You ever show up late to a party? Your friends have been there for a while and are in various degrees of intoxication. You came to have a good time, but everything is just a little bit off? You want to join in on the party games, but at this point in the night your friends have cast aside all of the familiar mainstays in favor of some game they made up themselves, and no one can adequately explain why some of the players are climbing the sofa blindfolded? Because that’s how I felt when I joined Snapchat in 2016.
Now, clearly Snapchat is doing a lot of things right. It’s wildly popular with young people, who are all completely at home with the app’s eccentricities. I hate to be that old guy, but it seemed to me that Snapchat could stand to be a little more inviting, without losing its trademark charm.
So I’m not going to pretend I have some innovative user experience solution that’s better than what got them to however-many millions of users. But I do have some ideas about how to make the app a little more inviting to those of us who are old enough to remember seeing Space Jam in theaters.
The three biggest problems I had as a new user on Snapchat were…
Inefficient camera controls
Confusing, nonstandard navigation
So let’s get to it.
1. Inefficient Camera Controls
It didn’t take long for me to realize the camera controls were problematic. I was at a crowded concert, pulled my phone out to take a picture, realized that I needed to switch to the back camera, almost dropped my phone trying to reach the camera toggle in the upper-right corner of the screen, and ended up missing the moment entirely in the process.
That’s when I became painfully aware of the fact that the camera controls are not functionally grouped. They’re split across the top and bottom of the screen, as are the navigation controls.
It’s a good thing I have excellent reflexes, but not everyone is blessed with the same dexterity. So I wanted to design a camera interface for everyone who’d ever dropped their phone in a crowded concert. My camera interface groups all of the camera controls at the bottom of the screen, so that they’re all reachable without losing your grip on your phone.
I went one step further and redesigned the photo editor with the same one-handed access in mind. And then I made a prototype because who doesn’t love a good prototype?
2. Poor iconography
After narrowly avoiding disaster at the concert, I soon identified my next nemesis: the icons that are used to describe incoming snaps. The problem, you see, is that there are a lot of them, and they’re all incredibly vague.
Not only that, but they rely on a really weak signifier – color – to express something really important. One of those colors means you received a photo, another means you received a video. As a mildly colorblind person, I find this annoying for accessibility reasons. But aside from that, knowing what kind of content you’re about to watch has a huge effect on how you use the app.
The beauty of snaps is that they’re bite-sized pieces of very personal content that you can enjoy anywhere. We probably shouldn’t enjoy them just anywhere, but we do anyway. Say, for example, that you were watching some snaps on the sly in the middle of class. And let’s say you opened one that’s a video. And let’s say that in this video your friend says something ominous to the camera before licking a doorknob. And you really want to know what your friend said, but you never will because it’s a snap and now it’s gone forever. And now you have to try to pay attention to the rest of the lecture, but you’re haunted by all of the possible things your friend might have said, and all of the possible reasons they might have had for licking a doorknob.
The thing is, whether you received photos or videos doesn’t really matter, but whether those videos have audio, and whether you’re in a context where you can listen to audio, does. Not all videos have audio, and not all videos with audio have important audio, but I think scenarios like the above could be avoided if the signifier for audio were something more than a subtle color shift.
In my redesign, new snaps are indicated with shading (black text for photos and videos, blue icons for chat messages). Sent snaps are treated with a different icon than received snaps (so that you can see sent and received statuses independently). And snaps with audio are marked with an icon so you can make sure not to miss something important.
3. Confusing, nonstandard Navigation
I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for adventurous interfaces. I think it’s cool (and useful!) that you can navigate to all of the main pages of Snapchat just by swiping. But I still think it could be improved. I think the app could do a better job of telling new users where they are, and I think it could be useful to standardize the navigation across the horizontal axis, rather than leaving the account and settings screen as the lone vertical swipe.
To brainstorm some ideas, I did a quick crazy eights exercise.
Then I built a prototype of the one that I thought struck a nice balance between clarity and simplicity, while at the same time reflecting Snapchat’s playful nature.
Two interesting things happened after I finished this project.
First, Snapchat made some small updates to their camera screen controls, improving the icons for snaps and stories, and introducing a transparent overlay to better communicate the navigational relationship between the camera, snaps, and stories screens. Part of me wishes they had gone a little farther, as I did in my prototype, but I had the luxury of not needing to worry about alienating millions of users. Their solution was focused on making an improvement without sacrificing familiarity.
Second, Instagram released their stories feature. Like my proposed Snapchat interface, the controls for the Instagram story camera are all on the bottom of the screen where they can be easily reached with one hand. A great decision if you ask me, and one that hopefully results in fewer cracked screens.