The ghost effect: What Snapchat can teach us about conversation design.

Image: Madeline Rawlings @madtheline_

Image: Madeline Rawlings @madtheline_

By Jess Thoms

Major changes in communication mediums have always brought about new sets of user behaviours and expectations. As it stands, we have evolved from paper mail, radio, television, email, SMS, social media, and messaging apps. It’s fair to say that humans communicated radically differently over email in 1998 compared to Instagram comments in 2012.

And then there was Snapchat. Bringing ephemerality and privacy to a cult following of millennials, Snapchat redesigned communication and expectations of what conversations look like. So how have ephemeral messaging platforms like Snapchat changed user expectations across broader messaging apps?

In this context, if user behaviour has already fundamentally changed as a result of Snapchat’s influence — how does this affect designing conversational experiences?

Designing conversations.

Interactions are increasingly complex — the design of computer conversations is even harder to predict.

I propose that conversation design is defined as crafting the back-and-forth dialog that powers conversational interfaces. Effective conversation design is a myriad of managed opportunities and expectations in these new interfaces.

Modern communication is an endless stream of sending and receiving messages across virtual mediums. But conversation, whether for shared learning or a transaction, requires a shared language, context, and nuanced understanding of the conversation’s participants.

User’s shouldn’t expect or obsess over perfectly designed open ended conversational experiences — yet. Intuitive ways to design Messenger conversations, arguably still include the use of menus and buttons to eliminate the user’s need to think (and type) a response.

It is important to refer to the communication medium before making design decisions.

How does the channel influence the content?

The medium will shape the user’s interpretation of the message, more than the content of the message itself. Snapchat users communicate differently to Messenger users. They are substantially different. Yet, both Messenger and Snapchat are ‘messaging’ platforms.

Do we see Messenger as an extension of the Facebook product and communication preferences, or a standalone messaging platform more like Snapchat in its demographic and user expectations? What is Messenger’s context?

Facebook is public, a wall of endless content that everyone is watching, at all times. Comment on someone’s photo? Everyone knows. ‘Like’ a meme that alludes to something personal? Everyone saw it. Facebook privacy settings are forever changing and confusing — and the millennials who were being warned about entering the workforce with a tainted Facebook history were driven to Snapchat.

There’s inherently less pressure to ‘perform’ or design content that is thrown away on ephemeral platforms. The level of performance that is assigned to crafting an Instagram post would be at the other end of this spectrum. Instagram users plan their feed in advance, carefully compose a caption, and strategically post an update at a time when they think engagement will be most prolific.

The impermanence of Snapchat places a different context on users. The endless sharing (and editing) of experiences is natural on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, however Snapchat provides a more intimate experience — the lack of search and discoverability means users have control over who sees their content. Mediated communication is eradicated, with content shaped as if Snapchat is just an extension of self — the app opens directly to camera and stories are created in the moment.

Two people will have completely different conversations over SMS and Snapchat — even at the same time. When sending a text message it lives on — always available to be referenced and shared. In contrast, the inherent privacy and fleeting nature of Snapchat encourages users to share images and details they would never usually.

“The immediacy and intimacy of those platforms like Snapchat and plain old messaging have given us an island of engagement with the present moment.” — Ben Basche

The ghost effect.

Snapchat’s features allow users to storytell like never before. Reshaping millennial communication, storytelling on snapchat includes filters, drawing, writing, and using stickers to overlay meaning and context. Users can communicate without technically having a conversation through text — context is assigned to photos, videos, and the various applications of Snapchat’s features to images.

Snapchat gamifies friendship — best friends, streaks, and custom emojis place importance on personal connection and one-on-one relationships. Gamification can be implemented in conversation design by clearly setting out ‘rules of play’ in the user onboarding experience for chatbots. With any emerging platform, user’s will be unsure of boundaries and capabilities of these new services. Setting out clear expectations for bot abilities will user frustration. To encourage engagement, certain ‘hacks’ can be designed into a conversational experience that reward users for positive sentiment or providing the correct details. To design a conversation that is as intimate and fun as a Snapchat experience -- elements of gamification with encourage retention.

Major publishers have already experimented with this communication style within Snapchat. The nature and audience of Snapchat’s interactive content platform brought publishers like the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and National Geographic to create content for Discover. We have witnessed serious publications tailoring their delivery to be transient, stripped back, and interactive. Content made for Snapchat has to be personal, intimate, and casual.

