What is Clubhouse?
The most talked about startup of early 2020 is Clubhouse, an audio-based social network where people can spontaneously jump into voice chat rooms together. You see the unlabeled rooms of all the people you follow, and you can join to talk or just listen along, milling around to find what interests you.
An iOS and mostly AirPods exclusive experience, Clubhouse brings a combination of live-streaming and podcasting to a select group of already-popular influencers, mostly in the startup and tech community.
Clubhouse centers around individuals, most of whom have done something remarkable or noteworthy. They represent existing cults of personality (at least, in a more humble, silicon valley form), typically with tens of thousands of Twitter followers, and a pre-built audience.
You notice this when you sign in to the app, and view a list of rooms, centered not around topics, but individual influencers. A Room is defined by who is currently speaking. So, you may receive a notification to join a room where Sahil, Drew, and Tyler are speaking. No profile pages, or lengthy explanations as to who’s here. Either you’re in the know, or you aren’t.
Novel User Interaction, or just Phone Calls?
From a bare-bones user interaction point-of-view, Clubhouse shouldn’t be unique. It’s a group call. iOS supports this natively. As does WhatsApp, FaceTime, Discord, and a countless number of community chat platforms.
But what makes a phone call toxic in 2020, and Clubhouse refreshing?
This boils down to community, curation, and interaction.
Why Voice Works
Video Calls have glued us to our seats. Mobile apps may exist for Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet — but the culture that developed around using these apps in an office setting is preventing us from using them casually.
Moving from our MacBooks to our phones and AirPods, gives us mobility. Removing video reduces friction, and removes the need to “prep for a call”, giving us more flexibility to decide how to hang out with others.
Simply put, adding video introduces more friction to the call experience than it’s worth. Clubhouse introduces a new mode of interaction that can be more spontaneous, casual, and frequent than a Zoom call.
From the article (Inside the Clubhouse), we can put together an onboarding flow, and understand the basic mechanics of how Clubhouse might work.
An invite-only community, it seems like each invitation is a planned event, scheduled in advance. New users receive a TestFlight link, and are welcomed personally by the app’s creator, who explains how the app works.
Since new users are mostly in the same time zone, it is possible the app’s creator receives a notification each time a user downloads the app. Since the user is asked to add a profile photo and enter their real name, this gives the creator a few minutes to intercept the user, and onboard them personally.
After we exchanged pleasantries, Paul explained how the app works. There’s one global “room,” and when you join you start off on mute, but anyone can unmute themselves. When you open the app, it sends push notifications to everyone on the app, so they can join you and chat if they’re free.
Source: Inside the Clubhouse
The End-to-End User Experience
Below are the only published screens for the Clubhouse app. From all accounts, there may not be much else to it.
Inventory of Key Functionality
- Users can create, view, and enter “rooms”, enabling small-scale voice chat
- Users receive notifications each time someone enters the app, or starts a room
- Users can update their username and profile image
During a Clubhouse Chat
- Users begin each chat muted, as a listener
- Users can unmute themselves to become a speaker
- Users can raise their hand to politely interrupt a speaker, or request speaking time
- Users can announce they are leaving the room
- Speakers / Hosts can invite other users to speak
Usability Problems to Solve
As the app scales, a mechanism to identify and follow users will need to exist. Once the app ventures out of its current, tight-knit Bay Area community, new users will need mechanisms to identify broadcasters they wish to follow, and filter out everything else.
- Selective Notifications to Reduce Noise
- User Profiles
New users and those who have activated will need discovery mechanisms to find relevant broadcasters to follow, and listen to.
- Mechanisms to share profiles outside of Clubhouse
- Alerts when live streams begin
Removing Noise During Conversations
Currently, I assume the app lacks moderation tools, and works based on the small scale of the community who uses the app. However, as it grows, it will need additional features to prevent a minority of bad actors from having asymmetric power to destroy Clubhouse conversations.
- Ability for rooms to be moderated by a “Host”
- Ability for hosts to decide who may speak
- Ability for hosts to remove listeners from a Room
- Ability for hosts to assign moderation privileges to others
Podcasts are dead. Long live Podcasts.
My initial impression of a Clubhouse was that it took the format of a Podcast, and took it live. It became something ephemeral, instead of something that filled unused time in our lives, such as a commute.
However, it centers heavily around individual users in a way I can only compare to Tech Twitter. Thought leaders speak at length on topics they care about, and provide value to the community at large.
Each broadcast is less like a Podcast, and more like a Twitter thread.
The Initial Community will Set the Tone
Reddit formed from a group of startup & software-focused power users from Hacker News, who migrated to the early app, which was basically a niche alternative to the more-popular Digg.
What the site initially lacked in functionality, it made up for in focus. Since it started out as a niche community, the quality of the content shared made it unique.
While it’s easy to draw comparisons between Clubhouse and Twitter because of their focus on the influencer, Twttr’s mainstream launch at SXSW in 2007 may have fast-tracked the app’s initial user acquisition, where the initial community of users set the tone for how the network evolves.
This explains the guarded stance Clubhouse’s founder takes to user acquisition. Not only can exclusivity be a powerful marketing tool, but it significantly increases the attention the app receives from top influencers, who have little else to gain from using the app. Knowing that they will eventually define what the app is, it’s important that Clubhouse not rush to find its initial community of users.
Clubhouse opens up new modes of interaction
Clubhouse opens up a new mode of interaction for iOS users, not because of a unique software design, but because widespread adoption of AirPods creates an opportunity to build upon an emerging, new platform.
AirPods as a Platform
AirPods sales are growing rapidly since the 2018 product launch. Initially selling 35 million units, the addition of AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro have driven sales to 60 million additional units in 2019, and a projected 85–100 million additional units in 2020.
By the end of the year, there could be 180–200 million AirPods users worldwide.
Add to this the copycat products for Android with near identical functionality.
Never before have we seen such standardization of hardware to solve a particular problem since the launch of the iPhone.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Apple has created a platform for audio-first experiences beyond music and telephone calls. For designers, this platform provides an exciting and new, completely evergreen experience for building experiences at scale that weren’t previously possible.
- Audio-only navigation, especially for biking and walking directions
- Augmented reality, voice notifications
- Audio-only telecommuting
- Spatial Audio
- Seamless switching between audio sources (music, video, television, real life)
Final, Final Thoughts
- AirPods are more important than you think. This signals the emergence of a new platform for human-computer interaction, and not just a convenient accessory for listening to music.
- Clubhouse is just beginning. Watch out for an explosion of copycats, niche community products, and novel applications for audio-first experiences.
- Phone Calls are Dead. Or at least they were dead, when we started 2020. But if you isolate a billion humans in their homes in lockdown, by the end of the year voice calls will be a solved problem.
Bonus: Listen to a Clubhouse Call (1 hour of audio)
As part of a recent story exposing some “bad behavior” on Clubhouse, a reporter uploaded an hour-long conversation from Clubhouse to SoundCloud, which you can listen to here:
Want to Try it? Want to see what all the fuss is about?
Unfortunately the App is likely to be invite only for the foreseeable future.
But I’ve prototyped the core experience as a Progressive Web App you can try and install on any device. Invite a friend to see how it works.
Join an exclusive community of designers who have read to the end of this specific Medium article:
Feel like this article could be improved?
Send me a Clubhouse invite and show me what I’ve gotten wrong! My Test Flight is ready 🤣