How small design changes rewrote the rules of messaging and how we feel about one another

Adrian Zumbrunnen

Few applications have affected mass consumer psychology as much as messaging apps. While social media helps us build communities, a following, and a digital presence, messaging enables us to stay in touch with people we care about. With the ongoing trend of more intimate and personal communication, a myriad of privacy scandals and general social media fatigue, messaging is here to stay.

When looking at it from a distance however, it seems like messaging hasn’t really changed all that much over the last two and a half decades. It’s too easy to overlook the small design and privacy changes that fundamentally rewrote the rules of communication and how we feel like when we talk to one another.

To better understand how we ended up where we are today and to fully appreciate the psychological ramifications of a series of seemingly small changes, we need to take a step back and go back to 1996 — the year where messaging as we know started.

In the early 90s, five Israeli developers realized that most non-unix users had no easy way to send instant messages to one another. The terminal was reserved for power users, and well designed software applications with a user-friendly GUI were still sparse. They got together and started working on a cross-platform messaging client for Windows and Mac, and gave it the catchy name ICQ (“I seek you”).

It didn’t take long until early versions of ICQ had most features we’re taking for granted in today’s instant messaging apps:

ICQ Version 99A

With ICQ 99a, the platform featured conversation history, user search, contact list grouping, and the iconic “Uh-uh” sound that played whenever you received a message. Within a very short time, ICQ amassed millions of users during a time when global internet traffic was a fraction of what it is today.

One of the critical challenges during this period was that users weren’t online at all times. During the age of 56k dial-in modems, chat rooms could feel like hanging out at an empty bar. The team came up with an ingenious and deceptively simple concept to let others know when users are available to chat: the online status.

The online status was the first wide-spread instance in digital communication where users gave up a tiny bit of privacy to make a service more engaging and useful. It all started as a seemingly perfect win-win situation: by turning your online status into something that’s shared and visible by everyone in your contacts, it turned your computer into a less lonely place.

After signing onto the service, your friends would immediately get notified. As a result, most users found themselves chatting to someone within minutes. The product’s engagement increased, and the issue of lonely chat rooms soon became a thing of the past.

While ICQ was taking the internet by storm, others quickly took notice and an array of messaging platforms started popping up.

MSN Messenger on Windows XP

The most infamous alternative to ICQ was MSN Messenger. Microsoft Messenger contained all the features that defined ICQ’s success. The press release even emphasized the online status as one of its key features.

“MSN Messenger Service tells consumers when their friends, family and colleagues are online and enables them to exchange online messages and email with more than 40 million users.”

In 2001, Messenger became the single most used online messaging service in the world. With over 230 mio unique users, the platform’s quick rise soon led to new challenges.

How transparent do we want to be?

As the MSN user base increased, more users lamented they didn’t feel like they were in control. Upon logging on to the service, they immediately got pinged by people they didn’t necessarily want to talk to. The problem of lonely chat rooms was effectively replaced with a new problem: How can users be in control of who they want to talk to?

How can users be in control of who they want to talk to?

For many, not replying wasn’t a viable option as they felt guilty about ignoring incoming texts. It soon became clear that the automatic sign-in and public online status wasn’t without its flaws.

Microsoft’s response was to introduce a new feature that enabled users to “appear” as offline. With this small change, users gained back some level of control on how openly they want to share their online activity. It wasn’t all perfect though.

In its wake, the offline status left behind a trail of paranoia that gave rise to tools that allowed users to screen whether friends had blocked them. These third-party tools encouraged anyone to become a cyberspace Sherlock Holmes to check in on their contacts statuses.

As we will see, this is a common chain of events in the realm of messaging. Every change involving micro-privacy has a counter-reaction that can go from barely noticeable, to harmful, to downright problematic. So what is micro-privacy?

Since there didn’t seem to exist a concept

Micro-privacy are small nuggets of information that reveal something about a user’s online activity.

