December 24, 2013

Is The New Snapchat Brilliant Or Totally Boneheaded?

Snapchat quietly released a major update to the popular photo and video messaging app Friday night, with the following additions described in its release notes:

  • Smart Filters - Add data overlays to your Snaps!
  • Visual Filters
  • Replay
  • Special Text
  • Front-Facing Flash
  • Up to 7 Best Friends

As a Snapchat fan and FOMO victim, I quickly downloaded the update and poked around.

I sat on my couch hunting for the filters, special text, and other features promised in the release notes. They were nowhere to be found. “What am I doing wrong?” I thought to myself. I even tried uninstalling and re-downloading the app, thinking I had encountered a caching bug. That didn’t work. It took a friend on Twitter to inform me the new features had to be enabled deep within the settings.

I wasn’t the only one. My Twitter feed was filled with people asking how to enable the new features. My Snapchat friends replied to my filter-enhanced snaps curious how I had acquired my newfound powers. Clearly, people were confused as the tech community quickly jumped in, criticizing the rollout and changes to the product.

Without a doubt, Snapchat 6.1 did a poor job of communicating its new features and how to use them, causing a lot of confusion. Many questioned the changes as antithesis to the nature of its ephemeral, intimate communications. Snapchat was once so very simple and pure. Filters introduce more toggles and obscure the raw, unedited visuals. Replays destroy ephemerality, allowing users to view snaps more than once.

But of course, Evan Spiegel and Team Snapchat didn’t release the update on a whim. All of this was very intentional and despite what critics say, more brilliant than boneheaded. Here’s why.

New Snapchat Gives Users Control

Immediately after release, Hunter Owens, posted the update on Product Hunt and a discussion with Adam Besvinick, Ryan Lawler, Will Dennis, Owen Williams, Josh Elman, Buster Benson, and others added their thoughts.

Typically, product creators release new updates to everyone, enabling new features by default. Snapchat took the exact opposite approach, disabling new features by default, requiring users to dig into the settings to enable them. Why? Josh Miller said it best:

They probably put it in Settings because addicted users will turn them on and test their value for everyone else. That way you can be experimental without adding feature baggage (cough cough Facebook).

Reality is, people that want to use the new features will find and use them. Snapchat hid these in the settings to avoid potentially compromising the experience for existing users. We’re all familiar the inevitable backlash that occurs when popular services make a change, even when it’s clearly for the better. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and many other widely successful companies ebb and flow through backlash. Snapchat avoided this by giving its users complete control. Those that don’t want the new features don’t have to use them.

New Snapchat Inspires Word-of-Mouth

As previously mentioned, I struggled to find out how to use Snapchat’s new features, turning to my friends on Twitter to help. By making it non-intuitive, Snapchat got me and many others talking. It inspired word-of-mouth (WOM), spreading news of the update and re-engaging users. This isn’t the first time they’ve used similar WOM growth tactics.

Did you know Snapchat has offered filters for several months already? After capturing a snap, enter the words “B&W…” to transform it into a black-and-white photo or video. When unknowing users receive these B&W snaps, they become naturally curious, asking how it was done. Easter eggs like this can spike engagement and user acquisition by encouraging WOM.

New Snapchat Provides More Context

Snapchat is about communication. Photos and video provide far more context than traditional text or emoticons. Unlike Instagram and most photo and video-sharing services that allow users to load media from one’s camera roll, snaps are captured within the app and shared within the moment to communicate one’s current status.

Smart filters provide even more context, allowing users to layer the temperature, time, or even speed (MPH) of the object captured, into the conversation. It’s unique, fun, and a preview of the product’s long-term direction.

New Snapchat Reduces Inhibitions

Some argue that filters don’t align with Snapchat’s narrative, devaluing the authenticity and intimacy of its unedited communication. I disagree. Snapchat is the fastest way to visually communicate with others. Physical speed - the time it takes to launch the app and share a snap - isn’t the only key to its innovation. Cognitive hesitation is arguably more important.

Disappearing photos and videos is a core component of Snapchat’s design, reducing inhibitions to create and share. This is especially important when sharing intimate selfies (admittedly, I share few Frontback selfies because of my self-consciousness). Filters further reduce inhibitions by masking our baggy eyes, pimples, and other imperfections that introduce hesitation to share.

New Snapchat Opens Doors to Monetize

As far as we know, Snapchat has yet to make its first dollar, practicing monetization abstinence in favor of engagement and growth. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it. In an interview on June 2013, Evan Spiegel revealed that, “In-app transactions will come first. We think we can build really cool stuff people want to pay for. The app is now a part of everyone’s day-to-day lives. That means that they will — I at least would — pay for a more unique experience.”

Talk is cheap but Snapchat 6.1 is a clear step in that direction, giving users a very limited number of advanced features to enhance their experience. It’s not hard to imagine Snapchat charging for additional filters, fonts, and other ways to uniquely express oneself. Like a drug dealer, the first hit is free as its most avid users become accustomed to the fun new toys, seeking more. This is common practice in freemium gaming where players are given small amounts of virtual currency to purchase in-game content - just enough to hook them. It’s not malicious, it’s smart and that’s exactly what Snapchat will do.

The tech community continues to criticize and speculate about Snapchat since its inception and that’s a good thing for Evan Spiegel and team. The the most transformative products are usually polarizing. Many didn’t think Facebook could expand beyond its college roots. Twitter’s 140-character status updates were discounted as a pointless distraction. People perceived Instagram and its photo-filters as a flash in the pan.

Snapchat will continue to breed speculation but only time will tell whether Snapchat 6.1 and its future updates evolve in the right direction.

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter (@rrhoover) and subscribe to my blog for more essays on product design and startups.

This essay originally appeared in FastCo.

More Writing by Ryan