Zenly | Designing for Delight
🍭 Zenly's 3 unavoidable challenges and the ace up their sleeve that helped them win.
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After purchasing Zenly for over $200M in 2017, last week Snap, Inc. announced that they would be shuttering Zenly as they begin to recession-proof their company. Thankfully, they're not abandoning social mapping as a whole - they say they’ll be focusing more on Snap Map. But I will offer a sincere "rest in peace" to one of the most beautiful mobile apps to ever grace my screen.
This article is dedicated to the team that brought Zenly to life.
Dare to Share
When Find My Friends came out in 2011, it was received with a healthy dose of skepticism. The idea that someone could see where you were at all times by tracking your phone's location seemed useless at best and creepy at worst. Maybe a parent could make an argument for tracking their kid's location, but sharing your location with a friend? On purpose? Never.
But those voyeuristic individuals who dared to share unlocked something visceral. Something intimate. At any point throughout the day, they could pull back the veil of privacy and peek into their friends' lives like it was a reality TV show. Sure, not quite as high-fidelity, but with a few educated assumptions, you could piece together an episode in your mind.
They're at that coffeeshop downtown? There are much closer coffee shops to their house... they must be meeting someone. And I know Jim works across the street... I bet they're on a date 🤯
I'm sure you can see how something like this might play out... it's exciting isn't it?
But the lingering stench of "invasion of personal privacy" still kind of ruins what the experience COULD be. Instead, we're still left with a feeling that it's inappropriate to track your friend's location without a good reason. And if we're being honest, that's a good instinct! Let's maintain some semblance of boundaries, right?
...you still wanna peek don't you?
I knew it.
As humans, we have a need to be connected. Studies have shown that people with community rate higher overall levels of happiness than people without community regardless of career, finances, education, location and a host of other factors. Weirdly enough, they even feel less pain. Needless to say, community is a deep, deep need.
So when life paths fail to cross naturally, we need another way to feel like our world is small. 2-dimensional faces behind a pane of glass just won't suffice... but maybe it can help.
And that's where Zenly enters the picture.
Zenly used one of the most intimate and interesting pieces of personal information to build a social networking app that brought people together in the real world.
A small world in a big city.
Imagine that you're out running errands and you get a notification that your friend Jacob (Heeeyy 👋) is a block away at work. With a tap, you could ask him, "what's up," prompting him to send you a little update about what he's up to. A few text exchanges later and y'all decide grab lunch.
With a search, you see that your friend Drew loves a little pizza joint right around the corner. And it's a "bump hotspot," so apparently everyone else does too! So you head over there to meet up.
After a delicious slice or three, you go your separate ways and, as you leave, you open the app and realize there's a little part of the city you've never explored before just a couple blocks away. You've got a little time so you wander around, popping in and out of shops and picking up a few things for your apartment.
The scenario sounds amazing right? Your world feels smaller while at the same time, your city feels bigger.
To bring that vision to life, there are some big social and technological hurdles to overcome.
Battery: Constantly tracking your location will absolutely murder your battery.
Privacy: People are skittish about sharing their location.
Offline: They somehow need to encourage IRL meetups instead of online chats.
Any one of these three challenges on their own would be a daunting task. There's a graveyard of companies that have died in pursuit of each. But for Zenly to actually win, they HAD to solve all three.
Challenge #1 — Preserve the battery.
The biggest technological challenge was preserving battery life. Location tracking comes at a cost. The more precise you want to be, the more battery it drains.
Zenly needed to be hyper-specific so you could find your friends easily but they couldn't risk leaving your device at 0% by lunch time. They had to get creative.
Their team built a battery-efficient, ultra-precise location engine called ZenEngine that would use the vast network devices around you along with GPS to make perpetual location sharing a possibility.
With the ZenEngine powering the experience, Zenly could begin building out a Place Graph without requiring their users to check-in at locations. They could log your places automatically, building a spectacular digital clone of your world.
Challenge #2 — Normalize location sharing.
In a world where privacy concerns were abundant, sharing your location 24/7 was barely an option. To overcome this skepticism, Zenly had to change the narrative and the perception around location sharing. They had three approaches.
I. Broader Perspective
The first thing they did was to expand the perspective. Where Find My Friends put the emphasis on the location itself, Zenly put the emphasis on the real-world connections that location sharing would facilitate.
Their messaging revolved around "your world," shifting focus from your location to the people and places that you love to visit.
As your Place Graph grew, Zenly would unlock a "My World" feature that would highlight your top city and place.
