A lot has been written about Snapchat’s design choices and how they led to the company’s explosive growth and eventual IPO. There’s an overall sentiment that, as one writer put it, “it’s not surprising [that Snapchat is] so popular with kiddos, [as it gives] them their own walled garden that their parents can’t reach.” It’s an interesting but rigid argument that I think is missing some critical nuance for product and design leaders seeking actionable takeaways. There aren’t two static groups of outsiders and insiders, but rather a powerful and fluid experience of transcending from one group to the other.
Snapchat’s quirky user experience isn’t designed to keep you out — it’s designed for someone else to let you in.
Consider that Snapchat would be a so-called walled garden regardless of its overall UX decisions, as connecting on it requires a two-way opt-in unlike Twitter. Further, there are numerous other products with intimidating learning curves that require immense training to master, yet no one is clamoring to write a story about the UX for Oracle’s talent acquisition software, Taleo, and that product actually turns a profit.
A frustrating UX that makes users feel unwelcome isn’t a panacea, otherwise we would all be raving about Oracle products
So what is it that makes Snapchat’s particular approach so appealing? It’s two things, and I didn’t fully understand them until I got my Nintendo Switch a couple months ago and started playing the new Legend of Zelda.
Virtually every challenge in the game is designed to take at least three tries. As someone who’s pretty mediocre at video games and fairly impatient, some challenges take me much longer and I get frustrated. My close friend also has the new Legend of Zelda and has beaten many previous editions. So on my way to defeating Calamity Gannon and retaking Hyrule Kingdom I frequently pause the game and text him for help.
The weird thing is that he doesn’t just text me back with a quick explanation of a battle tactic or puzzle solution. He takes the time to go into great detail, often providing far more advice than I requested. Of course, he’s a generous friend, but in this case it may actually be more about what he gets than what I get.
Think about how a group of New Yorkers behaves when a tourist walks up to them asking for directions. Someone shouts about the N train while another is already checking Uber rates. Each city dweller so quickly asserts his or her mastery of the landscape that you might have forgotten that Manhattan was a simple grid in the first place. It’s the same exact situation as when I play Zelda and when some adult tries to create an elaborate story on Snapchat.
Every human wants to feel superior in an asymmetrical relationship. No one enjoys asking for directions, but everyone loves telling you where to go.
Teenagers don’t use Snapchat because of its frustrating user experience per se. They use it because they learned how to access its hidden features, and are now the gatekeepers of its bounties. It’s not about keeping others out, it’s about holding the key to letting them in.
Just about anyone can figure out how to take and send one selfie on Snapchat. The value in being a Snapchat power user though is in knowing and showing others how to add filters, geotagging, and other slick features I probably don’t even know about. The core experience is worthwhile, but the reserved offering is aspirational.
There are many examples across tools you use, or wish you could use, every day. It’s common for enterprise software companies, like HubSpot, to offer paid onboarding, tiered feature pricing, or even academies and certifications. Each is a unique strategy to create power users whose expertise can be publicized on resumes and commercialized throughout their careers.
The wildly successful do-it-yourself website builder, Squarespace, went so far as to create Circle — a private forum, rewards program, and feature set that is only available to people that have built at least three websites on their platform.
Designing features for particular groups of users is of monumental importance. My company’s on-demand user insights platform powers research for product teams at a quarter of the Fortune 100, and we’ve seen significant interest in exploring the behaviors of individuals who use products in particular ways or at certain frequencies and durations. Understanding these patterns can enable practitioners to achieve such business objectives as mitigating the risk of credit card churners or incentivizing seasonal users to become daily active users.
By carefully obfuscating a few features, Snapchat has impressively achieved what eludes so many consumer apps, and what enterprise software solutions dedicate entire departments to.
For product and design leaders that want to reverse engineer Snapchat’s success, there are two key takeaways. First, don’t abandon everything you know about design. For the most part, not making users think too hard is still a fantastic principle. Even when it comes to Snapchat, the magic of sending a disappearing image is fairly accessible to everyone.
Second, you need to consider what value should be exclusively for power users. You know how your non-tech friends think Silicon Valley is a funny show, but you get even more out of it because of the jokes that only you understand and have to explain to them? This is called two-level humor andPixar is the master at it, which is how they get you and your kids to enjoy the same move while giggling at completely different scenes.
So when adding truly useful but perhaps not core features to a product, maybe don’t make them so obvious. Give them a quirky or branded name, put them in a hidden menu, or require a wonky workaround. Humans love gaining mastery and offering solutions, which means sometimes you have to first create some problems for them to struggle with.
You may have to move quickly though. Snapchat has been on a roll, patenting numerous aspects of its interface, with industry analysts expecting the company to double down on personalization for power users. The ‘camera company’ may soon have a monopoly on asymmetrical relationships. It’s high time to decide whether you’ll be an outsider or an insider to it all.