Investors have pegged Snapchat's valuation at $2 billion thanks to the soaring popularity of its self-destructing photo-sharing service. Riding this tidal wave of attention, a number of startups has launched their own ephemeral messaging apps, but few if any have nailed an experience as smart as Snapchat's—until now.
Yesterday, Yext CEO Howard Lerman and former AOL exec Jon Brod unveiled Confide, an app that enables users to exchange confidential messages, which disappear after being read. The service is aimed at professionals—rather than sexting-obsessed teens—who don't want their private and often sensitive exchanges digitally archived or shared with others (like, say, journalists). But as others are creating unnecessarily quirky tricks to protect our privacy, the secret sauce of Confide is its simple design that's both functional and fun—a user experience that gets to the heart of what helped distinguish Snapchat from its rivals in the space.
Sending a Confide message to a friend is no different than sending an email or SMS by smartphone. What separates the service is how the recipient views your note: The words and lines of a message arrive cloaked in solid-color blocks, like a government censored document. In order to uncover the text, you must press down and drag your finger along the words to unveil them; the blocks will reappear to hide the words when you're no longer touching them on screen. It's an interaction that's certainly practical—making it nearly impossible for users to take a screenshot of the message or see the text in its entirety all at once—but it's also pleasurable, letting the recipient play an active role in revealing the hidden message.
Perhaps that's one reason why the team refers to the interaction as "the wand." There's something magical about performing the action—like the characters in Harry Potter casting a spell to reveal a diary's invisible ink. Best of all, it smartly allows users to send longer messages without pressuring the recipient with a countdown clock—since there's no danger of a screenshot being taken, there's no need for the message to have a self-destruct timer (though users can only view it once). When the user is finished, he or she simply closes the message and it's gone forever. "We tried a bunch of different things before we came up with the idea to allow a user to use their finger as a wand to read text," Lerman says. "It's fast; it masks someone from reading [the message]; and it feels right."
An endless number of competitors in the space have tried to recreate this peekaboo-style sensation without much success. There's SecretInk, which allows users to send what looks to be a physical envelope by email that contains a message that "burns" after a certain timespan. There's Peek (formerly Skim) which erases text slowly as you read it—the message vanishes before your eyes one word at a time. There's Frankly, which blurs messages after they're viewed, as well as Gryphn, which just deletes them. And there's Burn Note, which requires that users shine a spotlight over each word, as if they were reading the message in the dark with a flashlight.
Many of these services are impractical and gimmicky. After all, you don't need ticking time bombs and other tacky animations to make users feel like Inspector Gadget receiving a secret message. Worse, in many cases, these services make the recipient a passive participant in the process. With SecretInk, for example, users simply have to click to open a message and then have a set amount of time to view it—a boring solution to the problem.
On the one hand, you could argue this removes a pain point in the experience by not forcing users to continuously work to reveal messages—that is, with SecretInk, users don't have to press and hold down on each word or photo on screen to see the message. On the other hand, I'd argue this style of experience removes the fun and makes it feel less secure. It's the act of interacting with the message that makes it feel special and, most significantly, fleeting. When you let go, you let go of access to the message forever—part of the magic of Snapchat and Confide. (Burn Note, too, requires that users click and hold onto a message—but the experience is not nearly as polished.)
"We did a lot of testing to show how users drag their fingers and how fast they go," Lerman says. "It's the tiniest little details that make these things usable or not."
Before the startup developed the wand, the team experimented with a range of solutions, including one that used what Lerman refers to as a "hologram of pixels." Rather than feature black text on a white background, the team came up with the novel idea of constantly blending the colors of the text with the background. The pixels would swirl together at random—at times hiding the words when the text and the background were the same color, and at other times, displaying parts of the message when the colors of the letters and background contrasted. "Only your eye could perceive the motion showing the words—if you took a screenshot of it, it would just look like random pixels," explains Lerman.
Unfortunately, he says, the solution turned out to be "scientifically challenging" and "potentially mathematically impossible." But more importantly, it would've been gimmicky and confusing—an unnecessary amount of visual noise. "We were pleased with the results of the wand [instead]," Lerman says.
When you're finished with a message on Confide, the message doesn't simply close like on other services. It breaks apart—the censorship blocks crumbling away, indicating the message no longer exists. It's smart and simple design elements like this that help make Confide feel more enjoyable, as well as more secure.
"We baked that in from the beginning to give the user the confidence to feel like their message was disappearing," Lerman says. "When it's gone, you know it's gone, and you feel good about it."