Talking chat apps

Last week I did a short talk at our agency knowledge share about the new generation of chat apps. Here are some notes on what I talked about:

Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp

Here in the UK we’re pretty familiar with Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp. Many (maybe most?) people with a smartphone use some combination of these (plus iMessage if they have an Apple device) as an alternative to text messaging. To us, they’re a great way to send messages and share photos with family and friends. In Burundi, journalists are using WhatsApp to beat a news blackout by sharing information and hosting editorial meetings before posting to social media. In Kuwait, retailers post items for sale – including sheep – on Instagram, along with a WhatsApp number to contact if you’re interested in buying.

In both cases, no website is required. Everything – from meetings, to posting items for sale, to making a purchase – is done within mobile apps.

Screenshot of @Sheeps_Sell’s Instagram pageScreenshot of @Sheeps_Sell’s Instagram page (now closed, sadly), via qz.com

Snapchat

Snapchat gets a bad rap. If you’re older than, say, 19, Ben Rosen’s investigation into how to ‘Snapchat like the teens’ might feel like a glimpse inside a bizarre alien culture. But there’s much more to it than this. Make ‘friends’ with an online publisher and they’ll send you photos and videos that complement their website. For example The Verge recently sent a short video explaining how to tweak settings to improve your iPhone’s battery life following the latest iOS update). Going a step further, big publishers can now appear in the ‘Discover’ section. Here, you can watch news and sport highlights, comedy clips or music videos, even if you’re not Snapchat ‘friends’:

Snapchat discover apps sectionSnapchat has moved far beyond teenagers sending photos to their friends. And, again, this is all happening in an app. No website required.

WeChat

Looking further afield, a chat app called WeChat is pretty much ubiquitous in China. At first glance it looks just like any other chat app. But it also has apps within the app. These are verified by WeChat, and to use them users just add them as friends like they would a person. Importantly, one of the apps is the ‘wallet’ – which lets you connect your bank account and pay for things within WeChat. Need to order a taxi? Use a WeChat app. Pay an electricity bill? Use a WeChat app. And it’s not just commerce – here’s the app for booking a doctor’s appointment:

How to book a doctor's appointment using We ChatImage via a16z.com

And yet again, this can all happen within a single app. No website required. If you want to know more about WeChat, Connie Chan’s epic walkthrough is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a long time.

What does it mean?

Chat apps have definitely moved beyond being a simple replacement for text messaging. They’re mini ecosystems in themselves, full of videos, news, products for sale and useful apps. Soon they might contain bots. And, while they’re very much online, they don’t need websites. Websites aren’t going away any time soon, but the rise of chat apps presents an interesting challenge. If you’re creating something (perhaps an app or a bot) that lives in someone else’s app, you have far less control over things like visual design, layout, or technology. Where does that leave us? Well, some things won’t change – people will still value top quality content and being able to do what they want to do easily. Even more than before, user-centred design is key.

This post originally appeared on the Sift Digital blog. See more from there.