I was interviewed by Nate Lanxon from Bloomberg about Skype, specifically its confusing UX history and what it means to ‘Skype’ someone. A whole sentence of that conversation made it into the piece linked below:
Don’t Skype Me: How Microsoft Turned Consumers Against a Beloved Brand – Bloomberg
Here are my full comments for posterity:
Looking back 15 years, it’s almost hard to believe how well Skype did the difficult bit. They brought a groundbreaking technology—video calling—into any home or office that wanted it. The Skype app did one thing well, and it changed the way we communicate on the internet.
‘To Skype’ started to become a common phrase as the app enjoyed the same first mover or category leader status occupied by products like Google’s search engine and Adobe’s Photoshop. Yet as it grew, we saw the beginnings of an identity crisis. The middle period of its history, when it was acquired first by eBay and then Microsoft, saw multiple redesigns, each adding more ‘social’ features. This could only lead to confusion about the appearance and disappearance of different interface elements—particularly from the less tech-savvy users who were urged to install and use the app by family members wanting to keep in touch.
Skype 4.0 saw the return of video calls as the primary feature, but not for long. The launch of Skype 5.0 in 2014 gave a ‘Metro’ or Windows Phone-style UX to its iOS and Android apps. 6.0, released in 2015, ditched that in favour of a combination of iOS gestures and Android’s Material Design look. Meanwhile, Windows users on tablet, desktop and laptop have had to endure different app versions as Microsoft deals with a fragmented operating system base. 2017’s controversial redesign was broader in scope, with bold colour gradients, prominent emoji reactions and above all a renewed focus on messaging. This generated lots of negative feedback with users complaining of significant usability issues. Microsoft eventually backtracked over some of these changes.
In 2018 Skype is by most standards a mature app. Yet it still isn’t sure what it wants to be, and complexity and confusion reign. When I log in, I’m encouraged to update my temporary status with an ‘Highlights’ image. I can open a conversation with a brand’s automated customer service bot. I’m prompted to start group chats with my contacts. The app’s original core features are now widely available in other messaging and social apps and baked into mobile and desktop operating systems for even easier use. These apps and platforms have leveraged their huge install bases by adding video calling to their existing text-based chat, and it feels a natural extension of those services. For Skype to repeatedly try to retrofit an entire messaging infrastructure into their app feels unwieldy and is confusing for users.
There’s an old Saturday Night Live sketch with a couple arguing over a new product—is it a floor wax, or a dessert topping? Company man Chevy Chase reassures them: don’t worry, it’s both! And that’s what it feels like with Skype—in the face of huge competition, it tries to be all things to all people, and almost all those things are executed better elsewhere.
## 2. Bit more detail on Skype as a verb
Since it launched, ‘to Skype’ has become a phrase that means ‘to start a video call with someone’. Skype joined the likes of Google, Photoshop, Xerox, Hoover and many other companies and products for whom their brand name has become a generic name, which stands in for similar products and services in that category.
This is a double edged sword. Your name gets out beyond your existing customer base and there’s a sense that you’ve ‘made it’. You’re automatically seen as the category leader—the ones that did it first, and perhaps the best. But it’s not all great news. There are lots of companies—Adobe is a great example—that don’t like you using their product names as verbs. Their legal teams worry that this process of ‘genericisation’ will lead to ‘genericide’, a huge problem where it becomes harder to renew their trademarks if a product name is too widely used.
But perhaps Microsoft shouldn’t be worried. With so many newer features that take the product away from its original core service, it’s less obvious what it means to ‘Skype’ someone. Users of Apple products are more likely to say “I’ll FaceTime you” to each other when they mean to start a video call. Millions of people around the world are comfortable saying “I’ll WhatsApp you” when they want to start a text chat. If Microsoft aren’t careful, ‘to Skype’ might end up meaning ‘to confuse someone’.
Nate had a couple of follow up questions, to which I responded:
Currently, users fire up Skype for two main purposes. One is contact-centric: for ongoing, intermittent conversation that’s typically text-based and either one-to-one or one-to-many. The other is task-centric: one-off, focused communication, such as a video call with another user or group. These are very different types of intent and communication.
Skype’s current UX is very contact-centric. You’re presented with a prominent list of people—”who do you want to communicate with?”—then you decide which of these communication types you want to happen. This is fine for users who primarily want to use Skype as a messaging tool and is well executed. All the features you would expect from such an app are present and it’s easy and intuitive to use. It serves the first purpose and works well on mobile, where users are more likely to dip in and out.
But many power users—e.g. businesses, podcasters, the sorts of people who’d gladly pay money for a robust service that’s dedicated to their needs—think in a more task-based way, considering the communication type first—”what do you want to do?”. Typically they’ll be using the desktop version. Their need is to start a video call with person x, for example, or start an audio call with persons y and z. For this type of user, the current UX is problematic. There are too many features and UI elements that they don’t need or want, and they’re all in the way.
All of this means that the app as it stands is squarely in competition with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other apps which already have a loyal group of dedicated users. For successful group messaging, all participants need to be intimately familiar with the service and its UX. I wouldn’t be comfortable asking a group of my friends to start a Skype chat. Despite it’s UX similarities with its competitors, many of my friends won’t be familiar with the interface and, once they are, I fear that it will change again, leading to confusion within the group.
These different user needs are subtly incompatible. Skype’s identity crisis has lead them to an UX dilemma that interface adustments alone can’t solve, and another major redesign is the last thing its users want.