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How Stickers Are Helping Humanize Chat Apps

For all its ubiquity, speaking over messenger is still not as fluid as chatting IRL. Can cute digital stickers change that?

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Emoji may have gone high-brow now that they're part of MoMA's permanent collection, but back on the front lines—on people's devices and in text conversations—a new form of pictorial communication has taken hold. They're called digital stickers, and when it comes to compensating for the lack of facial and visual cues in digital communication, they've got emoji beat.

While the Snapchat-backed Bitmoji popularized stickers in the West (they've been in Asian markets for a few years now), Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp all now have their own sets as well. As of mid-September, Apple allows people to create their own sticker packs and sell them in the new iMessage app store, where there are already thousands available for download. Not long after that launch, Google released its revamped messaging app Allo, which came with its very own packs of—you guessed it—customized digital stickers.

The newly re-launched creative studio Anyways (a sister company of the design publication It's Nice That), commissioned 20 illustrators around the world to design the 18 themed Allo sticker packs. Like all aspects of Allo—the conversational Google Assistant, for example, and the option for auto-replies—the goal is to make messaging more human. That's an area where stickers do better than emojis; bigger, with more detail and frequently animated, digital stickers make up for the expressiveness and gesture that can get lost in digital conversation.

"When you’re not communicating face-to-face with someone, and we often aren’t, being able to express well-articulated emotion is a really important," says Ellen Turnill, a creative at Anyways. "It's not just the characters that you’re expressing yourself through, it's the emotions that they are portraying."

Turnill, along with her colleagues Alice Moloney, Nia Maclean and Charlie Sheppard, conducted months of research into how people use stickers in messaging apps and what they are trying to convey with them. They found that they are most commonly used to emphasize a point, or to convey a point with a specific emotion or slant. Ending a text conversation by saying "deal with it," for example, could be perceived in a number of different ways, and might not match up with the sender's intent. Sending "deal with it" illustrated by a GIF of Julio the Bull—a burly character illustrated by Cécile Dormeau—on the other hand, makes the meaning clear. In a real life conversation, sass and levity might be conveyed with a gesture or intonation of voice; over messenger, a yellow bull with sunglasses and a "milk" tattoo might do the gesturing for you.

Other nuanced sentiments that are popular to convey through stickers are being annoyed but wanting it to come off as humorous (the phrase "over it" beside a cross sloth), or wanting to ask something but lacking the confidence ("Let's go out!" via a dancing disco ball). The Anyways team also found that people tended to respond better to messages that weren't overcrowded. Instead, it was best to use one character to make a singular point. Creating a definitive character for each sticker pack went a long way toward getting users familiar enough to want to use them regularly in conversation.

The studio started the project early last year, through an It's Nice That connection to Google. The Google creative team analyzed the most popular topics to converse about over messenger, then gave the Anyways team a few vague themes—like dating, sports, and travel—to work within. From there, the Anyways team looked on places like Behance and Pinterest, and tapped the vast network of illustrators who had either been covered by or worked for It's Nice That. "Early on, we basically asked our illustrators to create a world and to think about who their characters are," says Turnhill. "What world do they inhabit. If you solidify that in the early stages its easy to fill that world."

They ended up with 20 illustrators and 18 sticker packs that represent a diversity of styles and cultures. The Anyways team worked closely with the illustrators to form each pack, then ran them past a team of creatives at Google who got the final word.

After launching in September, Allo comes automatically with three of the sets, and the others are available for download. And in true sticker form, they represent a breadth and depth of human emotional responses, an element that will be key to the success of chat apps as they continue to develop.

[All Images: via Google]

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