October 7, 2013

Frontback: The Gift and Curse of Selfies

This essay was originally published on PandoDaily.

For many, success in mobile apps seems like winning the lottery. There is just so much competition. You’ve got an idea for a photo app? Forget it. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, the built-in Camera app, and thousands of others already did it.

Just when you thought there wasn’t room for another photo-sharing app, Frontback enters the scene, capturing the attention of tech luminaries like Jack Dorsey, Kevin Rose, and Ashton Kutcher.

The app launched in mid-July, attracting more than 200,000 selfie-loving users! How on earth did they accomplish this? More features? Nope. Frontback lacks photo filters, doodles, stickers, and even social comments. So what makes it so popular?

Although Frontback commands a tiny fraction of the photo app market, its early traction is impressive, especially considering the app was built in only four weeks thanks in part to its simplicity. Like most photo-sharing apps, Frontback presents a feed of pictures when the app is opened. To post your own “#frontback”, tap the camera button and snap a photo using your back-facing camera. Standard, right? What makes Frontback unique is the next step. After the first photo is captured - typically in the direction one is facing - the focus flips 180 degrees to the front-facing camera. That’s right. It’s selfie time. The facial expression adds context to the first photo taken, as if it’s the punchline to the narrative. It’s silly, fun, and simple.

The Beauty of Frontback

Behind Frontback’s veil of simplicity is good design. It gets a lot of things right.

  • It does less. Frontback relieves users of the Paradox of Choice. Limitations reduce cognitive overhead and decision-making hesitation, to encourage more frequent, frictionless creation. We’ve all toiled to write a clever caption for our Facebook photos. That’s friction. Frontback avoids this.
  • It’s unique. By doing less, the team was able to focus on something underutilized by other photo-sharing apps: the front-facing camera. In doing so, they created a new paradigm in photo-sharing. It’s not trying to be Instagram or Snapchat. It stands on its own. This differentiation is especially important in the crowded photo-sharing market where users are invested in existing solutions, habitually turning to photo app incumbents to connect with friends, capture memories, or kill boredom.
  • But, it’s not too unique. Uniqueness is often a requisite to compete in crowded markets but if the product is too unique, its steep learning curve may turn users away. The more unfamiliar it is to users, the steeper the curve. Frontback mitigates this by leveraging two familiar behaviors: snapping photos with the back-facing camera and selfies. These interactions stand on their own as familiar but when combined, create a new, less-familiar way of expression.
  • It’s inspiring. Learning how to use the product is foundational, but users must also be inspired and motivated to create. Frontback encourages this by highlighting creative posts in the feed. These “Staff Picks” teach users how to “frontback”, inspiring people to mimic or model after others’ inventiveness, similar to Vine’s Editor’s Picks. This also taps into our vanity, motivating users to earn their 15 minutes of fame by creating compelling content.
  • It makes vanity socially acceptable. Every community has its own mores and understanding of what is acceptable. Frontback’s Staff Picks not only inspire creation, they reinforce social acceptance of selfies because everyone is doing it. Some worry others will judge their Instagram and Facebook selfies as vain and self-indulgent. On Frontback, this is what you do. This expectation makes something many people want to do - snap selfies - acceptable. Frontback becomes their selfie outlet.

Shooting Itself in the Face

But with all of the things Frontback gets right, it suffers from a innate human sensation: self-consciousness. I recently posted this photo:

“Damn, I look like shit. Looks like I barely got a wink of sleep with those baggy eyes.” These thoughts went through my head before posting my selfie to the world. Admittedly, there are times when I took a photo and deleted it because I felt so self-conscious, fearing social rejection.

We can all relate to this feeling. Face it, we’re all a bit vain. In part, vanity fuels the selfie-movement but it also introduces significant friction to Frontback. Self-consciousness bring hesitation when using the service, especially for more introverted individuals.

Demotivation: An Engagement Killer

As BJ Fogg describes, action - a user behavior such as sharing a photo on Frontback - requires motivation. People are motivated by pleasure, hope, and social acceptance. Frontback delivers pleasure in its feed of witty, creative photos of friends and Staff Picks. The moment a fellow users “hearts” a post, its creator receives social acceptance, appreciation for their contribution.

But negative emotions also direct our behavior. We want to avoid pain, fear, and social rejection and in many cases these negative emotions are more powerful in influencing behavior than positive feelings. While Frontback motivates users through positive emotions, it also demotivates users by introducing self-consciousness, resulting in increased hesitation to share or in some cases, abandonment of the product.

Snapchat successfully addresses these self-conscious concerns through ephemerality. We are more willing to expose our imperfections when we know they will not persist, reducing our inhibitions to share. Frontback photos last forever. Instagram mitigates these concerns using photo filters, making our life experiences appear more grandiose and desirable. This beautiful mask reduces concerns of social rejected meanwhile hiding zits, baggy eyes, and other blemishes.

Of course ephemerality and photo filters are obvious, fashionable approaches to reducing self-consciousness but they may not be the right solutions for Frontback. The best products are designed by those that understand the user narrative, the feelings and thoughts of people. Product creators that exemplify a keen awareness of what demotivates people is just as important as understanding what motivates them.

Although Frontback isn’t perfect - like the unaltered selfies its users share - it demonstrates there is always room in crowded markets for innovation.

More Writing by Ryan