But for digital natives, who’ve leapfrogged the need for visual affordances altogether, every interface is intuitive. They don’t need a map detailing each direction—they’re comfortable navigating with only a compass. As a result, designers are able to embed navigation into an app’s interface without also having to frame its content within a menu. VSCO (though recently redesigned) was another pioneer of this compass-versus-map model, removing traditional menus in favor of a single, gesture-based affordance called a “globe” that was the only way to navigate through the app. The shift triggered a love-it-or-hate-it reaction from VSCO’s users, including an impassioned case for applying compass-model thinking to any creative endeavor.
Whether it's embedding navigation more deeply into an interface or combining gestural navigation with menus, designers are finding ways to infuse discoverability and interaction into a product's user flow. When executed well, embedding navigation into the interface gives users the delight of engagement (responsive, directional swiping), more immersive experiences (full-screen media), rewards for venturing into unmarked territory (hidden features), and breeds a sticky curiosity—what else is here?
But the greatest benefit of a compass is its ability to always point north, to focus users on the single most important direction the user should take within the app. Snapchat “pointed north” by launching users immediately into a camera, an experience Kleiner Perkins likened in their annual report to the way “a hammer’s handle invites you to grasp it.” In other words: Here’s the main thing, figure out the rest. Musical.ly, on the other hand, seems to use a compass approach to point in every direction: the app launches immediately into a full-screen, auto-playing video with two separate navigation tabs and a spinning record with a scrolling ticker on top. Which way is north? For Musical.ly, it doesn’t matter which direction you choose because all roads lead back to the same destination: content.
Before the offline and online worlds began to merge, many perceived the primary benefit of digital content to be its permanence. Facebook’s revolutionary Timeline feature, launched in 2011, was built around this very concept. But as the internet blended itself into our lives we started to capture-and-post in one continuous stream, and many interfaces struggled to create an engaging experience that protected or insulated users from the barrage of content.
Like Paul Ford explained in his 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival closing keynote, “Our interfaces are really just ways to try to repackage time so that it’s meaningful, so that we can do stuff with it. It’s not that there isn’t enough time but rather that there’s too much of it.” Maybe this is why timestamps, the most familiar representation of time that litters our email and social media feeds, is glaringly absent from Musical.ly (and hidden behind a swipe in Snapchat’s conversation view). Instead of repackaging time, Musical.ly seems to be stepping completely outside of it, creating content that is simultaneously disposable and timeless.
The novelty of digitally disposable content, a concept spearheaded by Snapchat and adopted by others, seems to suggest that ephemerality is the key to reaching digital natives—that is until Snapchat removed the feature altogether. This change makes the argument that Snapchat’s true genius is the way it repackages time—not through algorithms or chronology, but by way of “a story.” Instead of just collecting related individual moments, Snapchat puts users at the beginning of those moments, regardless of how much real time has elapsed since they last engaged. Notably, Instagram and Twitter have since adopted similar approaches, with Stories and Moments respectively.