The Snapchat UI Change from a Historical Perspective

I’ve been casually following the recent Snapchat UI change that has generated a lot of discussion. I am not an avid Snapchat user so I don’t have much skin in the game but I like to keep track of UI trends and developer/end-user/shareholder relations. I’m a nerd like that….sorry, I mean: “I am a professional like that.”

The UI change has raised questions about whether a company should trust their R&D and stand by their change, if they should listen to a large outcry from it’s user base to roll back some of the change elements, and what impact UI changes can have on stock prices.

I looked at other UI changes that generated similar debate. Facebook, Windows, and iTunes have all had UI changes resulting in loud outcries from their users.

When Facebook introduced its News Feed in 2011,  when Windows 8 removed the Start button in 2012, and when iTunes 11 changed their menu placement in 2012 all of them received hostile reviews from their user communities. While their users were upset, I think the software companies were relatively safe from upstart competition and a mass exodus of users. I don’t think Snapchat has that same luxury.

That is not to say that I would predict Snapchat to be replaced or be obsolete in the next year or two. But in our current viral app environment where Pokemon Go had 10 million downloads in 1 week, it is possible; more possible than ever before.

It looks like Snapchat is already taking action to refactor some of their recent changes. They are taking advantage of the same rapid software development ecosystem that could enable competition to encroach on their market-share and using it to rapidly push out features to pacify their user-base.  Change did not happen so fast in 2011 and 2012. The Facebook News Feed stuck, it took over a year for Microsoft to put the Start button back, and Apple rearranged the iTunes menus again in 2014.

The most interesting tidbit I found in my research was the reaction to the initial release of Mac OS X. If you want to talk about a phase-shifting UI change, it does not get much bigger than Mac OS 9 to OSX. In the early 00’s I remember all of my Mac friends, all 6 of them, LOVING OSX when it came out. I do not recall any Mac folks complaining about it or pining for Mac OS 9.  I also remember several popular add-ons to Windows and Linux environments to add a OSX style functionality. In my mind, the Mac OS X launch and adoption rate was a resounding success.

However, my recollection was far from the reality. Mac OS X was not popular upon initial release. I came across this video from 2000 poking fun at the marketing campaign encouraging users to adopt the new OS. (YouTube did not exist until 2005). Disclaimer: an “F bomb” is dropped.

The Apple community eventually rabidly embraced OSX, but it took a while for people to get used to it. Besides my lack of exposure to the Apple community at the time, the main reason I didn’t realize how rocky OSX began was because of how loved it became.

But those people making videos and uploading them to pre-Youtube sites were not backwards change averse simpletons who still used rotary telephones. They were people that had enthusiastically adopted the new iPods and other recent Apple offerings. They were people who cared about their platform. Keenly aware of his audience, Steve Jobs, a champion of OSX and a critic of the 90’s Classic Mac OS, only praised Classic Mac OS publicly – even after it was no longer officially supported.

It will be interesting to see where these things go, and how companies will respond to similar situations in the future. We are certainly in different times now, with massive campaigns and off the hip tweets, but that doesn’t mean history can’t show us a thing or three.

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