Earlier this month, Snapchat cofounder Evan Spiegel made a stunning admission: The social media service, he told shareholders on the company’s third-quarter earnings call, is too confusing. That’s not news to anyone who has ever laid eyes on the app, which has long faced criticism for being unintuitive, but it was an extraordinary about-face for Spiegel to own up to that appraisal and acknowledge the interface required drastic change. The 27-year-old product wunderkind had previously skated by on the idea that Snapchat was designed for a younger (and more lucrative) audience, non-millennials be damned.
But with growth slowing and revenue continuing to disappoint, Spiegel told shareholders his team needed to make the app more accessible, particularly to users over the age of 34. “The one thing that we have heard over the years is that Snapchat is difficult to understand or hard to use,” he explained. “As a result, we are currently redesigning our application to make it easier.”
Ever since then, there’s been endless handwringing over what this redesign would mean for Snapchat’s future. Spiegel, ever a defiant personality, had always resisted cries to make the design more mainstream; Snapchat kept its cool, some argued, partly because it was an app only millennials seemed to intuitively grasp, which helped stave the demographics from joining that those users might consider uncool, like, say their parents or teachers or bosses. If Spiegel made the app more accessible to them, the conventional thinking went, would Snapchat become uncool just like Facebook before it? But today, the company, known as Snap, unveiled Spiegel’s big redesign, and it appears the hoopla was for naught. Although there are a number of welcome improvements, it is far from the grand rethink Spiegel seemed to promise just weeks ago, and nowhere near a “whole new Snapchat” as the company called it in a blog post. If anything, in terms of the UI itself, it feels more like a humdrum incremental update. More pressingly, it’s not clear why this iteration would once again mesmerize millennials or demystify the service for non-millennials.
For the most part, the new Snapchat is about tidying up the app’s myriad content portals. Spiegel’s central premise is that social media services, in order to offer a cleaner experience, need to separate the “social” from the “media.” In other words, all your “social” content on Snapchat is now arranged in one “Friends” page, to the left of the main camera screen, while the more premium content, whether published by news outlets, TV networks, or independent creators with big followings–vloggers, celebrities, athletes–is corralled together to the right, on the “Discover” feed.
It’s roughly the same paradigm as the app’s previous version, but with more consistency: Chats with friends, for example, are now listed in the same feed as your shared Stories, whereas before they were split up on separate pages. Likewise, content from community creators, such as celebrities, will be increasingly pushed into the Discover tab, as opposed to before when they were sprinkled among items shared with your friends, as if Kim Kardashian were just another bestie.
The company also says it’s working to surface content better tailored to your tastes to keep up with its growing number of media partners–which stands at 70, up from around a dozen when Discover first launched–as well as to personalize your “Friends” feed, so it’s ordered by the people you interact with more frequently.
After checking out the new Snapchat, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: This is it? I had expected more daring changes, or at least more obvious ones. If Snapchat really wanted to make the app more accessible to older generations, there is so much low-hanging fruit the team could’ve gone after. For example, in the years since launch, the app has become a patchwork of cryptic iconography: There are endless color-coded or free-floating icons for every type of content sent and received, indecipherable without a user manual. The app’s gestures, once novel, feel incredibly unpredictable without intuitive navigational markers; swiping down, for instance, brings up a separate discovery tab, which seems superfluous. And there are countless product features, which, while compelling, are crippled by confusing rules and often oddly hidden like Easter eggs. Take, for example, Snapchat’s Paintbrush, which can filter images so they look like works of art. It’s a fantastic tool, but it’s inexplicably unavailable if you take a picture directly from within the Snapchat app. Rather, an image must be taken with your phone’s native camera service; uploaded to Snapchat by swiping up to the “Memories” tab to import it from the camera roll. From there, you must click a button in the upper-right corner to bring up a menu, click edit, and only then will you find the elusive Paintbrush icon, which otherwise doesn’t exist anywhere else within the app. It has been nearly a year since the feature launched, and any new user would need these directions to figure out how to use it.
Years ago, when Snapchat was a startup, this might’ve seemed cool, another quirky feature in Spiegel’s quirky app. But now, as a public company, it’s simply annoying–and long overdue for a fix.
That’s not to say, of course, it’s necessary for Snapchat to completely give up on its unique design approach and adopt the more Facebook-like menu-and-button style that Spiegel has eschewed. But it seems like a failure of imagination for the company not to be able to deliver some happy medium that would both appeal to new users and some older ones, while not compromising Snapchat’s original je ne sais quoi. Certainly its rival Instagram, which has made a habit of copying Snapchat features and arguably making them more intuitive, has proven as much is possible.
But Spiegel has never let outsiders influence his approach to Snapchat too much. When Jon Steinberg, CEO of live-streaming service Cheddar, once emailed Spiegel to suggest a design fix to a part of the app he found confusing, Spiegel rejected his advice outright. It’s not that Spiegel didn’t trust Steinberg, who was then running a major Snapchat media partner; it’s that Steinberg, in his late 30s, wasn’t Snapchat’s core audience. “People will figure it out,” Spiegel emailed back of the app’s interface, according to Steinberg. “You’re not really the target.”
“That was kind of profound for me,” Steinberg later recalled to me, adding that Snapchat was the first app to make him feel old. “Every teen I see using this thing has no problems with it.”
That was more than two years ago, back when Spiegel was still an infallible design guru and Snapchat was roaring toward its IPO on top of its ever-growing millennial popularity. But with the company’s stock price having plummeted 53% since its high earlier this year, the cries to make Snapchat a more traditional experience have only grown louder. So, too, it seems has Spiegel’s defiance.