SMS vs. IP messaging in apps

App developers and product designers looking to add communications to their apps have a choice, and it’s an important one. They can tack on SMS texting functionality. Or they can build in-app messaging. SMS providers refer to the latter as IP messaging, which correctly describes the underlying technology. However, much like you wouldn’t describe a navigation feature as a collection of vector tiles and geospatial math, we refer to it not as IP messaging, but rather what it is to the user: native messaging. Native messaging describes how these communications are woven natively into your favorite apps’ experiences.

Because we live and breathe this stuff, we thought it’d be helpful to share a few things to keep in mind while making the decision.

SMS

For the uninitiated, SMS is short for “Short Message Service.” It was invented 30 years ago as a way to send text-based messages through the phone system. While SMS was an amazing technological feat at the time, to be constrained by its 160-character plain-text limitation that forces users outside of your app today is anachronistic at best.

Here’s what a user experience involving SMS looks like in a ride-sharing app:

alt(Full size image.)

The challenges with SMS

SMS offers little to those looking to implement a tightly controlled and integrated communications experience within their app.

  • Fragmented user experience – as shown in the above example, the user must leave the app in order to respond to an app-related text message. In this case the communication is between the car driver and the rider.
  • Limited functionality – SMS supports only text, no modern day content like emojis, GIFs, photos, videos, audio snippets or location. This limits both the user’s ability to communicate, and the developer’s ability to create a great user experience.
  • Limited control, insight and reliability for app developers — SMS is a complex, external system that apps interact with; one filled with middlemen and governed by mobile carriers. This means that app developers’ visibility into SMS conversations are mediated by many parties, even though it’s acting as a direct communication channel between app and user. Developers have limited access to delivery status and are forced to deal with a narrow delivery window. There’s no guarantee that messages will be delivered in order, or even that they will be delivered at all.
  • User confusion caused by anonymity — messages delivered via SMS originate from a short-code or number owned by the service provider. This obfuscates the message’s origin and forces the developer to waste precious characters providing context to the recipient, so they can understand which app and/or user sent the message. These are decisions that developers and product designers should be allowed to make, rather than a bitter pill they are forced to swallow.

Recommended ways to use SMS in apps

Despite the limitations of SMS, there are still a few useful ways app developers can use the system.

  • Phone number verification – SMS is a great system for authenticating app users via their phone number.
  • Sending messages to non app users – SMS is also a great tool for sending invites to non app users (email also works well for this).

IP messaging

Communications channels that exist as a part of a built-in app experience are defined as IP messaging. “Native messaging” is the term we use here at Layer. Both terms refer to messages that are sent “over the top” — those that rely on mobile TCP/IP data links for delivery rather than the traditional telephony network. As Internet access is available to smartphone applications directly, it is an enabling technology for rich, native in-app communications.

Though native messaging hasn’t been available for nearly as long as SMS, it offers a wealth of additional functionality for app developers, designers, and product people. And not until Layer was there an IP messaging service that made it so easy to build and integrate into an app.

Here’s what a user experience involving native messaging looks like in a ride-sharing app:

alt(Full size image.)

Benefits of native messaging

Native messaging empowers app developers to design and deliver user experiences that are far superior to those shackled by the constraints of SMS technology.

  • Users stay in-app — the example above shows how smoothly the user transitions from ordering the car to chatting with the driver, all inside one app.
  • Rich functionality — IP messaging supports the types of content users have come to expect: emojis, GIFs, photos, videos, audio snippets, and location. In the example above, the user can see the driver’s location and communicate in the context of where and when the driver will arrive. She can also see a photo of the driver and car, and whatever else the app developer chooses. With Layer, developers are perfectly positioned to support any future content types because of our free-form binary message payloads, which can be up to 2GB in size.
  • Control for app developers — keeping the user in the app allows the developer to maintain control of the user experience and keep the user engaged. IP messaging affords app developers complete control over every part of the communication, from look and feel, all the way to data about delivery completions and response rates. The app developer may use this data to iterate and improve the app experience for her users.
  • Context for users — because communications related to the app aren’t presented as text messages from an unrecognized telephone number, but rather as push notifications or chats from the app, the user has appropriate context for the communication.
  • Freedom to create excellent user experiences — the rich functionality of IP messaging unlocks great user experiences. App developers and product designers are able to create whatever experience they desire, without the limitations of SMS.

