Secret’s Mobile App Design Hides In Plain Sight

I have often argued (perhaps incorrectly, time will tell) that mobile apps which truly achieve breakout status come from one of a few buckets. There’s gaming, of course. After that, it’s apps that leverage the phone camera in some way (Instagram, Snapchat), or apps that benefit from network effects (Whatsapp and other messaging apps), or apps which aggregate consumer demand through the phone but fulfill the demand offline (Uber). Otherwise, most apps that do well have an influential “parent” with a web audience that helps move that audience to another platform.

So, with that context, we have the buzziest new app du jour: Secret. There’s no denying it’s a slick, well-designed, Instagram UI-influenced, well-thought-out app. No doubt. It’s also the talk of the town now, largely because it created a clever semi-anonymous network on the back of users’ address books, masking identity but creating an atmosphere where you’re likely to know the person posting that sultry or racy “secret,” along with ability to comment with others or “like” the status update, which sends a signal to the app to consider propagating that content throughout the system should enough people “heart” it.

Like Snapchat, Secret has started by using our mobile phone books as the main rails — not our existing social graphs like Facebook or Twitter. Like Snapchat, content on Secret never touches the web, unless through a user taking and posting screenshot — which is interesting, because I wonder if they’ll make secrets expire? On top of this, instead of email engagement, Secret is being very aggressive with push notifications, sending (at least to me) around 30 (??) push notifications a day. Like Jelly, the app doesn’t allow the user to control notifications from within the app, so a user would have to go into iOS settings and configure them for Secret — or delete the app altogether.

I don’t know what will happen to Secret, though on the surface, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to say “but, it can’t grow viral” because of the nature of it, though I wouldn’t bet against that reality if it’s able to spread by word-of-mouth into the right networks. The app has done a great job of encouraging users to create original content through text, creating an entirely new kind of newsfeed — the SecretFeed, if you will. And, people who like social media are addicted to newsfeeds. Combine the new, novel content with the flurry of push notifications, and the app feeds an addiction into the seven deadly sins, all represented in the confessions and secrets people blurt out on the app. As someone who is curious about mobile apps, distribution, engagement, retention, and attachment, here are the aspects of Secret that I’ll be keeping an eye on:

  1. Push Notifications: What is the consumer threshold for “too many” push notifications? Do consumers actually care if an app doesn’t provide an advance control to rate notifications?
  2. Community Norms: How will the app creators police Secret, or empower their users to police it before “Eternal September” rolls around? Will Secret allow users (maybe after behaving for a while) to take original pictures from their phone, which could be more engaging?
  3. Network: After propagating the network with 2nd degree connections, will they reign it in and only make it people you’re likely to know?
  4. Veracity of Information: Will true secrets “leak” into the app and then become verified in the press? (This is most interesting to me because it could transform the app into a Twitter-like information source, less about real-time, and more about the currency around proprietary information.)

Whatever your take on Secret is thus far — game-changing, or spammy; creative, or degenerative — I’ve gotta tip my hat to the creators of the app. It’s really hard to create something that people care about, if even for a period of time. Even harder to get them to create content, talk about it on other networks, and to change behavior. It’s a well-crafted app and deserves the attention it’s getting. Other good apps like Confide and Wut are in the market, but probably not catching on like this one is right now. Well, let’s see if it can buck my thesis above and grow to the next levels. It just might have the juice, brand, and word-of-mouth cache to do it.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus