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With Snapchat’s new redesign, the company is betting that users want intimacy versus popularity

Its simplified new app looks slicker, but Snap’s longtime focus on personal relationships isn’t going to change.

Evan Spiegel, Snap Inc. CEO
The new Snapchat app is okay with Evan Spiegel.
Asa Mathat for Recode

Snapchat unveiled its much anticipated new redesign today, a change that CEO Evan Spiegel said was necessary after the company acknowledged that its app was too hard for many people to use.

But it’s still not the drastic change that many expected. While Snap is most definitely changing the app’s look and feel to make it simpler and more sleek — such as where you find Stories posted by your friends — it isn’t changing that much in the way of functionality, like how you capture or share a video message.

What is clear is that Snapchat’s redesign means the company has decided to double down on intimacy, the idea that has been at its heart from the start. That is: Snapchat is first and foremost a service for private communication between friends and family, and not a place to opine on Donald Trump’s most recent tweetstorm or broadcast photos from your family vacation for everyone to see.

This has been Snap’s identity from the beginning, and, until recently, it’s worked pretty well. So much so that Facebook’s Instagram shifted its own philosophy on user sharing 18 months ago to mimic (some say copy) Snap’s low-pressure philosophy.

The question is: Is focusing on more intimate personal relationships going to work for Snap as a publicly traded company, because it suggests a smaller, although potentially more engaged, audience?

Let’s start with the redesign, which includes a number of changes (and non-changes). Two notable ones that reinforce the company’s approach to relationships:

  1. Snapchat didn’t make it any easier for users to find and follow new friends. This has always been, in my opinion, a major obstacle to scaling the app, which is a problem when you’re a publicly traded advertising company. Unlike Facebook, Snap doesn’t bombard users with friend suggestions every time they open the app and seems totally content with users having a smaller number of connections, even if that means fewer total users.
  2. Snapchat eliminated the Stories page inside the app, a section where user posts co-mingled with posts from publishers like NBC or Bleacher Report. Instead, Snap is putting all user posts and messages in one section of the app and leaving all publisher content in a separate section. The idea, according to Snap, is to help lower the bar for what is considered post-worthy, so that people don’t feel the social pressure that might come with posting to a wide network of people.

Those decisions are meant to reinforce Snap’s identity as a place to connect meaningfully with your friends and family, not a place where you need to keep up with the Joneses.

Snapchat said as much on its blog explaining the changes:

Until now, social media has always mixed photos and videos from your friends with content from publishers and creators. While blurring the lines between professional content creators and your friends has been an interesting Internet experiment, it has also produced some strange side-effects (like fake news) and made us feel like we have to perform for our friends rather than just express ourselves. The new Snapchat separates the social from the media.

But it’s not clear that the redesign actually addresses the “hard to use” problem that Spiegel alluded to earlier this month.

It doesn’t change the way people actually record or share posts. It doesn’t change how difficult it is to find or understand Snapchat features, such as face filters or Snap streaks. And while the redesign makes Snapchat more visually appealing — and perhaps that will make it easier for new users to understand — it’s unclear if any of these changes will make it easier to use.

It’s no secret that Snap has struggled since the company went public in early March. User growth has slowed considerably since last summer, and Snap’s business continues to disappoint investors.

Now Snap is betting on a strategy that hasn’t correlated to steady user growth in the way we’ve seen from other network-driven apps like Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram. At the end of the day, Snapchat is an advertising business, and advertising businesses rely on scale. The idea of a more intimate social experience is laudable, and it offers an alternative to Facebook, but it may not provide the kind of growth investors expect for a social networking app.

Or maybe it will as users become inundated and overwhelmed by a social media environment — primarily on Facebook, but also on Twitter — that has become bloated, noisy and, at times, toxic.

Snapchat has attracted loyal fans — including young people — because it’s different, and the innovative Spiegel is better than almost everyone at giving users unique products and features. And it’s true that this app design is a definite improvement.

That said, it still might not be the solution to Snap’s problems.

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