Snapchat Finally Admitted It’s Really Confusing

Now comes the hard part.

170810_UFEA_PHT06Two youngsters are looking at maps, on which friends are marked, on Snapchat a social media app on a smartphone on August 10, 2017 in Duelmen, Germany.
Like, how did they even get to that map?

Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

This week, for the first time, Snap admitted what millions of people over the age of 30 have known for years: Its app is really, really confusing.

The confession came as part of the company’s earnings report Tuesday, which showed a third straight quarter of disappointing user growth. “One thing we have heard over the years is that Snapchat is difficult to understand or hard to use, and our team has been working on responding to this feedback,” CEO Evan Spiegel said in a prepared statement. “As a result, we are currently redesigning our application to make it easier to use.”

You can imagine how vindicating this feels to a thirtysomething tech journalist who once wrote a soul-searching 2,500-word essay headlined, “Is Snapchat Really Confusing, or Am I Just Old?” Thanks for making me feel a little younger, Evan!

That said, the age divide is real, and solving it will be the key to Snap’s future. The company said it now reaches more than 70 percent of people between the ages of 13 and 34 in the United States and several other major, developed countries. That’s very impressive! It is particularly popular among iPhone users. But it has so far failed to establish its value to those over 34, Android users, and people in developing countries. “This means,” Spiegel conceded, “that we will have to make some changes to our product and business.”

What those changes will look like is not yet clear. But the company dropped some intriguing hints.

The big changes won’t stop at the UI, however. Spiegel said the redesigned Snapchat will also feature a “more personalized” Stories feed that will use machine-learning software to surface “relevant” content for each user. That almost certainly means a ranking algorithm like the one that powers the Facebook news feed—a feature Snapchat has explicitly rejected in the past. Spiegel said the goal is to implement this software “while still maintaining the exploratory nature of our service.”

It’s safe to assume that any redesign targeting an older audience will include clearer signals on how to navigate the app. Right now, just knowing which way to swipe when you open it feels like a shibboleth separating the olds from the youths. That might mean replacing runic symbols like the ghost, the lightning bolt, and the three dots with more familiar icons. What it probably won’t mean is opening the app to anything other than the camera: Spiegel said Snapchat considers it crucial that users get to the camera as quickly as possible, “because people use our service to quickly capture moments to share with friends.”

I wrote at length recently about Snapchat’s philosophy of prioritizing intuition over data, exploration over convenience, and manual curation over automation. I argued that this approach helps to explain both why Snapchat is so beloved by its young cognoscenti and why it’s so inscrutable to the rest of us. If that’s true, Snap faces some real trade-offs between user growth and loyalty. It’s easier to love something when it feels like it belongs to you and your friends, and much harder to love it when it’s engineered for the least common denominator. The moment Snapchat becomes intelligible to parents, it will lose a portion of its appeal to their kids.

Spiegel, to his credit, now acknowledges this. “There is a strong likelihood,” he wrote in Tuesday’s report to investors, “that the redesign of our application will be disruptive to our business in the short term, and we don’t yet know how the behavior of our community will change when they begin to use our updated application. We’re willing to take that risk for what we believe are substantial longterm benefits to our business.” It’s amazing how three straight quarters of disappointing performance can clarify a company’s priorities.

Again, though, it’s one thing to say and another to accomplish—as another struggling social media company, Twitter, can attest. In many ways, Snap’s situation parallels that of Twitter, whose user growth also plateaued right around the time the company went public. The difference: Snapchat is beloved by young people and shunned by olds, whereas Twitter is beloved by celebrities and the media and shunned by people who lack a compelling need to advance their “personal brand.”

Of the two problems, Snap’s should be easier to solve. On the other hand, Snap might have a harder road, because powerful rival Facebook has deemed it more of a threat than Twitter and essentially targeted it for replication and destruction.

At least one former Twitterer seemed to find a bit of schadenfreude in Snap’s plight on Tuesday. Jim Prosser, Twitter’s former head of corporate and policy communications, wrote: