Before Secret was Secret, the anonymous sharing app burning up the iTunes charts, it was Whispr, an ephemeral messaging service that incidentally had the same name as the startup’s current chief competitor, Whisper. The idea was to enable users to send anonymous notes to friends or loved ones that would disappear (much like photos on Snapchat), as cofounder David Byttow did with his girlfriend one weekend last year as he was first testing the app. “I sent her this [anonymous] SMS that said, ‘Someone Whispred to you,'” Byttow recalls, smiling. “She got it. The message appeared, and then she called me and was like, ‘Is this you?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Of course she knew it was me.”
So much for anonymity. But since rebranding and launching in early 2014 as Secret, a service that lets you anonymously broadcast messages to friends and strangers, Byttow has ironed out the initial kinks of his app. Secret has become one of the most refreshing services in the social space. In an ocean of anonymous sharing apps–Whisper, Yik Yak, Wut, Truth–Secret stands out for its elegant design and stripped-down feature set, partly why just this week it was able to raise $25 million at a $100 million valuation. As Byttow tells me, anonymity in the digital age isn’t new; he and cofounder Chrys Bader’s aim was simply to make anonymous sharing “more beautiful,” an approach they feel has even encouraged users to feel more comfortable sharing personal details about their lives.
But to get there, the pair had to overcome a slew of design misfires, to the point where they almost gave up altogether. “With anonymity, you don’t have names, profiles, or profile pictures, so the standard design for social networks must change dramatically,” Bader explains. “How do you build for that?” And as polished as Secret’s solution is, the question remains whether the design is best optimized to mitigate the perils of anonymous sharing like cyber bulling.
To share a Secret, users just have to open the app and type a short message, which can be overlaid on a tile with a color or photo background. When posted, the Secret is sent out anonymously to your social graph, a simple, deceptively enjoyable confessional. “I drink more than people know, even my spouse,” reads one recent Secret, with a picture of a martini underneath. Secret has shared specific usership figures–it’s been up and down in the app ranking charts, at least domestically–but the company indicates that 75% of people with more than five friends come back to the app every day.
The app has come a long way since Byttow and Bader’s first crack at anonymous sharing, a one-to-one messaging platform they originally planned to call Whispr. The cofounders had previously met at Google and worked together on Google+, a social network that was, from a design perspective, the antithesis of Whispr. “We looked at it like passing notes in class: You could basically write a message, select anyone from your address book whether they were on the platform or not, and deliver the message via SMS or email or through an app,” recalls Bader, the startup’s head designer. “When you open the message, it would unfold, and after a certain number of seconds, it would explode or blow away, like sand in the wind.”
The app itself was bare bones, a spartan design that enabled users to send anonymous messages to one another, but not much more. At core, though, the seeds of Secret were there, and Byttow and Bader learned the importance of fostering dialogue with anonymous sharing (commenting in Secret is arguably it’s most compelling feature). They also noticed the oft-titillating pleasure of receiving an anonymous message. But after testing it out with friends, the duo realized that adding a layer of ephemerality on top of anonymity was too much to cram into one service, a lesson that dramatically changed the startup’s course. “The problem was you’d come back to the app and it’d just be a list of [old, unclickable messages] like on Snapchat,” Bader says. “There was no return value.”
Ultimately, the team felt the idea that started with Whispr wasn’t strong enough; Byttow even says the concept of direct anonymous messaging “felt shady.” They showed the prototype to investors, but were turned down. “That was one of those moments where we said, ‘Should we keep going? Or is that it?'” recalls Bader. “People liked the app, but there just weren’t enough situations where you wanted to send one person a message on this medium. People loved sending anonymous messages, and loved receiving them, so the question was, How do we get people to do that more often?”
Days after VCs panned their app, the two were on a walk through South Park, according to Byttow, when they came up with the concept for an anonymous broadcast network. The idea was sort of a Twitter for secrets, but with a clever twist: Instead of sharing with followers, Secret’s anonymized messages would be shared with the contacts in your phonebook, and their friends, a personalized approach that would keep Secret’s content fresh and close to home. “Within 10 minutes, we had the whole product figured out,” Byttow says.
Designing the service, though, would take more effort than a leisurely walk around San Francisco. At first, Bader adopted many of the design principles of their original Whispr interface, including its ultra-minimalist black-and-white skin, which Bader says he wanted to be no more complicated than “black text on a white piece of paper.” Bader went so far is to set design rules for the Secret experience: “There would be no gradients; no drop shadows; it would all be flat,” he says. “Originally, I even had a rule that there would be no color.”
Bader eventually realized the no-color rule was untenable if not draconian; the resulting app itself looked as if the team basically forgot to design it. But the exercise in simplicity worked to rid clutter from the service and forced Bader to distill the experience down to its essentials. His OCD approach is the reason Secret doesn’t allow users to select different fonts, and why Secrets are arranged in a symmetrical feed. “I’ve been very against letting people decide where to put the text [in a Secret message], ” Bader says–when you open a new post and type a message, it’s always center justified, so readers can scroll through their feeds without having to dart their eyes around looking for content. It’s design decisions like this that have made Secret into the cleanest anonymous-sharing experience, especially when compared with competitors like Whisper, which offers more flexible interactions that are far clunkier (and frankly uglier). Most actions in the service take no more than one click, giving the app as a whole a feeling of “weightlessness,” according to Bader.
“When you create a new social product, you need to create a novel form of self-expression,” says Bader, reciting his personal mantra, “and make it stupidly simple and rewarding.”
The reaction to the broadcast version of Secret was overwhelmingly positive, from both friends testing it and investors who were now clamoring for the startup’s affection. Many found the experience liberating, free from the vanity and self-consciousness of identity-based networks like Facebook and Instagram. A friend told Byttow that “Secret felt like a place to beta test tweets”–that is, a place where you could feel comfortable sharing without self-censorship.
Yet with such a free-wheeling environment, negativity and malice aren’t far off, as anyone who has been on the receiving end of anonymous YouTube comments knows. Whereas other services employ moderators to regulate anonymous sharing, Byttow and Bader believed design could be a force to keep the app’s content above board. Just as hosts renting an apartment on Airbnb are more likely to take greater care in their listing than they might if they were using Craigslist, the pair saw good design as way to prevent bad behavior, a sort of digital broken windows theory. “We think beauty begets beauty,” Bader likes to say, while Byttow adds that he wanted the experience to “feel like a well-lit space, to subconsciously push people in the right direction” and create a more supportive community.
With that goal in mind, the team added a string of glossy features to the app that salvaged it from its “crappier” previous iterations, Bader says. His inspiration came in part from iOS 7–the flatness, the lack of gradients and drop shadows–and he set about adopting many of Apple’s design principles, including using blurs to create a sense of depth. He tinkered with a Tinder-style swiping system, to allow users to flick away irrelevant Secrets in their feeds, but eventually settled on developing edge gestures to let users favorite Secrets or flag inappropriate ones. (“Everything is springy–the menus zip in, [the setting buttons] bounce–to give the app more life,” Bader says.) And the team also incorporated a simple icon library for the comment section, to give anonymous users more personality. Before, each commenter was assigned a color and a number, a mechanical combination which he says made conversations look more like Google Maps directions. “With bird and owl icons, you actually have characters,” Bader says. “They love referring to each other as red poop or green boat, and it’s built this positive culture.”
“When you’re designing products, you need to have positive anchors that people love, because it creates positive emotions and output as a result,” he adds. Indeed, Secrets can range from the revealing to the inane, detailing topics such as family troubles, sexual insecurities, or career mishaps. But perhaps most popular on the service are internal leaks, especially in the tech world; reports first spread on Secret that Nike was killing its FuelBand product.
Still, the self-regulated system is far from perfect, and negativity and bullying continues to be widespread on the service, an issue the company says it’s working to eradicate. Path cofounder Dave Morin has been on the receiving end of a string of attacks, for example, as has PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy, another frequent target. While the company has banned the user of proper names in this context, it’s incredibly easy to work around this issue (e.g. by including a photo of a person, and writing harsh remarks without including his or her name).
What’s more, the service recently split its feed into two categories–one for friends (and friends of friends), and another arranged by location (India, Texas, 3.6 miles). The former category is often lacking in new content, while in the latter category posts range at times from irrelevant to overly sexual, a sentiment I’ve heard from a number of other Secret users.
But it’s still early in Secret’s life–the app launched just six months ago, after all, and it only recently spread overseas. The next step for Secret will be to continue adding smart design features that get to the heart of why users enjoy sharing anonymously, while distinguishing the service from the endless flood of competitors.
“A lot of these anonymity apps are thinking about anonymity too literally, and not understanding the human element,” Bader says. “It’s not really about anonymity–it’s more about seeing into the collective subconscious of your friends.”