UX, growth, and kids these days

Why TBH makes me squirm but still got 5m users and acquired by Facebook in 2 months

 

A few weeks back news about this new app, tbh, was blowing up on Product Hunt. The first response was endless props by the PH community. That’s fine. I had reservations about the concept, but I’m only one person.

Then, news dropped this week that Facebook was acquiring tbh. That’s right, the app launched on August 3rd, opened only to a sliver of the population, and then gets bought by Facebook.

(Links and links and links if you wanna read more on it)

The Premise

I’ll make it quick, since there’s not too much info to go off of. In the press release about the acquisition, the makers write they…

“…wanted to create a community that made us feel happier and more confident about ourselves. We felt that people craved genuine and positive interactions in their online experiences.”

I’m 100% in favor of positive interactions. Yay for positivity in the sea of endless hate that is the internet!

The app is a way to anonymously answer positive questions about friends at your school. Kinda like an endless stream of superlatives, all about you, straight to your brain.

This makes me a little queazy. It feeds the narcissistic how-much-does-everyone-love-me sad reality that kids are growing up in. It’s a gimmick that may cause real pain. But that’s another post all together.

Growth Smarts & UX Shits

John Necef wrote a nice piece on tbh’s strategy that led to 5m downloads in less than 2 months. Read it here, he says it better than I could.

Reading his piece highlighted even more the tension between what we hold true as UX designers, and how we hack growth. Strategy is crucial for UX, and growth is critical for product survival. But what role does UX play in leading strategy and keeping growth tactics in check?

John highlights these points below in his article (don’t forget to read it) about how tbh grew so big, so fast. I’ve added my take as a UX designer.

  1. Forced contacts sync. You can’t take a step in without opening up your address book. Makes sense for growth, but tbh puts you in a headlock so they can deliver the full experience they intend. The app only makes sense when all your friends are on it. This is a clear-as-day tension between your growth and ux. Putting users into a corner is a big risk, that might backfire, and definitely crosses a line.
  2. Question throttling and invites as currency. This is the kind of tactic that may work well for drug dealers, but throws up issues for good ux. You get a limited number of questions to answer about your friends. Then you have to wait some period of time, or invite more friends to get more questions. Now, the throttle could be a good thing. Like John says, FOMO is a big part of all this. But if FOMO is your thing, go all in on FOMO. But really what you want is users to send more invites. So tbh is the dealer who says he doesn’t want you to do too much (pull throttle), but if you pay for it he will let you overdose. In general, drug dealer references making sense in your product is a sign of a problem.
  3. Grouping by School. Makes sense and makes their target users clear. Reminds me of the early days of Facebook when new colleges were being added. The problem here is that it forces users to say where they go to school. Isn’t this breaking some kind of law? Can you collect this kind of data on minors? I get the strategy, but it seems overreaching.
  4. Gems. This is where the concept of the app starts to break down. We go from “sharing positivity” to “popularity contest”. John mentions how this brings out users’ competitive nature. Agreed, and I’m not sure high school needs more competition on who’s the cutest or funniest kid. Again, I get it for growth, but this is dark ux. It’s moving further into the territory of actually being harmful. Though not to say every other social media platform isn’t already doing this…
  5. Notification hooks. Like any app, tbh wants to hit users with notifications when anyone does anything. Same comments as number 4.

Ok, why does this matter?

I’ll make it short and sweet and put these thoughts in big indented lines.

For people making products and the strategists that guide their movements:

There is an ethical line that should be always observed. Growth is not something to be achieved at any cost. Users are people, and people are fragile. Your product will impact their lives. If it goes big, make sure you’re not short sighted and seeking a popular app and big money. Do the right thing.

For designers, especially of the ux variety:

We’re well positioned to lead the way in keeping ethics in our design principles. It’s on us to advocate for users against any questionable growth tactics. Ask all the questions you can muster, and push your teams as far as you can. Go in a direction that seeks the best for people using your products. This is why our profession exists.
Also, understand that ux for the generation that is using tbh is very different from the ux we understand as old people (ie anyone over 23). All ux best practices are not evergreen. Everyone says they know this. Seeing the rapid growth of tbh, the growth tactics above might not detract from a high schoolers experience of a product.
But just because it’s happening doesn’t make it ok.