Intuitive Design vs. Shareable Design

Snapchat’s interface baffles a lot of people. Not to pick on older folks, but people over a certain age tend to have a hard time figuring out how to do the most basic things with Snapchat, like finding its face swap feature. I can’t tell you how many people have whined to me about Snapchat. “Oh, I can’t figure it out,” they cry. “Why is it so complicated?”

I’m here to tell you that the obscurity of Snapchat’s design is not a bug, it’s a feature. Just like Tinder, it’s a design that’s made to engage people and encourage them to share their experiences with others. In fact, it is a key part of what has made Snapchat so successful.

Snapchat is one of the greatest examples of what I call “shareable design.” For those who grew up thinking of “intuitive design” as the ultimate ideal, this new approach is a little jarring. But it makes perfect sense once you understand how it works.

The Intuitive Design Revolution

I don’t mean to denigrate intuitive design. In fact, when intuitive design emerged in the 1980s, it was a huge leap forward over the previous generation of computer interfaces, from the 1960s and 1970s, which were complex, unintuitive, and required a lot of training to use. Those interfaces relied on you memorizing large lists of commands and recalling the right one at the right time. People took a lot of pride in how many commands and parameters they could memorize without having to use the “man” command to look up the manual.

Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) were a huge leap forward. Unlike users of mainframes or minicomputers, who worked on teams in designated computer rooms, PC users were at home or in their own office, trying to figure out the computer and its software on their own. They didn’t have time to read a manual or take a class in order to learn how to use a new piece of software. Someone would just sit at their desk, launch a piece of software like a spreadsheet program, and hopefully be able to figure it out. The software that companies made for this market had to be so intuitive that you could discover how to use it on your own.

Old Microsoft Excel Toolbars

Microsoft, for instance, spent a huge amount of time figuring out how to make software more intuitively designed. We can argue about how successful they were aesthetically, but programs like Excel succeeded in the market because they had a lot of ways that users could discover their features just by clicking around. That’s what led to toolbars and menu bars and the like. They were ugly, but they worked, because they were intuitive [enough]. And, well, if they weren’t easy enough, people would then buy books to teach them step by step. I spent one summer internship at a company named Catapult Press as a “tester” for Microsoft Step by Step books learning this in the most tedious way as I went through the books looking for errors.

In that era, Apple spent a lot of time figuring out how to make its operating system as intuitive as possible. Apple published a book outlining its Human Interface Guidelines in 1987, which became hugely influential through the Macintosh era and even into the Internet era.

All this work was based on research done by brilliant software and product designers of the 1980s and 1990s. Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things was very influential among software designers, even though it was focused on industrial design (the design of physical objects). Brenda Laurel’s book The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design was published in 1990, and it’s still on my bookshelf. These books were groundbreaking works, and their influence continues to this day.

Mobile Makes Everything Physical and Social

When the tech world started becoming mobile-focused in 2008, everything changed. Suddenly, software designers were no longer targeting people who are sitting at a desk, working by themselves. They were making apps, whose users are on their phones, out and about in the world, often surrounded by other people: friends, family, classmates, and coworkers.

Physical gestures like swiping, zooming, and tapping are natural and human.

The shift to mobile has created two complementary new trends in interface design. One is the move toward more physical gestures. Because you’re touching the software with your fingers instead of manipulating it with a mouse or a keyboard, it feels immediately much more human. Even children get this: Just watch this video of a baby trying to tap and zoom with magazine pages because they want it to work just like an iPad. Swiping, pinching, zooming, tapping: All of these types of direct manipulation simulate natural human body gestures. I wrote a post a couple of years ago about how “Generation Touch” connects differently with products they use because they interact directly.

The second shift, and this is what many interface designers don’t yet understand, is that people learn how to do things in the real world by watching others. The way most 18 year olds learn how to use a new app is by watching their friends. It’s right there, on their friend’s phone, so they just pull the phone out and show them something.

This is actually a return to the way we’ve always learned to do things in the world. You learned to throw a ball, pick up a cup, tie your shoes, and open a door by watching others. When you were older you probably learned how to ride a bike or drive a car by having someone show you how to do it. So if software is more physical now (in app form), why shouldn’t we learn how to do it by watching other people?

Do you want to know how to use Snapchat? Toparaphrase Groucho Marx, it’s easy: Just find a teenager to show you. Someone who uses the app a lot can show you everything from how to take a picture and draw on it to using filters, getting the secret pen colors like black and white, use face swap, add friends with a QR code, and more.

Enter Shareable Design

Shareable design understands this deeply social nature of how humans learn, and capitalizes on people’s desires to learn and to teach.

Snapchat does this brilliantly, because each of those seemingly obscure features is an opportunity for its users to show their friends how to do something cool. Showing your friends something cool can increase your social standing, or maybe it just gives you a good feeling. Either way it’s something you want to do! And for Snapchat, that’s great, because it’s converting you into an evangelist for its product, and you don’t even feel like you’re evangelizing: You’re just showing your friends how to do something neat. videos are shared widely on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Sharing like this doesn’t have to happen in person either. first grew in 2015 as a cool app for making fun music videos. When people shared their videos on Instagram or Facebook, you would often see their friends asking how they made that. That gives people the opportunity to say, “Oh, I used” And as it spread from person to person, and through influencers, grew rapidly.

In addition to encouraging sharing, this kind of design has two other benefits. One, it makes features particularly memorable. If someone shows you how to use your iPhone to do a long press on a person’s name so a menu pops up allowing you to save their information to your contacts, that knowledge sticks with you. It’s a physical memory combined with a social memory, so it stays.

The other benefit is that these features don’t take up any screen space. A mobile phone has as pretty small screen, so the amount of screen real estate that you can devote to buttons or icons is very, very small. Obviously, the button-filled toolbars of a 1990s Windows app are not going to work here. But “invisible” features like a long press, a 3D Touch “deep” press, or a swipe down from the top of the screen take no screen real estate at all.

We don’t yet have any great books on shareable design, although some designers, like Luke Wroblewski, have written a lot of smart articles on mobile design that get at some of these concepts. And, of course, there are apps and operating systems whose designers clearly get this philosophy: Snapchat, Prisma, the latest versions of iOS, and even to a certain extent Twitter.

I would love to see more people researching and writing about shareable design. It’s an important area and it’s going to become even more important as we move forward into a world filled with wearables, augmented reality, and an even wider variety of mobile devices. If you have any great examples, please get in touch!

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