WWDC UX Insights: Messages – Apple the follower, Apple the innovator

Digital, Experience, Innovation, News, Opinion, UX

To my mind Apple’s latest volley of announcements is very much true to form.  They are treading the well-worn, gold-plated path, which has consistently led them over the heads of their competitors to the peaks of corporate success.  On this road Apple plays the artful, if shameless, fast follower, the transformational follower and the reliably profound innovator. It’s a winning formula that allows Apple to build on successes of others, while amplifying their power with the excellence of it’s design execution and focusing it’s riskier innovations on a small set of powerful differentiators.

The Messages app update, is pretty sizeable, by Apple standards, and comes at a time when messaging platforms are promising to be the next big disruption.  It’s a great example of Apple’s product strategy. A strategy where risk is managed by judiciously mixing other people’s innovations, with some of Apple’s own and a whole lot of design thinking; shaking, baking, and applying a generous slathering of peerless execution and marketing.

Let’s take a closer look.


The fast, but artful, follower

… Anyone seen Facebook’s Reactions? Execution looks good, and the application of Facebook’s signature micro-interaction to messaging is cheeky and almost totally devoid of innovation… but a brilliant piece of opportunism.


Tap to replace emoji…  Anyone used Slack recently? Searching and endless grid of emoji was always painful, and Slack solved this, for nerdier users, with a simple command line like microinteraction.  Here Apple has taken this (great) idea and created something much more powerful, that I’d wager is going to be much, much more widely adopted.  No longer do you need to engage in something that almost feels like ‘programming’.  And what’s more, this means words can be more flexibly associated with a wider set of emojis.. making for a much more useful and usable emoji experience.  Artful indeed.

messages-emojis messages-tapback


The transformational follower

Messages app as a platform…  Yes, Apple has now opened up their message application to developers which could hopefully unlock a whole host of genuinely enabling capability to users. And yes… you’ll also be able to buy garish stickers…

So they’ve brought in apps.  But then so has well… Facebook, Slack, Telegram, Qlik… pretty much everyone. Is it original? No… Is it transformative? I’d wager it will be, since given how highly engaged and monitisable iPhone users are, developers certainly will be targeting the platform with some compelling experiences.

Interestingly, though, this uniform rush to open up these highly trafficked digital properties to developers will make conversational user experiences platform agnostic.  If the same app (say Uber) is available in all key messaging apps – it won’t matter which one you’re in – the interaction will be the same, the social graphs will link up across different device and app ecosystems.

Differential privacy… Apple is lauding it’s ‘on-device intelligence’ as the way it gives you a nuanced, reactive and personalised experience.  But ‘Deep learning’ is in, everyone is doing it. Why? Well because it’s incredibly powerful.  So of course, Apple also has to get on the bandwagon, since otherwise their services will begin to seriously lag behind those of their cloud-powered competition.

So Apple has to also suck all our data into its iCloud to feed it’s hungry algorithms.  So far… so just-like-everyone-else.

But this is where the ‘transformational piece comes in’.  Differential privacy is the deep technical fairy dust that allows Apple to claim that they can both analyse your data in the cloud alongside everyone else’s, while protecting your privacy.  Don’t ask me how it works, or whether it’s any more private than what Google, Microsoft or Facebook do… but it feels to me that it will allow Apple to protect their brand’s differentiation (i.e their respect for user’s privacy) while keeping the product experience competitive.


The profound innovator

Apple’s Messages release also offers great examples of the sort of feature’s that genuinely break new ground, in small, but profound ways.

They have introduced a slew of features that allow people to more richly express themselves, by adding a rich, visual dimension to messages.  The ability to easily add well curated set of a meaningful animations sounds obvious.  But the execution looks on the whole to be quite transformational. People have been using emoji for years now to crudely add some sort of emotional tone to dry soulless strings of text.



But with this release, you can now add emotional emphasis with message bubble animations for emphasis, celebrate a moment with full screen animations, create the drum roll feeling of anticipation with invisible ink. These different animation types tap into a strong latent need to create compact emotionally compelling narratives.  And I wager that many of them will get a whole lot of use.

So… what have we learned?  Releasing killer products is hard and to be reliably successful you need to spread your risks and take some big bets.  Apple does this time and time again.  It focuses on doing a few genuinely new things really well.  But a big part of the offering does tend to be made up of tried and tested ideas from elsewhere.

And there is no shame in that… what was the phrase?  Embrace and extend [Microsoft circa 1996].


More insights on WWDC

To read more from my RMA colleagues on Apple’s announcements at WWDC check out:

  1. Siri for MacOS – by George Neill
  2. Embracing Automation – by Benjamin Hobson