App Store Vogue Covers

July 18, 2023

Often when we talk about product-market-fit or discuss what makes people use a product, the conversation focuses on features and technology. This particular thing (e.g. disappearing photos) is the reason why this app has gained traction and is blowing up.

When we think about social/consumer products, every application is some unique combination of photos, video, text, likes, comments, etc. Part of a products success is certainly how these features are combined and organised inside an application.

But over the last week, I’ve been talking to lot of people about the role that cultural trends play in deciding a products success. I find it difficult to talk about it clearly, but there have been enough nodding heads lately that I wanted try and write something about it here.

A bunch of apps have launched in the past couple of weeks, Threads, Retro, Superfan, Bluesky, Arc etc. And I’ve been taking screenshots of their onboarding flows and paying close attention to two things:

  1. That this thing exists
  2. How it’s presented

I said to my friend the other night that app home screens/app store images are like Vogue covers. They are a time capsule that tells us an awful lot about what is happening in culture.

The example I’ve been looking at most is Retro, a new photo sharing app that promotes limited photo series shared with close friends with a focus on privacy and intimacy.

That this thing exists

Retro fits into a broad category of anti-Meta products. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they are pro-healthy relationship with your phone products. Their tag line, ‘Feel good social’ captures it well. ‘An app that’s a joy, not a habit’ takes aim at all the products we feel addicted too. Which is all coming in the wake of the work that the Center for Human Technology have been doing for the past few years. The cultural moment is (meant to be) fewer better digital interactions. That is (apparently) what people want and so people are building things to try and meet that need.

Threads (by Meta) also talks to this. Elon has shifted from high-technology genius to owner of Twitter and free speech overlord. Twitter, once home to rich progressives and journalists, now feels more like 4chan or the early days of Reddit. I mean, it doesn’t really, but that is what is floating around in the zeitgeist. And now Threads has come along with a product that is more or less identical to Twitter but with none of the Elon medaling that we’re tired off. Tables turn quickly.

How it’s presented

If you’re sitting around with buddies being like, “We should build an app that talks to the current cultural climate and see how things go”, then at some point you’re going to have to make some visual and product design decisions. Things like typefaces, loading states, icons, copy, etc., all work to build on and shape the visual culture around us.

The threads logo is fun and a bit silly and also a bit political (taking aim at Twitters ‘@‘). The UI is stripped back, black and grey. It feels refreshing compared to Twitter.

Retro is also mostly greyscale with and uses a big, beautiful, bold, slabby serif typeface. Not the first to do that, but it’s been done well. It feels more publication/editorial than tech product. Something more like a journal than a social app. Maybe we’re finally over Inter?

🔁 The Cultural Product Feedback Cycle

All of this falls into the thing I find most fascinating about consumer technology. It’s all very much, ‘we shape our tools and then our tools shape us’ type thinking. BeReal lets you take one photo a day, and suddenly you find yourself planning your day around taking a good photo. SOHO is full of people who look like they have lost their minds, but they’re actually being filled by a friend for their latest TikTok.

Should this thing go on my grid of just be a story? Will someone be offended if I don’t take a photo of the meal they made? Will the be offended if I do? Is it cool to be more online or offline? How does the typographic choices of a new app feedback into the rest of visual culture? And what are the unexpected consequences of the incentive systems that we build into our products?

There is another part to all of this which is to talk about capital B ‘Brand’. That is something for another post, but more and more, brand and how it is defined and then expressed in products feels like it is becoming more important to a products success or failure. To be continued.