At WWDC17, I sat down with John Geleynse to hear feedback on Tower. In the middle of the conversation, I tried to justify our original swiping-based interface by mentioning Snapchat. John jumped up and said, “Never use Snapchat as a reference for UX again.”
As the Head of Design and Engineering Evangelism at Apple, it made sense that he was right. Less than a year later, Snapchat released an update to make their app more user-friendly, trying to appeal to an audience with a greater age range.
Even with horrible UX, kids my age are still flocking to Snapchat and Instagram, leaving Facebook behind in the dust. The proof is in the numbers: only 51% of teens say they use Facebook in 2018, yet 69% and 72% use Snapchat and Instagram, respectively.
How is this possible? What allows teens to open Snapchat and Instagram constantly but stay away from Facebook? And vice versa: why do adults love using Facebook yet are baffled by the other social media?
The answer is what the two generations do equally well: text.
In both Snapchat and Instagram, almost every button appears without text. While teens are accustomed to icon-filled interfaces, adults still cling to keyboards.
Just look at the tab bars for all three apps.
Instagram and Snapchat’s tab bar icons are completely ambiguous. What does a house or a heart mean? What’s the difference between the Memories icon and the Discover icon, both made up of two rectangles? For teens, it’s obvious. The design of the page influences the icon assigned to it. Likes on Instagram posts are signaled by a heart. The Discover page is filled with cards, so naturally its icon is a simplified view.
Facebook, with its ever-growing list of menus, has opted to label each one. Users on the Facebook iOS app now see labels appear whenever they navigate to a different tab. Before adults have to ask their kids, “What does this do?” Facebook lets them know.
Instagram and Facebook share their most common use case: posting content for friends and family to see. Instagram’s UI has always been one that prioritizes photos, while Facebook’s prioritizes captions.
The reason Instagram succeeds with that UI can also be seen through the numbers. Teens simply have staggeringly low attention-spans. The fast-paced, brightly colored scrolling of Instagram and the red-notification-filled, ephemeral feel of Snapchat fit it perfectly.
Teens can zoom through streaks, pause to show their parents a snap, and when it disappears, their parents say, “Wait, what just happened?”
Meanwhile, on Facebook, adults can take their time; zoom, tap around, and read about their friends’ lives. For teens, the thought process is that there simply isn’t time for slowing down in the fast-paced, push-notification based world.
Swiping vs. Tapping
The biggest pain point for Snapchat usability has been navigation. In the app, you can swipe in every direction and even pinch in and out to access different screens.
While that’s pretty straightforward for teens, the fact is adults are still used to pointing and clicking. Facebook represents that the best: there’s almost no swiping needed in Facebook to access a screen; everything’s just a tap, or as adults say it, a click, away.
What’s next for Snapchat and Facebook
During the #deletefacebook period of 2018, Mark Zuckerberg expressed that the movement hasn’t hurt Facebook at all. And in response to the recent research done by The Guardian, Zuck said he didn’t care about the loss of teens from the platform.
On the other side of things, Snapchat’s growth has stalled, and Evan Spiegel has realized the bleak future of purely relying on investing in the young demographic to boost Snapchat downloads instead of investing in Snap’s design team. Instagram has copied a bunch of Snapchat’s features, and it’s paid off: people are now ditching Snapchat Stories for Instagram Stories.
The reluctance to change Snapchat’s UX to capture a wider audience hurt it in the long term, and when Snapchat tried to change, things only got worse.
Snap’s failed recent redesign tried to capture more users with a nav bar in addition to its swipe-based interface and more tap-to-go buttons, instead of actions that were swipe-only beforehand. Unexpectedly to Spiegel, the backlash to these sweeping changes has forced them to revert to some extent. Snapchat’s future is looking awry, with hundreds of millions of teens still clinging to the platform, but also complaining about it.
Another fact to point out is that Instagram is owned by Facebook, so Zuckerberg isn’t losing out after all.
How can future founders learn from this
These examples of success in opposite generations are a fair warning to people designing the next wave of top apps: strike a balance.
Older apps still have tiny labels beneath their tab bar icons. More recent apps make a compromise by having no label in the tab bar itself, but a header in their navigation bar.
Snapchat and Instagram deprecated text in favor of photos in their early days. Now, they embrace it in a subtle way by allowing the font of captions to be changed.
And design systems like Material allow for different sizes of fonts to be created automatically, assisting designers in creating interfaces that focus on both visual and text-based content.
To bring your app to a wider audience, create adaptable interfaces, one that is usable, but more importantly, appealing to both ends of the age spectrum.
And, to increase your app’s audience even further, incorporate accessibility awareness into its design. Dynamic type, audio feedback, and AssitiveTouch are all amazing features that help more people enjoy the solution you designed.
Sources: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/16/parents-killed-it-facebook-losing-teenage-users, http://bigthink.com/news/why-are-so-many-american-kids-ditching-facebook, https://gizmodo.com/facebook-officially-less-popular-with-american-teens-th-1826477179, and last but not least, GIPHY!