What we can learn from the Snapchat’s failed redesign

When Snapchat rolled out their new interface in Q4 ‘17, they faced severe backlash — Change.org gathered nearly 1.3M signatures of users petitioning to rollback the update. While Snapchat tried to convince users that this was just an update that required getting used to, after disappointing Q1 ‘18 results, both in terms of advertising revenues and user growth, Snapchat announced the plan to redesign that essentially rolls back some of the changes.

Why didn’t the backlash subside and give way to user behavior adjusting to match the redesign? Why didn’t metrics improve as the redesign had intended? And most importantly, what can product leaders learn from it? We’re going to use Radical Product thinking to delve into these questions.

Background on the redesign

Facebook and Instagram, who had copied Snapchat’s key feature of Stories, were out-performing Snapchat on user growth and revenues. Stockholder pressure was mounting as Instagram announced their metrics crushing Snapchat’s, and later as Snap announced their Q3 ’17 earnings.

Snap in response to these market pressures, rolled out a redesign that included the following key features. On the face of it, most of these features look like they would increase revenues for Snapchat:

  1. Separating user-created Stories from those created by celebrities and brands: Originally Stories used to be in Discover so that first you would first view Stories by friends and as you keep scrolling down you could discover those created by brands and celebrities. By reserving the Discover section for publishers, users didn’t have to scroll through all their friends’ Stories just to get to the publishers’ content — Snapchat could charge higher rates as placement would be much higher on the page.
  2. Mixing Stories with Chats: Leaked data showed that users were mostly using Snapchat as a chat messenger for sending a high volume of pictures. But the usage of Stories was falling behind — this was an issue because Stories were monetized since they contained advertising but the Chat functionality wasn’t directly contributing to revenues. By mixing Stories with the heavily used Chat functionality, Snapchat could increase viewing (and possibly creation) of Stories while also increasing revenues from advertising inserted between Stories and in the form of Promoted Stories.
  3. Algorithmic sorting: While users are used to seeing their Chats in reverse chronological order, if Stories and Chats are mixed together, algorithmic ordering could bring order to chaos by showing a user Stories and Chats from friends they care about the most. Further, algorithmic decision-making on the order of stories would be helpful for the placement of ads in Stories and Promoted Stories.

What went wrong

If all these features were designed to increase revenues for Snapchat, where did Snapchat go wrong in releasing these features? Let’s use Radical Product thinking to evaluate these features to understand what happened. An important element of this product thinking is the prioritization approach below — by evaluating opportunities against Vision Fit and Sustainability you’re trading-off getting closer to achieving the vision vs. balancing the practical constraints of mitigating short-term risks.

To use this rubric, we need to define the two terms specifically for Snapchat’s product:

1. Vision

CEO, Spiegel, once described Snapchat’s product vision as as the next evolution in how people communicate, that is ephemeral, visual, instantaneous, and intimate. Based on these words from Spiegel and usage statistics from leaked data we have filled out the Radical Vision worksheet for Snapchat to create a cohesive product vision.

Today, when youth (typically teenagers) want to communicate in a visual manner, they have to send each other picture messages or post on social media. This is unacceptable, because it doesn’t reflect our communication and interactions in real life. We envision a world where people can talk in pictures in an experience that is ephemeral, instantaneous and intimate, just like real-life conversations. We are bringing this world about through an app where you can share messages, pictures and a visual narrative that disappears after 24 hours.

2. Sustainability:

Being a public company with volatile stock and a market cap that has more than halved since its IPO, Snapchat’s biggest existential risk is Stakeholder Risk — the Board can force changes if they see the need. Improving Sustainability means mitigating this Stakeholder Risk and requires meeting/ beating market expectations on the key metrics of user growth and revenues.

With these 2 terms defined, let’s plot the features for the redesign on this rubric. We already established earlier in the post that all of these features were designed to increase revenues, i.e. they Improve Sustainability and would fall in one of the right hand quadrants. Now lets evaluate these features for Vision Fit:

  1. Separating user-created Stories from those created by celebrities and brands: This change made it hard to discover stories published by your friends or know when your friend published a new Story. It made if harder for people to talk in pictures — a Low Vision Fit.
  2. Mixing Stories with Chats: This feature made the app seem like conventional social media to the extent that one analyst asked if Snapchat should consider adding a news feed when they announced this feature. Mixing Stories into Chats was diluting the “best friend engagement” in the app. As a result it’s a Low Vision Fit.
  3. Algorithmic ordering of Stories and Chats: Imagine your SMS messages were suddenly ordered based on an algorithm rather than in reverse chronological order. You’d most probably miss messages from your friends and family and be very annoyed over it. It would be completely unlike real-life interactions using messaging and very contrary to intimate interactions when an algorithm is deciding which friends’ messages are important enough to show you. Certainly a Low Vision Fit.

Plotting these features on the Prioritization rubric, we see that all the major features are clustered in the Vision Debt quadrant, i.e. these features reduce risk exposure, but they are a poor vision fit; pursuing these features results in “vision debt”. Incurring vision debt can help keep you alive during tough times, but ultimately will derail your efforts if too much is allowed to accumulate. You can use vision debt wisely to get to your next milestone, but don’t let it build up over time.

In Snapchat’s case, with all features clustered in the Vision Debt quadrant, the redesign didn’t acknowledge how the product is used today. The redesign wasn’t just a matter of users having to get used to a new interface, the problem was really that all the major features went against the product vision and hence the rebellion from users. There weren’t any key features in the Vision Investment or Ideal quadrants to offset the Vision Debt and to give users functionality that was more in line with what they wanted from Snapchat. Accumulating vision debt led to angry customers and the perception that Snapchat is confused about its mission. As a result, the revenue growth that these features were designed for, didn’t come through.

What can Product Leaders learn from Snapchat?

While we’ve used Snapchat as an example, most of us have had to make decisions to mitigate short-term risk at the expense of deviating from our vision — maybe we chose to pursue a sales opportunity requiring custom work that was not aligned with the product vision, or perhaps we added AI into our product to attract investors even while we knew that it wasn’t a high priority to solve the customer’s main pain point.

By bringing Radical Product thinking into your organization and using this shared language and framework for evaluating opportunities, you’ll be able to identify the balance your roadmap (or product release) is striking between getting closer to the vision vs. realizing short-term benefits.

As you use this rubric for discussing prioritization rationale, you’ll get more buy-in from your team, while empowering them to evaluate features using the same approach. Further, if you give your team tools to evaluate opportunities the way you do, the decisions made when you cannot be present are more likely to be aligned with your collective goals.

Start by crafting your Vision and Sustainability statement using the free and open source Radical Product toolkit. Depending on your style, you can do this by yourself or as a team exercise where you craft these statements individually and then compare notes. To use this prioritization approach, we recommend drawing up the 2x2 rubric on a whiteboard and using Post-its to place features or opportunities in different quadrants. Use this to bring product thinking into your next sprint planning meeting to prioritize your backlog, or your next strategy meeting when you’re debating whether to pursue a sales opportunity. We look forward to hearing about your experiences!

Radical Product is a movement that provides a methodology for strategic product thinking, in a similar way that Lean and Agile provided a methodology for feedback-driven execution. Share your experiences as you use the the free and open source Radical Product toolkit to bring Radical Product thinking into your organization.