The Experiences Users Want: A Conversation with Ran Avidan
More than three million apps are available across the world. With so many choices, it’s hard for people to identify, find, and decide on what they want. Large companies solve this with vast amounts of data which they collect and turn into personal recommendations for users to accept or reject.
But what about the other 2.999999 million apps without the resources of larger players?
As users increasingly seek niche digital experiences that are more directly aligned with their personal interests – dating, shopping, connecting, messaging – how can smaller scale apps not only properly leverage data, but also provide users the in-app experiences they’ve come to expect?
To understand this market gap, we talked with Ran Avidan, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of StartApp. We also dig into bigger questions, like the growing market tensions between the big players’ network power versus the power that niche players develop through defined, targeted experiences
Note: This conversation has been edited for length & clarity
Ran Avidan, let’s start with your view of messaging apps. At their core, what makes messaging apps so powerful? Why can we not turn them off?
Ran Avidan: That’s a very good question. It’s more of a psychology issue than a technical issue or a technology issue. Today, the fear of missing out runs us as human beings so much and messaging is a direct connection to what communication used to be in the past. People are not calling and are not handling voice calls. They’re doing it through text and image-based messaging.
Today, messaging is the ultimate communication container. In the past it was voice, and then came SMS, and today it’s messaging because both of the previous iterations did not suffice. SMS does not include any contextual information. A thread in SMS is not in real time as opposed to messaging which involves real time messaging with capabilities for location sharing, audio, and video.
On the technical side, there are also indicators as to why people cannot get enough of messaging. Look at WhatsApp. It’s allows you to see when other people see your message, so now all the politeness and cultural norms around messaging are actually changing accordingly. If someone sends you a text in SMS, you don’t need do anything with it. If you want to answer, you can answer. It’s okay. In WhatsApp, you now actually need to take read receipts into account when you decide whether you are going to answer or not.
When you pick up the app or open the app, all of a sudden you’ve got to realize, “Uh oh. The other person knows that I’ve looked. Now I’m on the clock. I’ve got to respond.”
Ran Avidan: Yeah. They know that you’re online. They know that your WhatsApp is now open. By the way, I had a very interesting discussion with some folks from China related to WeChat. WeChat doesn’t have this read receipts feature. It doesn’t know if you’re online and if you see a message or not. I asked them, “Why is that?” They said, “It’s not a technology issue.” In the Chinese culture, it’s a big no-no. It’s very forbidden. It’s not polite. This is part of the reason why in WeChat this feature does not exist, although it exists in many other messengers.
Sometimes people are afraid to switch their phone off at night because, “What happens?” God forbid if someone’s sending a message and I don’t get a message back within a few minutes.
I think what we also see happening is fragmentation. We see people have more than one messaging app. I’m not sure if the average is between three to four, but a lot of people use more than one messenger. Sometimes it’s because their friends are fragmented, and each friend uses a different messenger. Sometimes it’s because they want to use the best of breed, so they want to use Skype for business, and they want to use Messenger for their Facebook friends, and Kik for anonymous messaging, and then they have their own messaging systems for dating, and Viber for video. Every one has its own unique selling point or feature.
This point that you’re making, Ran, about multiple apps and that we have different apps for different functionalities, that must really create a challenge and an opportunity around functionality. As you look at user behavior, do you see that?
R: The answer is “yes and no.” Interoperability is something that was discussed more than 10 years I think, in the ages of ICQ and MSN Messenger. I know because I was in one of the companies that did interoperability between mobile partners to fix ICQ, Microsoft and even Google back then. I think that it’s a conflict of interest sometimes on the app side.
Yes, users do want it in some of the cases. Not always, because in some of the cases they want different identities in each one of their apps and in other cases, privacy is a big issue. In WhatsApp, they’re okay with people knowing what they’re doing and when they’re starting to type the answer. And in some cases they don’t want it out in the open, so it’s convenient that they have few platforms they can handle.
Today we see that it’s not an issue for users to juggle with a few messenger apps, and I think that that’s probably not their biggest frustration.
What is the biggest frustration?
R: Since the market is fragmented, it’s different per app. Let me give you an example.
In WeChat and Line in Asia, services are booming. I mean, you probably can do almost everything using their messaging platform. Even more people pay with WeChat than with wire transfers, for instance. In Line, the Korean and Japanese messaging app, they use it for almost everything from dry cleaning to ordering a taxi. It’s a huge trend in Asia, but Facebook has been trying to introduce this in the West without big success.
I think that Facebook actually admits this, and they’re trying to change things, and this is actually what StartApp is doing with SODA Bubbles. We’re trying to reach the next stage of what bots and services are within messaging In the future, messaging will be probably the platform that users will consume the most media in. Today, you can see in this in Facebook Messenger. People are using it for reading things, for games, and for e-commerce because all of the content is inside Messenger or inside Facebook. It’s actually not an app anymore.
What is it?
R: It’s a platform.