Is it just hype?
Signal’s rapid growth, shooting up to #1 on free social media apps, has increased its notice. New users are looking for ease of use and privacy in their day-to-day communication. For the time being, Signal may offer that sense of security but how will they keep up their momentum?
Let’s take a look at their latest 5.5.0 update from Feb 22, 2021. I’ll compare that to Signal’s account creation process from January.
UX Analysis of Signal: Reinforce privacy; remove friction
In the app store
Starting in the Apple App Store, Signal screams privacy in the app preview. Under the updates, the first bullet point reads “This update improves the onboarding experience for new Signal users. If you’ve already been using Signal for a long time, feel free to invite a new friend and then ask them to tell you all about it.” This is a bold claim – how would this statement read to a first-time user? Signal has been around for 6 years (half the age of WhatsApp) so does this message address returning users more-so than new users?
The splash screen is simple – it reminds users why they are joining Signal.
“I want more data privacy.”
After clicking ‘Continue’ Signal proceeds to “Allow Permissions”, which was formerly “Get the message”. The concern that was noted in the built for mars article was that this step asked users to set up notifications with Signal but then proceeded to request access to a device’s contacts before even asking for the user’s name. For someone who’s just trying to quickly get through the process, it’s easy to autopilot through and not read the popup modals.
In the update, Signal addresses the concern by adding more context to the process. The new title and text inform users that Signal wants access to notifications and contacts so that messages can be sent to friends and notifications are turned on. While this context is now provided, this step happens even before a user adds basic account information such as name and number. This step seems like it can come later in the app when users are about to send their first message.
After advancing the permissions, Signal asks for a phone number. This isn’t too complicated and there is now an option to confirm the phone number entered. The message says a verification code will be sent and gives users an option to make edits before proceeding. This updated feature is great! Before, Signal proceeded to the verification process without asking users to check their phone numbers. Now, there are multiple opportunities to check the phone number entered.
During the verification screen, a new feature was added: “Resend Code in…” The purpose of this feature is unclear because the countdown timer is the same for a code being re-sent. Seeing the text seems to be an option to either have a code re-sent OR receive a phone call. But the text isn’t clickable.
Another “nice-to-have” option that is still missing here is an option to verify the phone number later. This puts the user at an impasse if the verification is incomplete.
Finally, Signal asks for a name. An optional last name field puts the user at ease about their information because it’s one less identifier being entered into a new app.
Signal adds another layer of security for the user by creating a PIN. But, it fails to convey what their password best practices are – users cannot enter the same 4 digits as their chosen PIN. Although Signal says “Choose a stronger PIN”, it doesn’t suggest what would make for a stronger PIN (besides it being at least 4 digits).
Finally, onboarding is complete! A new user successfully joins Signal and the app is very similar to WhatsApp from here.
In this step, Signal asks to “connect device to local network” which seems to be targeted to returning users, more-so than first-time users. This step is unnecessary and slows down the process. Instead, this would be a better time to ask users access to their contacts and set up notification preferences.
High Signal to Noise
Signal does 3 things notably well in highlighting privacy and making for a positive user experience:
- Good empty states – encourages the user to invite contacts and start messaging
- Emphasis on security – occasionally asks for the PIN
- Minimize learnability – design is very similar to WhatsApp
Good empty states
After onboarding, the user is met with some quick tips to navigating the app and encouragement in a couple of areas to invited friends. During onboarding, Signal accesses your contacts to identify who is already on Signal that you can message right away too!
Emphasis on security
The PIN is one of the key features of Signal that focuses on data privacy and security. Similar to how a phone or credit card has a PIN, if a device is lost or changed, the PIN prevents other people to be able to enter and misuse the account while the user can recover their profile, settings, and contacts by logging in.
After setting up the PIN for the first time and verifying it, Signal sends reminders to verify the PIN after predefined time intervals of 12 hours, 1 day, 3 days, 1 week, and 2 weeks. So, it is handy to memorize the PIN or keep it somewhere safe.
In an article that describes the similarity between Signal and WhatsApp, it’s noted that Signal uses Jakob’s Law to give users the same look and feel that they’d get in WhatsApp. This is an advantage because minimizing the learnability a user has to experience when faced with a new tool promises that longer usage. Take Instagram, for example, the familiar “double-tap” to like ‘like’ feature has been adapted by LinkedIn for users to express their appreciation for a post. Instead of reinventing the wheel to up engagement, LinkedIn took a well-established feature and incorporated it with their product.
With any social media app with a cult following, the hype does eventually die down, and what slows that down is the UX. There are many things that Signal does well and there are some things that need improvements, like any product. Given that in a month’s worth of time, Signal has addressed a handful of issues that were addressed regarding verification and permissions, it goes to show that they’re working on improving the seamless onboarding experience to increase users. I think what might be missing is more intent with content strategy to improve context or requests and options for users during the onboarding process. Read more about our Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy to learn more about how to make information appear to the right people, in the right places, at the right times.
Have you started using Signal? What are your thoughts on the experience compared to other messaging and social media apps?