What characterizes micro-privacy is that a minimal amount of information can have huge repercussions on product engagement, user behavior, and wellbeing.

In simple terms, design teams can build more engaging products by reducing privacy on two ends: either between the provider and its users, or between the users themselves. We spend a lot of time worrying about the former, but almost completely neglect the latter.

Let’s have a closer look by looking at it through another example that might feel strangely familiar.

Microsoft was in trouble. Their platform gained a lot of traction but one of the things that kept plaguing the early version of MSN were flakey internet connections. When two users talked to one another, you could never tell whether the person you were talking to was still there, whether they went away, or whether their connection had simply timed out. Sometimes, sending a message felt like sending it into a vortex. You never knew whether you were going to get something back.

In order to better set expectations, the chat community developed a linguistic toolbox to let others know when they might not respond immediately. As a result, chat rooms of the early 2000 were full of acronyms like AFK (away from keyboard) and BRB (be right back).

It wasn’t until a team of engineers at Microsoft came up with a genius micro-interaction that would redefine the psychology of messaging as we know it forever.

In order to set expectations and make conversations feel more engaging, the team introduced what they called the typing indicator. Every time users started writing a message, it sent a signal to the server that would in turn inform the person on the other end that the user is typing. This was massive technical bet. Around 95% of all MSN traffic was not the content of the messages itself, but simple bits of data that would trigger the iconic dots to show up and disappear! [2]

Karen is typing…

From an engagement model perspective, the typing indicator flipped all the right behavioral switches that got people hooked. Every time someone started typing, it created anticipation followed by a variable reward. Today, this is a well researched area in psychology that serves as a foundation for anyone attempting to build addictive products.

The typing indicator elegantly solved what the team had set out to solve. But it also did a bit more than that. Apart from increased engagement, it also single-handedly introduced a whole new level of emotional nuance to online communication. This seemingly small detail inadvertently conveyed things no message by itself ever could. Picture this scenario:

Bob: “Hey Anna! It was so great to meet you. You’d like to go out for a drink tonight?”

Anna: “Starts typing…”

Anna: “Stops typing…”

Anna: “Starts typing again…”

Anna”: “Sure!”

How convinced is Anna really? You might have experienced it yourself: the angst of prolonged typing indicators followed by a short response or even worse: nothing! Bob might have been happier if he hadn’t observed Anna’s typing pattern. But he did. And now he wonders how such a tiny animation can have such a profound impact on how he feels…

It turns out, Bob isn’t alone. It didn’t take long until users started coming up with strategies and hacks to get control back over their micro-privacy and online activity. From typing it into a document and then copying it over, to first thinking hard before even attempting to write something.

This problem gets further exacerbated in modern applications that involve group chat, always-on messaging services, or dating apps. But this was still before the iPhone came along to change the internet as we know it.

Today, typing indicators are ubiquitous. And while we can’t argue that it made messaging more useful, it also made it more addictive by playing an innocent but powerful sleight of hand: we were handed an exciting pair of cards, at the cost of someone observing us from the other side.

Of course, this wasn’t the last time we happily played along.

Divorce lawyers in Italy know something that you and I don’t. But it first took a shift in technology for them to get to that insight. That shift kicked off in late 2007, when we went from a type of internet we used at home and at the office, to the type of internet that was with us at all times.

The introduction of iPhone marked a technical leap that affected every aspect imaginable in computing and with it, every aspect of society.

Brian Acton and Jan Koum went on vacation after they had left Yahooo! When they came back and tried the iPhone for the first time, they immediately saw huge potential in the device and its App Store model. They started working on a new type of messaging app that included an online status as part of the core messaging experience. They give it a catchy and memorable name — WhatsApp — to sound like the colloquial “what’s up?” everyone’s familiar with.

