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The kids are right: Snapchat’s update is bad

by Justin Herrick | February 9, 2018February 9, 2018 8:00 am PST

Next time you open Snapchat on your phone, you might see a whole new look. The major update for Snap’s app was announced late last year, but it’s only now rolling out widely to users around the world. So you’re bound to have the flip switched on the user interface within the next few weeks if Snap hasn’t already reached your account.

By the way, chances are you won’t like the update. What seems like thousands of users are expressing their displeasure with the app now. You’d think Snap did everything users didn’t want them to do.

Backlash is inevitable when any app is overhauled; however, here we’re seeing users lead a vocal charge against Snap. The growing number of complaints, which there are seriously a ton of, largely target the app’s layout. Snap attempted to clean up Snapchat, except the move completely backfired. Users on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even Snapchat are actively promoting a boycott of the app out of frustration.

The way Snapchat looks and operates after the update is undeniably bad. This isn’t a case of users being ‘extra’ and hating on change. Snap took the app backwards, and the company cannot afford that type of mistake.

Trends make apps popular. Trends also manage to kill apps. Snapchat’s been in a strange place between thriving and diving over the last year or two. Young people initially flocked to the app because of its ability to swap photos and videos that disappear forever. Controversial content brought users in, of course. Whether it was a risqué shot between two (or more) individuals meant for private pleasure or a video of someone blackout drunk, Snapchat got people talking.

All good things must come to an end, even the fun of sharing life’s outrageous moments. Eventually, Snapchat’s user base stopped booming because many users were ‘over it’ and moved on. But they didn’t migrate to something new. An existing app welcomed Snapchat’s users with open arms.

That app is, as everyone knows, Instagram.

Facebook set out to acquire Snapchat for $3 billion in 2013, but Evan Spiegel and his co-founders rejected the offer. It turns out Mark Zuckerberg’s company couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

Instagram, which Facebook paid just $1 billion for in 2012, also focuses on photos and videos. Realizing that there’s actually nothing proprietary about Snap’s technology, Facebook simply replicated features and slapped “Instagram Stories” on top in 2016. No, the company doesn’t acknowledge it copied many of Snapchat’s core features but the proof is right there.

The launch of Instagram Stories caused immediate trouble for Snapchat. With Instagram’s user base well above Snapchat’s at that point, Snap could do little to stop its first direct competitor. Instagram had the luxury of funneling over 500 million users to Stories.

Snap didn’t know how to react to Instagram’s blatant copying. Social media platforms are borderline impossible to protect unless there’s an algorithm at work, and Snapchat is nothing more than a messenger with entertaining filters. The company went out and spent more than $200 million on Bitstrips (the maker of Bitmoji) and two other startups.

None of the acquisitions solved the problem staring Snapchat in the eyes. Neither did the fad-driven Spectacles, a pair of smart glasses that uploaded immersive content directly to Snapchat.

Facebook was scoffed by Snap, and it started to become clear that maybe Snap was better off selling than remaining a standalone company. Instagram Stories, as of November 2017, has 300 million daily active users while Snapchat has 187 million.

The big update was expected to rally a dwindling user base, entice bored advertisers, and woo skeptical investors. In the midst of rolling it out, Snap is alienating the most important component of that trio.

Snapchat never came across as an ugly app. Snap, however, wanted to divide user content from brand content. The old style featured three panels, always opening with the camera. On the left side were private conversations, and on the right side were Stories and the Discover section. It wasn’t a bad setup, to be honest.

The new style condenses everything. Normally when a developer updates an app, users take a minute to readjust and come to love what they’re seeing. That’s not happening for Snapchat.

You’re still greeted with the camera when Snapchat starts, but the panels on both starts are radically different. And not for the better. Specifically, the left side has become such a mess because Snap opted to put everything you care about there. Conversations between friends and public-facing Stories are merged on the “dynamic Friends page,” which isn’t in chronological order.

Your friends are listed based on an algorithm, meaning the freshest content available won’t necessarily be put at the top. That, mind you, is not the worst part.

What’s awful about the layout is having conversations and Stories together. When someone sends you a message, you’re supposed to tap the entire box to view. If they’ve added a photo or video to their Story, you hit the circular icon to the left of their name.

Add in text and icons for status updates, streaks, and friendship levels. Now we have ourselves a dignified mess. Yet we have Instagram fitting the same features into little bubbles aligned horizontally at the top of its app.

Aside from angering and pushing away users, Snapchat’s update hurts its ability to make money. The Discover section, where publishers and advertisers insert original programming, should see less interaction. Because Stories are no longer there, some users may never choose to back to the panel on the right. It’s a bad mix between users despising the layout and advertisers earning less impressions.

Snap’s Q4 2018 performance was better than projected, though the company continues struggling to increase revenue and turn a profit.

Less is more, Snap. Take notes from Instagram just like they did to you. If you keep waiting for miraculous change to occur, you’ll be wishing you took Facebook’s money and ran.


Justin Herrick

Justin is easily attracted to power buttons. His interest in technology started as a child in the 1990s with the original PlayStation, and two...

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