The rise of ephemeral platforms.

Snapchat as a communications channel, allows users to send and receive content that disappears within seconds. Nothing is stored, nothing is permanent. Interactions are fleeting, transient — and yet arguably the most intimate in nature.

“The allure of fleeting messages remind us about the beauty of friendship — we don’t need a reason to stay in touch.” — Snapchat

Snapchat also presents a sort of penalty for permanence — users are notified when screenshots occur, and saved messages are visually distinctive. As user’s recognise their interactions will be transient — they are forced to understand and remember ongoing conversational context in order to communicate. If messages disappear -- users need to remember what was said in order to reply.

Snapchat users are forced to sustain context.

From the perspective of conversation design — this is a huge advantage to artificially intelligent assistants — as they record conversational context and data for better experiences. Users shaped by Snapchat’s context will expect to have to remember and relay details in a timely manner.

Snapchat also reshaped how users expect information to be stored and shared. Snaps are now available to be stored in Memories, and exported to Camera Roll — but this process could be described as a UX black hole of disappointment, and is far from the expected action.

As ephemeral platforms become the normal and preferred communication method for a generation — how does this affect the design and development of other communication platforms? In particular — how does this affect conversation expectations in emerging platforms like Messenger and Alexa?

Do user’s want ephemerality?

“People have “complicated social needs and desires for persistence and ephemerality that are often contextualized and shifting from moment to moment.” — Cavalcanti, Pinto, Brubaker, & Dombrowski

In many cases, users swap platforms when a conversation’s context becomes more permanent in nature. Snapchat is not the best arena to be exchanging contact information, addresses, and any content that needs to be stored or copied for reference.

Do users consider Messenger, WhatsApp, and other messaging platforms to be ephemeral? I would argue that messaging platforms aren’t intuitively permanent. The text may live on, but I don’t find myself scrolling endlessly up and down a messaging stream like I would on an Instagram feed.

Especially in conversations between bot and human — there’s no expectation a conversation is available for the public to judge. In my experience as a conversation designer, I have seen some demented requests made to bots when checking conversation history -- but does the user realise a human has direct access to this content? On the other hand, making these conversations public would be unethical, as there is an implied notion that the user is engaging in a somewhat private communication.

I would suggest this behaviour only confirms the user expectations of data collection -- as influenced by the privacy of ephemeral messaging platforms. The Snapchat generation has grown accustomed to casual sharing and private communication -- separated from the pressure of platforms like Instagram where the context is increasingly permanent and held to a higher regard. However, even Instagram now suggests you send a photo directly to a friend through its messaging platform instead of publicly tagging them.

So what does the Snapchat experience look like on conversational interfaces?

I believe that quality conversational design should take these behaviours into consideration and crafts an experience for the Snapchat generation.

Brand services tout themselves as “mobile first” — but what offerings are they designing to entice users that feel natural and fun in a world which will soon be mobile only? Snapchat presents an authentic mobile experience. Messaging apps also remain as one of the first authentically mobile experiences. Brands need to realise that messaging apps involve dialogue — unlike social apps which are to an extent passively consumed.

Currently, conversational experiences are truly relevant for brands targeting millennials, but it’s crucial to plan for the next decade as millennials become the primary consumers. How are millennials going to expect to communicate with brands when they want to buy a fridge, sofa, or blender? Not only their communication habits are radically different to previous generations, but their retail expectations as well.

Reflecting on better conversations.

Snapchat’s inherent privacy and fleeting nature has influenced the expectations that users will take to other platforms. When designing engaging experiences and dialogue, these expectations should to an extent be replicated. Expecting users to send not only text, but gifs, emojis, photos, and videos should be standard in conversation design -- with responses to suit.

Snapchat also requires an element of tribal knowledge to access features which are buried in the design — it’s UX has been widely criticised. This ‘buried design’ is also an element on conversational interfaces as the user needs to know specific information and commands to access their desired outcomes. Designing hero moments that are only accessible to a select few is now expected when gamifying experiences -- even on conversational interfaces.

Designers who are crafting an engaging conversational experience can draw on Snapchat’s success. Consider how these expectations in communication will evolve and continue to grow in the coming decade.  Design for intimate experiences, and just talk like a friend.


Jess Thoms