Growth was relatively slow and the two almost decided to give up on their venture. That changed when Apple introduced a new service that almost instantly catapulted their brainchild to the top of the App Store. After integrating the newly released push notification system, their user base shot up to 250,000 in no time.

There were a couple of things that made WhatsApp different and attractive. First, it sent messages over the internet so users no longer had to pay for every single SMS. Second, it re-introduced the online status that had originally been developed during a time of chat rooms and flakey internet connections over a decade earlier. And third, it featured the infamous typing indicator we’ve all come to love. All these things combined made WhatsApp feel lightyears ahead of any traditional SMS application of its time.

Today, WhatsApp has more than a billion users and it’s the preferred way of sending messages in many countries all around the world. One of those countries is — you guessed it — Italy!

According to Gian Ettore Gassani — president of the Italian Association of Matrimonial Lawyers — WhatsApp messages sent by cheating spouses play an integral role in 40% of Italian divorce cases citing adultery, writes Rachel Thompson from Mashable.

The thing that often led to those deeply troublesome insights? The “last seen online” indicator. Unlike the traditional online status of the early 2000, “last seen” added a new level of insight to written chat: the exact time someone used WhatsApp.

Last seen online indicator (WhatsApp illustration)

Like any service that turned the knob on micro-privacy, the outcome was predictable: high user engagement at the cost of reduced user-to-user privacy.

What does it mean when your spouse was last seen online at 4:30 in the morning? Why would someone be online but not pick up the phone minutes after they had just been seen online? How come your secret crush and your best friend always seem to be online at the same time, coincidence?

Coincidence or not, users decided to start doing something about it to get their micro-privacy back. In very little time, the internet lit up with tons of articles and tutorials both through written and step-by-step video instructions. These tutorials ranged from creating a fake last seen status, to freezing the time, to disabling it altogether.

The Last Seen “feature” had such strong psychological impact on users that some started referring to it as Last Seen Syndrome (LSS). In her research about how WhatsApp impacts youth, Dr. Anshu Bhatt notes “This app has been found to be highly addictive, which leaves a trace that becomes difficult to control”. The myriad of articles offering advice on how to control privacy, limit time spent in the app, and outsmart the Last Seen indicator further offers a glimpse into the challenges many users are facing today.

And just like when it seemed there wasn’t any more micro-privacy we would willingly disclose, there was still one tiny area that went largely overlooked…

It was again a seemingly small “detail” that deeply reshaped our experience and expectations towards one another. Like many of the ideas we’ve discussed so far, this one too can be understood as loosely inspired by technology that was invented decades earlier. In this case, it was email.

Replying late to incoming texts or emails used to be simple: a short “only saw this now” was good enough to get back to someone without any feeling of guilt or fear of retaliation. Today, only seeing this now will hardly suffice and we’re all in need of a better alibi.

It was again a seemingly small “detail” that deeply reshaped our experience and expectations towards one another. Like many of the ideas we’ve discussed so far, this one too can be understood as loosely inspired by technology that was invented decades earlier. In this case, it was email.

Manually entering an email address was (and still is) an error-prone process. The idea of sending messages digitally was both novel and hard to grasp. Upon hitting the send button, users had very little information on whether their message was delivered, pending, or aborted. To offer more transparency and make email more understandable, the team implemented Delivery Status Notifications (DSN). Through DSN, users gained more insight about what happened to their message, after hitting the send button.

Fast forward 30 years and the industry keeps solving similar problems. This time however, in a slightly different context and a slightly different moment in computing history.

In 2011, Apple introduced iMessage. What made iMessage different from its predecessor was that it seamlessly migrated users from sending messages through the traditional SMS protocol, to sending them over the web. This set the foundation needed for iMessage to evolve beyond a simple text messaging app.

Among the many newly introduced changes was an inconspicuous “feature” that quickly became known as one of the most contentious and controversial moves in the messaging space: read receipts.

