Facebook agreed to pay some $16 billion for an app called WhatsApp this week, leading to widespread confusion and surprise among analysts (Forbes called it a "stunner," Reuters a "shocker"). Why would Facebook pay what is, objectively, an obscene amount of money for an app most Americans have at best barely heard of? (For comparison, Instagram and YouTube sold for $1 billion each, and the venerable and profitable Jim Beam bourbon company sold for only $13 billion.) And for those who have heard of it, why would Facebook pay so much money for a barebones, borderline-ugly chat app?
WhatsApp seems like a million other apps: it lets you chat with people. Why is it different, and much more valuable than, competitors like WeChat and Kik? Or Google Hangouts, or Badoo, or Oovoo, or Tango, or AIM, or even Facebook's own Messenger app, most of which are more feature-rich and beautiful than WhatsApp. The answer lies partly in design, but not in the way you might think.
Facebook has tried to position itself lately as a place of high design. The new Paper app, essentially a replacement for the regular Facebook app, is beautiful, with flippity-floppity animations and hard edges and soft animated transitions. Timeline, the newish version of your individual profile page introduced in January 2012, is a major step forward from the MySpace era of profile pages: a chronological stream of images and text coming together to represent your Facebook life.
But maybe most useful to look at now, with this monster purchase blocking the sky, is an app that failed. Facebook over the years has repeatedly tried and failed to buy another chat app, Snapchat. A couple years ago, Facebook apparently decided, well, who needs Snapchat anyway? The actual hook of the app, that messages vanish after a few seconds, is the kind of thing that a first-year Facebook engineer can create in an afternoon. So Facebook made its own version, called Poke. Where Snapchat was unreliable and unpredictable, covered in garish patterns and sloppy animations and inexplicably low-res video, Poke was clean, simple, and pretty. It was in every conceivable way a better-designed app than Snapchat.
A couple months after Poke's release, with adoption almost nil and Snapchat's user base continuing to skyrocket unabated, Facebook decided to stop bothering to promote it. Facebook had been beaten by bad design. Which brings us to WhatsApp.
WhatsApp is a fairly simple chat app; its design is meant to be easy to use rather than pretty or innovative. And it succeeds at that! Anyone who's used, like, a smartphone will be able to download WhatsApp, take a look at it, and understand how it works and what it does.
If not for the nice fonts and soothing blue color of iOS7, the iPhone version would look almost bereft of design thought altogether: there are no animations, no innovative icons or artwork, no gestural tricks, in fact no art at all aside from some backgrounds. The default background on my phone is a sort of off-white with a bunch of indistinct pencil drawings of trumpets, chat bubbles, airplanes, chickens, and whatever else the designer could think of in five minutes. It's ugly and I haven't figured out a way to just make it white, for some reason. BuzzFeed's John Herrman says, "It’s a primitive-looking app—maybe even ugly." Felix Salmon of Reuters goes even deeper: "WhatsApp is an ugly, clunky product with a juvenile name; there are dozens of prettier, smoother, more elegant mobile messaging apps out there."
But it's the functional design, not the aesthetics, that matter here. Along the bottom of the screen, WhatsApp has simple, clear icons for your favorite contacts, your status, your list of contacts, your list of currently open chats, and settings. Within a chat, you tap one button to record a voice message, or another to upload a photo or video. Everything works exactly as expected; whereas in Paper I sometimes find myself unsure of how to navigate or what to do, no such problems come up in WhatsApp. It's not pretty, but the design is incredibly solid.
As with the Snapchat/Poke debacle, what Facebook's discovering (and why I think, despite the ludicrous amount of Monopoly money involved in this deal, that it's a very smart move for Facebook) is that as often as not, aesthetics are irrelevant.
What's relevant is that WhatsApp has 450 million users; that it runs simply and easily on iPhones, Android phones, BlackBerrys, Windows Phones, and platforms Americans may have never heard of, like Symbian; that in developing countries, WhatsApp runs on phones that have never entered a Facebook office; and that chat is perhaps the single most important, most essential thing a smartphone can do.
In apps, design is a tool to get users—a means to an end, rather than the end in itself. Is WhatsApp ugly? Yeah, sure, sort of. But it's phenomenally well-designed in that anyone can use it, on almost any platform, without getting frustrated or confused. It's successful because, frankly, it's one of the best designed apps I've used. 450 million people aren't wrong about that.