Thursday, November 14, 2013

Messenger 3.0 Icon Redesign

Last year I wrote about Facebook making the design of all of their app icons more consistent. Yesterday’s release of their Messenger 3.0 app indicates that they have now reversed last year’s decision. What can we possibly intuit about their branding strategy from this tactical design decision?

In the new icon a bright blue iOS7-flavoured oval speech bubble on a white background replaces the previous round-rec speech bubble reversed out of the darker Facebook blue. The new oval bubble looks a lot more friendly and presents a far less corporate impression. So much so that the inset lightning bolt symbol now looks somewhat too harsh.

Previous Messenger icon in the centre.
So, why might Facebook decide to take such a different direction with the icon design for this release? Firstly, and most obviously, they have visually refreshed the complete app UI to benefit from the new design conventions of iOS7. The new icon needs to signify this.

One of the other jobs-to-be-done by the previous icon was to send a strong, clear signal of this app’s Facebook provenance. It seems that is no longer a requirement for this new design. (Note my related observation that although the Facebook app was also updated yesterday its icon has not been redesigned into a corresponding white lowercase ‘f’ within a blue circle on a white background.)

It turns out that the most immediate precedent for this new icon design may be Facebook’s Poke app launched in late 2012. (Does anyone remember Poke? When grabbing its icon off the App Store I could not help but notice that the app has never once been updated. A telling comparison to the main Facebook app which seems to get a revision every fortnight at least.)

But looking beyond the aesthetics of the new icon, there are more substantive issues being signalled by these design decisions. For the first time, this latest release of Messenger now allows users to message people who are not their Facebook Friends by accessing their phone’s address book. Adding this feature now puts Messenger into direct competition with Apple’s pre-installed Messages app. More tellingly this functionality signals a response to the significant growth in messaging apps such as WeChat, Viber and Whatsapp over the past year. (Services such as the sticker-messaging app Line and the disposable photo-sharing app Snapchat can be included within this category as well.) All of these apps are capturing market share at an accelerated rate. Their single-use model is understood to be attractive to those users who see Facebook’s range of bundled services as overwrought and complex.

There are some prevalent icon conventions within this category.

Facebook’s overall rate of uptake and engagement with the teen demographic has been slowing. Teens are among the most active users of messaging service apps. Any increased fragmentation within the messenger app marketplace is an issue for Facebook over the long term. So this release of Messenger needs to address those factors. Deliberately de-emphasising the Facebookishness of this app is a step towards re-engaging with those demographics who perceive Facebook as being too unwieldy for their needs. Messaging has become an increasingly competitive area of focus for all of the social networks, so I think that we can expect a lot of activity and innovation in the coming months.