Read receipts in iMessage

In no time, read receipts become inspiration for a lot of lively drama ranging from relationship issues, to increased social expectations, to many sadistic psychological games. And despite its effect — or perhaps precisely because of it — we took that any day over texting someone with a green bubble.

The introduction of read receipts marked a critical moment where seeing a message was no longer understood as an oversight, but a perceived act of ignorance. Sending a message slowly set in motion a feeling of being ignored for the sender and established an obligation to respond for the receiver.

When friends or romantic partners don’t text back after seeing a message, it no longer feels like a matter of patience. It can feel like being left behind. When our boss texts late after work to finish a presentation, we can longer pretend we haven’t seen it. We either grind through the work, or better have a good excuse lined up the next day.

As a result, people started tricking systems to stop systems from tricking them. From putting their phones into Flight Mode before opening the App, to only looking at incoming reading texts from the lockscreen, to actually holding off from reading the message altogether.

A study at the University of Copenhagen found that over 80% of participants had developed read-receipt avoidance strategies. Many participants also mentioned they started speculating and coming up with their own stories why the other person hadn’t responded yet.

Overall, none of the participants liked read receipts, and yet they kept them on because they wanted to know what was going on in other peoples’ life. Some users went as far as intentionally turning on read receipts to explicitly convey they are ignoring the person on the other end. Unlike some of the other forms of micro-privacy, read-receipts just like emojis and confetti, have become an active part of the conversation itself.

Today, read-receipts are ubiquitous. And while Apple was forthcoming enough to provide a way for users to turn read receipts off, other messaging clients did not.

When WhatsApp introduced the now well-known blue checkmark, it instantly faced massive flak from its users. It took a few weeks and another checkmark popped up in the privacy settings of the app to turn receipts back off.

Read receipts aren’t about informing us whether our message was successfully delivered. They’re about offering us a glimpse into another person’s life. And while we’ve come to accept them as a constituent of modern messaging apps, time will tell whether they’ll remain so.

The story of the online status, typing indicators, and read receipts is a story about the unresolved and ever ongoing tension between privacy and engagement. And while we looked at this through the lens of messaging, I believe these insights apply to *any* product involving people interacting with one another in any way whatsoever.

One of the most simple and insightful theories that came out of the field of organizational psychology is the simple idea of assuming good intentions. If we look for negativity in the world, that’s what we’re going to get. I believe most products we use today are designed with good intentions. But I also believe that designing with good intentions is no longer enough.

When we’re designing products that can reach parts of the world’s population, details aren’t details anymore, they become the design.

Product designers can longer recount fairytales about how design is turning the world into a better place through more engaging products. Whenever privacy is at stake, things just don’t get to be that simple. Designers who don’t ask themselves critically whether revealing any user information is truly necessary or whether it could have detrimental effects on users’ wellbeing, are effectively deciding to not doing their jobs. Engagement is a one-dimensional variable that is easy to track, but it will not serve as a sustainable metric for the future we’re going to be designing for (or the future I want to live in).

As such, privacy remains one of the big and unresolved issues in our industry and while we often worry about data leaks and agonize over how much companies know about us, we often forget that it’s the small and barely noticeable losses of end-to-end user privacy that affect us socially the most. And while turning every privacy related decision into a setting might be enticing, it’s ultimately shortsighted. Designers are well aware that most users won’t bother changing a default. And the act of changing a default ironically always inadvertently reveals something about users, whether they want or not.

So what does a future that respects people’s micro-privacy feel like?

It’s knowing you can go online without having to fear what our online status may reveal about you. It’s about liking someone’s photo without the anxiety of being called out for it. And above anything, it’s about reading a message, without feeling guilty of not sending an immediate response.

Sounds idealistic? That’s because it is.

The design systems we’ve put in place created social expectations that seem irreversible. But they don’t have to be. And if any field should worry about keeping privacy and engagement in check, it’s us.

Thanks for reading. I‘d love to hear your thoughts. You can find me on Twitter.