking to lost bozos like you all day. Get schooled by a pro! Drop ’em a line!” Note to self: personality trumps production value.
Later I asked Victor how he did it. “I think you have to talk to how they feel and not try to talk in their language. You don’t want to dumb things down.” He continued, “I was able to tweak the script so there is not a clear delineation between the information and the comedy points. I try to blur the lines of entertainment and the message you want to drive home.” Just like that, by not trying to be like a student, he was invited into their club.
Victor’s video perfectly encapsulated the way the app looks, feels, talks and interacts.
We created an app that makes no distinction between content and utility. We borrowed the content-first approach of social apps like Snapchat and Instagram and used it to teach students the skills and strategies they need to graduate. With that, the digital experience became more human. The intricate system that we had designed to power the whole thing was hidden below the surface. For students, the app was just the means to learn how to help themselves and get in touch with a coach when they needed one.
But for me, as a designer, I learned that sometimes a polished and professional design isn’t the most effective. Sometimes when you’re trying to create a great human experience, everything comes to life when you stop trying to control and instead step back and enable.
Beyond 12 is currently out raising funds to develop version 2.0 of their MyCoach app, which they are planning to launch in 2017.