When Bad Design Is Good & Why Snapchat Is Screwed

Sometime over the long holiday when Jess and I were back in Pittsburgh, our youngest cat Straka decided it would be a good idea to chew through the various cords running out the back of the TiVo. This prompted a quick trip to Best Buy – the putative choice for “I need something random in the tech universe at the last minute” now that Radio Shack has gone away – and for reasons that elude me in retrospect, a conversation about Snapchat on the cab ride back to DUMBO.

First, my personal feelings on Snapchat as an incredibly infrequent user: I think it’s fair to say that I get it and that I don’t get it at the same time. I can absolutely believe that it’s got a near hammerlock on the attention span on a very lucrative demographic; I saw that first hand the other day when three teenagers sitting in front of me at a Penguins game were glued to it for three straight hours. I can absolutely believe that it’s got decent potential as a distribution platform, if only for reasons that can generally be explained by this post.

That’s generally where the positives end for me; the second it goes public, I’m buying puts against it. The ability to be a sustainable platform for marketing requires you to present to the marketer as much demographic information as possible, since there is an obvious and direct correlation between targeting, conversion, and ROI. As far as I know, Snapchat offers very little of this, and certainly a laughable amount compared to it’s peers in Facebook and Twitter. Beyond that, there are obvious questions around the buying power of the userbase, the lack of brand safety given some of the more..salacious uses of Snapchat, the complete lack of switching cost that ephemerality destroys, and the unclear conversion funnels and units available on the buy side.

That’s not the biggest problem though. Their biggest problem is the UX, and it’s a problem that will kill them.

Let’s take a step back for a second: why do we think Snapchat (and to a lesser extent, Kik and the like) grew like it did, leaving Facebook and Instagram in the dust? The answer is simple: parents joined Facebook. What’s the point of being a teenager and doing morally and judgmentally dubious things if your Mom can find out about it and even worse, comment on it?

In that privacy vacuum, Snapchat emerged. Not only did it offer ephemerality, but a dense, complicated UX that was virtually guaranteed to be too confusing for anyone above a certain age to understand. This is the inflection point when bad design became good, designed intentionally to be confusing in order create enough of a learning curve to ensure that only the savviest and the familiar (ie: long-time users, which is to say, the teenagers trying to escape their parents’ watchful eye) would be able to use it.

(If you don’t believe me, go ask your Dad if he’s heard of Snapchat, and when he says no, show it to him and ask him what it’s for and how to use it.)

Of course, it’s also true on the other side that this intentionally difficult UX is what will ultimately kill them. Facebook is a fantastic business because it knows what just about every media company ever knows: revenue scales on audience. They became an exponentially more valuable company when they decided to open it beyond Harvard, just like they became an exponentially more valuable company when they opened it up beyond college students, and so on and so on. It’s simple math: the top of the funnel got almost infinitely bigger, and as it did, interest from advertisers got infinitely larger. And boom, it happened: Facebook took it’s largest asset – demographic and interest data that you willingly gave it – and packaged it for sale.

Snapchat won’t have any of that expansion without fundamentally changing the UI, but doing so will alienate their only core population and take away the only strong reason they have for being loyal to the app. They might resist that urge as a private company, but I’m certainly curious how and if they’ll be able to resist it as a public one. If they can’t and are forced to redesign, their complete lack of switching cost will do them in, as the teenagers they built their empire on will simply find another platform in which to document their dumb decisions.

It’s going to be an interesting ride, one that I will short all the way to the wastelands of Zynga, Groupon, and others.


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