II. Playful Design
The second thing that they did was to design the app to feel casual and fun. Sharing your location didn't have to feel ominous - it could feel playful! With bright colors, rounded corners and bouncy animation and haptics, the app felt more like a game than a utility.
Zenly even made the maps themselves unique and interesting to encourage engagement and interactivity. The more you "play" with the app, the more you let your guards down.
I mean... how cool is this?
III. Fine-tuned Control
And finally, it was important to actually respect the weight of sharing your location. In the end, your location is an intimate part of your life and, if handled wrong, could have disastrous consequences. They couldn't be flippant about it.
So they built "ghost mode" to disappear in a tap along with fine-tuned privacy controls to only share your location with specific people or at specific times, putting the control of your location in your hands.
Challenge #3 — Encourage offline interactions.
The final challenge was to bring the social network offline.
The first generation of social apps like Facebook connected people through curated shared moments. It changed long-distance relationships forever.
The second generation of social apps like Snapchat connected people through raw, fleeting moments. It brought a sense of "realness" to the mix.
At some point, a new generation of social apps will emerge that will use virtual reality to offer a sense of presence and shared space that will be the closest thing to "in person" that you can get in a digital world.
But despite this evolution, nothing in the foreseeable future will ever replace actually being in person. To me, that's the magic that Zenly brought to the world.
“This isn’t another messaging app. This isn’t a social network. This isn’t a utility. It’s something that sits between all of these areas. And I keep opening the app.”
—Romain Dillet, TechCrunch
But it's an uphill battle. People are used to social media bringing relationships from the physical world into the digital world, not the other way around. This is how they did it.
They made the map the main view, showing you where you've been and haven't been yet.
They stayed away from functionality like posts, stories and feeds that would keep people in the app instead of in the physical world.
They designed messaging to be in service of meeting up with someone IRL.
They reduced the friction to reach out to someone with the "what's up?" feature.
Spoiler alert: they did it!
Zenly was the 10th most-downloaded social app globally with over 40M monthly active users and they hadn’t even started to try to grow in the United States. They were growing into a behemoth.
Snap claims they’ll be focusing on Snap Map which I’m sure means they’ll be consolidating a lot of their ground-breaking technology into Snapchat. But the unfortunate part is that Zenly had the opportunity to reach markets that will never adopt Snapchat. And that’s where Snap Map will be at a distinct disadvantage.
Even though Zenly is getting shut down, there’s a piece of tech they invented that changed the game and, honestly, created a new category. Their ZenEngine 👇
✨ The ZenEngine
Location data is both incredibly powerful and incredibly scarce.
Powerful, because you could do with digital billboards what Google did with display ads. Retargeting. Imagine walking down the street and seeing a billboard for that pair of shoes you were looking at yesterday. Or you could build location-based experiences that pop up as you’re leaving a store or entering a city. Or you could build an incredible recommendation engine that shows you places you’d love based on other people’s hotspots with similar activities. The possibilities are endless.
Scarce, because while mapping technology has been around for a long time, it’s been mostly duopolized by Google (Google Maps + Waze) and Apple (Apple Maps) who would much rather keep that data for themselves as they compete for market share. Competing would be incredibly difficult and expensive so there hasn’t been many meaningful competitors in recent years.
📍 The Place Graph
So Zenly threw a curveball.
They didn’t have to build a mapping tool. They could jump straight to the end and build a Place Graph on top of the mapping tools that already exist but with an ace up their sleeve. Their ZenEngine.
Zenly is well aware that it can’t compete with Apple Maps and Google Maps when it comes to data accuracy. But what’s more exciting is that this new mapping engine unlocks a ton of possibilities. The company can integrate social data with mapping data in one seamless view.
—Romain Dillet, TechCrunch
Companies who attempted something similar in the past, like Foursquare, didn’t overcome the 3 big social and technological challenges that Zenly did. Ultimately, that’s why Zenly won. The background location tracking paired with their proprietary ZenEngine allows the Place Graph to be constructed passively and displayed beautifully with no input required from the user. Over time, they would have a full picture of your world without you having to “check-in.” Your world was just… created.
Where’s home? And work?
Where do you spend most of your time?
Where do you go on which days at what time?
Where do you shop, eat and play?
A digital clone of your world.
That digital clone and how it intersect with your friends and their places is a really interesting piece of technology and I’m sure we haven’t even scratched the surface of what could be done with it. There are obvious privacy and security concerns that come with that but I don’t want to harp on it - we all know they exist. For a moment, I want to expand our imagination beyond that. What incredible experiences could be built on top of a Place Graph?
Drop your ideas in the comments below!
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