Why is Snapchat’s redesign so controversial?


Earlier this month, Snap, the company that operates Snapchat, posted the best quarterly results in its short history as a public company, sending its stock price soaring by 25% in after-hours trading. As of this writing, Snap’s stock price sits at $20.42, up considerably from the $13-14 range it was trading at before its Q4 results were announced (although still below its debut price of $24).

One subject that was only superficially discussed in its earnings report, however, is the redesign that was introduced to Snapchat last year for a subset of users that has been slowly increasing over time. The redesign is set to be rolled out to the entire Snapchat user base by the end of this quarter, and many users are not happy about it: more than one million people have signed a Change.org petition to revert the redesign and halt its continued deployment to users.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel remains defiantly committed to the redesign: at an investor conference organized by Goldman Sachs last week, Spiegel said that user complaints over the redesign validated the company’s design strategy and essentially committed the company to a global rollout. About the redesign, Spiegel said:

“Even some of the complaints we’re seeing reinforce the philosophy. So for example, one of the complaints we got, you know was, wow I used to feel like this celebrity was my friend and now they don’t feel like my friend anymore. And we’re like, exactly. They’re not your friend. So for us, even some of the frustrations we’re seeing really validate those changes. And it’ll take time for people to adjust. But for me having used it now for a couple months, I feel way more attached to and invested in the service than I ever have.”
Spiegel is notorious for his intuition-driven (versus data-driven) design doctrine, so it’s not surprising to hear that he hasn’t been swayed by user feedback, no matter how voluminous. Also, absent product metrics, it’s impossible to know if the antipathy toward the redesign implicit in the petition has actually translated into decreased engagement. But regardless, one million signatures is significant, and it begs an important question: what don’t people like about the redesign?

In order to understand that, it’s important to first unpack what the update actually does. Snap’s stated aim with the update was to separate social content from ads and promoted content, likely as a means of distancing Snapchat from the “fake news” turmoil that has plagued Facebook and Twitter (Evan Spiegel has stated as much fairly explicitly). The new update puts organic, genuine, social content into a dedicated feed and moves everything else into a different feed in a different screen within the app.

This is exactly what users have expressed disdain for: many claim the social content feed is disorganized and confusing to use, as snaps are now comingled with stories. Users also complain that sending a snap is less straightforward in the redesign and that re-watching stories is complicated: in order to re-watch a story in the updated version of the app, a user must search for the name of the person that sent it (versus simply clicking on the story in the Stories feed, where it was available in the old design until its expiration).

These design choices are important and have obviously changed the Snapchat user experience. But the most fundamental element of the Snapchat redesign is the separation of advertisements from organic content, and it’ll be interesting to observe how this shift is received by both advertisers and public markets investors. The prevailing wisdom with social products, especially mobile social products, is that engagement with ads requires that they be “native” and integrated into app content. As a design pattern, removing the necessity of viewing ads completely without creating a commensurate reward for viewing them creates a fairly obvious problem: people won’t watch ads. How the performance of the redesign plays out with respect to Snap’s advertising revenues and the attendant sentiment around its stock will surely influence broader advertising design choices in mobile going forward.