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The secret weapon that could help decide the messaging wars

Tactical, data-driven UX is helping upstart Viber build a billion-user base.

The secret weapon that could help decide the messaging wars
[Screenshot: courtesy Viber]

The messaging app Viber has a billion registered users–but its estimated 260 million active monthly users are concentrated in Eastern Europe. That makes it a small fry in the United States, Asia, and the rest of Europe, where Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and local services like WeChat and Line dominate the world of messaging.

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“It’s a rough neighborhood,” says Ofir Eyal, Viber’s VP of product. “We’re providing a service which is free. Nowadays most users have more than one messaging app on their phone. At any given moment, our worst competitor is a tap away. The barrier to move to a different app practically doesn’t exist.”

When the Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten acquired the Cyprus-based app for $900 million in 2014, the company had 200 million users without spending a dime on marketing. Since then, the app has ballooned to more than 1 billion registered users. But how does it continue to grow in new markets when faced with such entrenched competition? Rather than making assumptions, Viber is shaping its product around the way its users actually act.

“Without [data] it would be like fighting with sticks and stones when the other guys have machine guns,” Eyal says. “If we’re competing with giants and companies where data is their bread and butter–like Facebook, which has built its entire enterprise based on data–if a company like Viber wants to compete, you can’t not look at data.”

Since 2015, Eyal and his team have used data about how people act within the app to test and verify their assumptions about the app’s user experience and interface design instead of making decisions based on hunches. In the process, they’ve increased the total amount of messaging on their platform by 15%. Here’s how they did it.

[Screenshot: courtesy Viber]

A faster way to group chat

One way to increase usage of your app? Figure out what kinds of actions your most active users take, and then convince everyone else to do the same. Eyal and his team guessed that some of the most active people on Viber were those that created group chats, and then used the data analytics platform Mixpanel to prove that their hunch was correct. Then came the bigger challenge: How do you convince users to create more groups?

The team learned that most of the people who were creating groups were coming from one-on-one chat screens. When they realized that the current method for creating a group was buried in the app’s main menu and required quite a few taps, they changed the interface so that users could simply add more people to an existing one-on-one chat directly from that screen–effectively transforming it into a group. This tiny UX tweak increased group chat creation by 10%.

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[Screenshot: courtesy Viber]

The psychology of “free”

Like most internet-based chat apps, Viber offers phone calls and video calls along with text messaging. Before the company first launched its video calling in 2014, the design team redid the profile page interface, changing its two chunky buttons that read “free call” and “free message” to simpler image-based icons without words. To the designers, it seemed like a no-brainer–by now, surely, everyone realizes that all of this is free.

But soon after the new capability launched, Viber actually saw a decrease in the overall number of phone calls. Why? Eyal thinks it’s both the psychology of seeing the word “free,” paired with lower digital fluency among users than the designers had assumed. The total number of calls increased again when the team reinstated the “free call” design, even if they couldn’t fit an icon for video calling more prominently.

[Screenshot: courtesy Viber]

The water bottle technique

Unlike social media platforms like Facebook, Viber tends to mostly host text-based messages, but Eyal was looking to change that by encouraging more image-sharing. “We looked at data and something like 95% of all messages for Viber are text messages. You don’t argue with numbers,” Eyal says. “We said, even though we’re not a social network, it doesn’t make sense that the 95 to 5 ratio can’t be improved and we can’t add more photos to the mix.”

How do you convince users to send more photos? You just make it easier to send them. To do this, Eyal and his team redesigned the text box. While previously the text box had a menu you could pull up with a list of options–including photo insertion–the team instead added a small menu of icons directly below the text box so that users could see more of that menu directly from the chat screen. The result feels very similar to the UI of Facebook Messenger’s keyboard.

Just adding a visual cue to the text box immediately increased the number of photos sent. “When you deal with software like Viber, whatever is in plain sight is used on average 10 times more than anything that’s hidden,” Eyal says. “It’s like if you have a bottle of water on your desk, you drink 10 times more.”

[Screenshot: courtesy Viber]
The team also instituted a new feature of the Android operating system that enabled people to share photos right after they took them via Viber. But instead of just indicating that you want to share a photo on the messaging service, there are people-icons that let you directly send a photo to the people you message most on Viber. The goal was to make it easiest to share on the app, rather than using another messaging service.

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“There are patterns you can identify: Typically you would always send to your mom or your friend,” Eyal says. “When you shorten the route to do this, you get more usage.”

And it worked: Viber users now send 10% more photos than they did before these two UX changes, and overall messaging has increased by 15%. These might seem like small tweaks, but for a company that’s trying to compete with the giants of messaging, every bit of the user interface counts.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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