I don’t like Snapchat
The app has a complex user interface. It is not predictable. You can’t tell where you are because the iconography is not descriptive, and it is hard to accurately guess the outcomes of most interactions. Also, a lot of features are hidden and only accessible through gestures. The app’s poor affordances require users to act first, without knowing what is going to happen next.
The reason Snapchat is doing really well is because it has built a strong community around an innovative idea and a sense of exclusivity. By pioneering the idea of self-destructing messages, it made the ephemerality of content an engaging feature that appealed to early adopters and a young audience. And since users interact with each other in a completely different way than they would on other social media, the interface had to be unconventional: it pushed people to talk about the app, both online, through many tutorials and posts, and offline, to their friends. Relying on the strong community of innovators is what helped Snapchat become so popular.
Despite the many deliberate flaws in affordances, Snapchat is doing a great job at leveraging a key UX component: learnability. Learnability measures how easily and efficiently a new product can be used by a user. You can assess the learnability of an interface by examining how well users accomplish tasks during the first-time use, but you also need to look at it over time. This is where efficiency is important. We want to know if users are completing tasks error-free faster.
You can’t tell where you are because the iconography is not descriptive, and it is hard to accurately guess the outcomes of most interactions.
Snapchat has a steep learning curve. The app displays a few basic onboarding comments layered on top of the UI the first time you open the app, which help to get over the initial confusion, but everything else the users have to discover by themselves. Depending on the type of user, it can either be an exciting or a truly frustrating experience. A lot of Snapchat’s features are not intuitive at all. For instance, to activate selfie lenses you need to tap and hold the screen while your camera is active and then swipe to select the desired lense. Nothing is actually giving you a clue that you can activate selfie lenses, apart from your friends sending you snaps of them puking rainbows.
So it takes time to master the app, but interestingly enough once you learn the interface, you become very efficient at it, thanks to all the features hidden within gestures. For instance, double tapping on the screen while taking a snap switches the camera. The selfie lenses functionality, difficult to find and use the first time, is actually very easy to access once you know where it is and faster than if Snapchat had hidden it under layers of nav. In the world where it is all about discovering new content, hidden functionalities provide users with a sense of delight. The app feels fresh all the time, full of new features, or at least new filters, that you can discover. It provides for a fun social experience and a sense of achievement. So not having the easiest interface to learn and hiding some advanced features can give users better results in the long run.
Which products benefit from learnable interfaces
Learnable interfaces with long learning curves are not for all products. If you make something too difficult to learn you might just end up with 12 Angry Men on Twitter. Users will learn how to use your app only if it’s something that is worth their time, money and effort; something they’ll use often and will be excited about. Snapchat hit the nail on the head, being free, with the basic easy-to-learn features and addictive spiral of catching up that makes putting the phone down really hard. Users will also be interested if the product has no alternatives on the market—Snapchat pioneered the idea of ephemeral content, which cemented its perception as the leading platform in the category. Now we see Instagram and Facebook catching up and releasing similar features. Finally, the devoted digital-native community allows Snapchat to introduce and experiment with new UX patterns, without the fear of disengagement. Discovering new features actually feels rewarding, social and addictive, and the app stays relevant because of it. FOMO rules, after all. P.S. I still don’t like it.