A new home for the Snap Map and its original shows — plus a new test of news briefs
Snap is working on two significant tests that could reshape its flagship app in a critical year. Tipsters have provided me with screenshots of two ongoing tests that have rolled out to a small percentage of Snapchat’s user base. One is a redesign of the app for Android and iOS that provides a new home for the Snap Map and the company’s original video programming. The other is a test of breaking news headlines inside the app that injects timely news briefs into Snapchat to complement the existing magazine-style stories on the Discover page.
Let’s look at them in turn.
The redesign takes an app that has long been limited to three screens and splits them into five. Snapchat currently opens to the camera, with a space for chats to the left and the Discover page — which features a collection of ephemeral stories from friends, creators, third-party publishers, and Snap itself — to the right. In the new design, the Snap Map — which displays your friends’ physical locations on an animated map, and was previously accessed by pulling down from the camera screen — is now on the left of your chats. Discover has been renamed “Community.” And Snap’s slate of original series, which includes serialized dramas and reality-style programs, can be found to the right of Community in a new tab that has inherited the “Discover” name.
Perhaps most dramatically for Snap, which once seemed to pride itself in its obscure design choices, Snapchat is getting a navigation bar. You’ll be able to see where you are within the app at a glance, and move directly from screen to screen with a single tap instead of swiping. It’s both a totally obvious thing to do and, for Snap, a radical departure.
“We’re exploring ways to streamline navigation across Snapchat, soliciting feedback from our community to inform future versions of our app,” a Snap spokeswoman told me. “This test’s UI offers more space to innovate and increases the opportunity to engage with and discover even more of what Snapchat has to offer.”
The test of this new look comes three years after Snap’s last redesign, which was widely panned and spurred 2 percent of active users to stop using Snapchat entirely. Snap gradually walked back some of the most hated changes, and that combined with new attention to its long-neglected Android app and marketing itself internationally led the company to have something of a comeback last year. Snapchat has added uses for the past four straight quarters, and is now used by 218 million people a day.
Still, the company is not profitable. And while it remains a hit with high school and college-age users, adults who try the app still complain — loudly — that they find Snapchat difficult to use. I find these complaints somewhat overstated — I think most people avoid learning how to use any technology they don’t have to, and that if boomers’ friends were all using Snapchat they would manage to figure it out within a couple of days. But still, there’s no denying that Snapchat has a learning curve higher than, say, Facebook Messenger.
And for everything that did to give Snapchat a sense of cool in its early days, there’s a good argument to be made that its more arcane user decisions are holding it back. I’d put the location of the Snap Map high on that list — it’s a clever feature that Facebook has found itself totally unable to copy due to privacy concerns, and today it’s basically invisible inside Snapchat. Giving the map an easy-to-find screen within the app feels like a no-brainer.
Similarly, Snap has invested heavily in premium programming for its Snap Originals. (Although not quite as heavily as, say, Quibi.) Currently, what Snap calls Shows are displayed in a row next to other publisher content on the Discover page, where they are easily ignored. Giving them a place of prominence within the app feels like a similarly obvious step.
Still, Snap learned its lesson from the great redesign debacle of 2017, which it rolled out globally with very little testing. Today Snap, like every other social company, is taking a deliberate approach to major changes. I suspect this one will be popular and ultimately implemented, though. Where the bad redesign scrambled a bunch of popular elements and moved them into unfamiliar places, the five-screen design feels additive to the experience. You navigate the app less, and use it more. That’s a win for the company.
The second test, while less dramatic, is more relevant to our everyday interests here at The Interface. There are two basic ways to put news on your social platform. The first is to let everyone fight it out in a feed, and do some light curating around the big moments. Think the Twitter timeline plus Moments, or Facebook’s News Feed plus a news tab. The upside to this approach is that you make room for lots of voices, including some who have been historically marginalized. The downside is that lots of voices have historically been marginalized for a reason — they’re overtly racist, for example, or they tell you that drinking bleach will cure your cancer.
The second approach, and the one favored by Snap, has been to allow only whitelisted publishers onto the platform. In theory, this should elevate high-quality and mainstream news publishers while limiting the amount of misinformation on the platform. It hasn’t always been perfect — Snapchat’s Discover page has long been criticized for clickbait and sexually provocative stories — but the company has seen far fewer scandals around hosting dangerous and extremist content than its peers.
The news briefs I saw featured timely headlines from publishers include NowThis, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Called “Happening Now,” the section curates top headlines about developments in the United States and the world. Each one-sentence headline can be tapped to bring up a full screen news brief containing a photo and a short article. (The one I saw, about the New Hampshire primary, was about 75 words.)
Snap confirmed the test.
“We are in the very early stages of exploring how to evolve news offerings on Snapchat,” the company said. “We are working with a handful of partners and testing with a small percentage of Snapchatters in the U.S. We don’t have additional details to share at this time.”
A collection of news briefs may look like a small thing, and perhaps it is. But surfacing high-quality mainstream news outlets like the Post and the Journal to a young audience strikes me as a good thing, particularly in an election year.
Snap emphasized to me that both of these tests are in their early stages and might change substantially before they are released to a global audience, if they are released globally at all. But it seems clear to me that at least in the case of the redesign, larger forces will continue pulling them toward the more accessible version of the app I saw in screenshots.
Having a reputation for being inaccessible benefited Snapchat — until it didn’t. As the app grows up, it’s working to become a more welcoming place. Which means being a little bit more like everyone else.
Correction, 10:11 p.m.: This article originally said Snapchat is used by 218 million people a month. It is actually used by 218 million people a day.