Recommended ways to use native messaging in apps

Whether an app developer is building a dating app, marketplace app, sports app, content publishing portal, messaging app, a game, or anything in between, native messaging gives them a range of functionality options. Here are just a few:

  • One-to-one chat — let your users connect directly to each other through chat, and enhance personal connection through active typing indicators and read receipts.
  • One-to-many chat — get groups of users talking with rich, multimedia group chat.
  • Photo sharing — allow your users to share experiences by sharing photos in chat.
  • Location sharing — share map locations directly into the conversation.
  • Audio or video chat (asynchronous) — let your users sense the nuance of physical presence with audio and video.
  • Information-rich messages — enrich your app experience by enabling users to send restaurant information, reservation confirmations, concert tickets, music, and more.
  • Application-to-user messaging — send messages from your backend like game scores, news updates, and marketing messages, as in-conversation messages or direct-to-user announcements with push notifications.
  • Cross-platform experiences — craft beautiful experiences for each platform and device, be it desktop or mobile.

Try native messaging for your app

Native messaging is easy to build into your app with Layer. Get started for free today and build a prototype to help your team understand how transformative native messaging could be for your product.

Get started today.

Marketplace apps need native communications

Marketplace apps have changed the way we find goods and services. Need an Ikea table assembled? Use Handy. Need a place to stay for your friend’s wedding? Book with Airbnb. Need to find a babysitter for Friday night? Try Urbansitter.

Marketplace apps are fundamentally about connecting people — those who have goods and services, and those who want them. They’re also about building trust and human connection. Not long ago the idea of staying in a perfect stranger’s home, or entrusting someone you’ve never met to watch your children, would have been unthinkable. Marketplace apps have made these options commonplace.

As Bessemer points out in its excellent post, the Web 1.0 model of Craiglist is giving way to focused mobile marketplaces that allow for a richer interaction between participants. Communication in marketplace apps creates trust: the more contextual and clear the communication in the app, the more trust is established. Trust makes for an overall better user experience, which in turn leads to happier users and more usage.

Which is to say, native communication — in-app and content rich — is the key to creating excellent experiences in marketplace apps.

A better user experience for both buyer and service provider

As a baseline, most marketplace apps give buyers and service providers the ability to correspond and ask and answer questions in a simple chat format, both in advance of booking and during/after.

This is often basic text chat, limiting users’ ability to ask and answer even simple questions effectively.

These communications can be made dramatically more effective with the introduction of content directly in the dialogue. Maps, photos, video, audio recordings, or anything else the app creator deems additive to her users’ experience. Native communication makes the user experience in marketplace apps better, richer, and more contextual.

There are three primary phases of interaction in marketplace apps. The first phase is before booking, where buyers are vetting and ultimately choosing an option. The second phase is during the actual service. The final phase, which is after the service is completed, completes the feedback loop.

Leading up to booking: Native communications allow users to communicate more clearly and in greater detail, building trust and buyer confidence. More trust and confidence = more completed transactions.

See how much more effective the exchange becomes with video and maps?

During service: Communication becomes even more important during the actual service. Whether it’s a vacation rental, home repair, dog walking or babysitting service, clear, direct and real-time communication between the customer and service provider can mean the difference between an entirely disappointing experience and an extraordinarily positive one.

Replying helps build even more confidence and trust in the relationship between renter and property owner. Imagine the renter’s experience had the property owner not replied immediately. The renter would have become increasingly frustrated, unable to enter the rental property. Despite a great Phase 1 experience, their overall opinion of the app would be negative.

After the service is completed: Post-service communication closes the feedback loop. This is a fundamental part of marketplace ecosystems, as it’s through reviews and ratings that service providers build trust with future buyers.

In all phases, additions like delivery and read receipts make the communication even clearer. Introducing a sense of presence in the conversation and helping users understand whether and when their messages have been delivered and processed.

A better experience for app creators

For marketplace app creators, native communications offers an array of benefits. First, native/in-app communications offers visibility into the actions taken inside of the app. Total messages sent, types of messages, percentage of messages receiving a reply. This business-critical data belongs to the app creator, and is therefore easily exportable.

It’s through this visibility that app creators can gain insight. By uncovering patterns in communications, app creators are able to glean intelligence and iterate on user experience. These in addition to complete control over look and feel of the messaging experience for their users.

Native communications is the key to excellent experiences in marketplace apps

At Layer we believe half of every app’s potential is enabling its users to connect with one another and communicate in the context of their shared interest. Never is this more true or more apparent than when looking at the marketplace app category.

Layer is a complete building block for creating rich, native communications experiences of all kinds. All functionality mentioned here is possible with Layer today.

We can’t wait to see what you imagine and build.

Dating apps need native communications

tl;dr: it’s all about intimacy and making an engaging connection.

The explosive mainstreaming of dating apps such as Tinder has transformed the way human beings (on smartphones, anyway) find love. Far from the days of courtship via sonnets penned by candlelight, the window of opportunity has shortened to literally a blink of an eye, and love seekers need to be armed with better tools to make a human connection through the pixels of a 750 x 1334 point screen.

Here at Layer, we thought what better time to share our thinking about love and apps than the week of Valentine’s Day. Especially when some dating apps will see downloads as much as quadruple.

As a baseline, most dating apps give romance seekers the ability to view others’ profiles, select those individuals that pique their interest and send them a message. For most, it stops there. Further, the existing basic chat experience is all too often below par — we’ve become accustomed to exceptional messaging experiences like that of iMessage and the bar is raised significantly — setting into effect a series of correlated events: messaging doesn’t work well, and as a result the app creator loses engagement. Users go elsewhere.

dating app with basic messaging

But they don’t have to lose those users.

Dating app creators who add a simple but powerful feature like typing indicator to a chat experience can help create a sense of presence in a dating app, creating intimacy between the two people chatting. Coupled with read receipts, the two features can transform the communications dynamic.

In adding these features alone, a dating app becomes more engaging.

See how that works?

A dating app rich with native communications lets people use various senses to aid in the formation of a human connection. The ability to hear the intonations in someone’s voice, see their mannerisms on video and see them in photos depicting their hobbies and interests can give a much greater sense of who someone is than a static profile. Dating app creators who add these abilities, coupled with text-based, in-app messaging, will give suitors a more cohesive representation of the person they’re engaging with in the app. The app becomes more engaging.

dating app with photo sharing

In dating apps, that first interaction between suitor and potential love interest isextremelyimportant. That very first exchange can either pique interest or completely deter. Native, IP-based communications allow app creators to incorporate rich content objects that both relieve the pressure of the exchange and make it fun, and also perhaps give the two people a better sense of the other. Imagine a trivia question as an icebreaker…

dating app with trivia

Adding native communications can dramatically boost engagement in a dating app.

Dating apps have among the highest frequency of users per week of any category, behind only messaging and games. But usage quickly drops off after people form a connection in the app. Retention over 90 days is among the lowest of any category. When a connection is viable, people take their communication elsewhere.

Dating apps have great potential to provide utility beyond just facilitating the formation of a romantic connection, thus increasing engagement.

If you think of establishing the connection and demonstrating mutual interest as step one, the logical next step is a date. Using the dating app to continue the natural progression of a budding relationship keeps the communication in-app and in context. For the app creator, this is especially important as it maintains user engagement where it would otherwise drop off.

dating app with calendaring

A note on privacy: Adding native, in-app, IP-based communications has tremendous value in the dating category, particularly. Native messaging means users are able to maintain privacy and some element of anonymity. They need not share their phone number, which would be a requirement of sending or receiving an SMS.

At Layer we believe half of every app’s potential is enabling its users to connect with one another and communicate in the context of their shared interest. Never is this more true or more apparent than in looking at the dating app category.

Layer provides all of the building blocks to create rich, native communications experiences of all kinds.

All functionality mentioned here is possible with Layer today. We can’t wait to see what you imagine and build.

Thanks to Robert Long and Tomaz Stolfa for contributing to this post.

The benefits of building blocks

Every mobile or web application, consumer or enterprise, is built with the goal of providing value to its users — whether it’s booking a car, making a restaurant reservation, teaching them how to complete a task, or providing a fun and challenging gaming experience. Whatever the purpose of the application, making that experience exceptional should be the primary focus of its creators. The infrastructure that powers those experiences is an enabler. It’s unrealistic to expect app creators to be experts in every bit of infrastructure. For this reason, building blocks that focus on specific parts of the infrastructure have emerged, solving hard problems for all applications that use them like maps, payments, and analytics. Layer does this for communications. Building blocks streamline the development process and help app creators ship better products faster.

In house vs. building blocks

Effort and speed

Application creators always have limited resources when developing products. Constraints in time, people, and budget are common — and often all three are in play. Using a building block technology, developers can get to a fully functional experience faster than if they were to develop the infrastructure from scratch or try to combine several services together. Consider what is easier/faster — setting up an entire messaging service including connectivity, network handling, routing, push notifications etc. or just authenticating users, defining a conversation, sending/receiving a message? Layer enables application creators to get fully functional communications in their products extremely fast with no infrastructure work, enabling them to focus on the product experience.

A better product experience

When developers leverage a building block technology instead of building their own infrastructure from scratch, engineering resources can be refocused on building a better experience. Rather than spending 80% of your development time building infrastructure and the final 20% refining UI and UX, imagine having the vast majority of your time to spend on experience and interface — truly the things that define a product!? Having completely functional communications features out of the box enables developers to focus and innovate on the differentiating factors of their product — the content, experiences, connections, and transactions that no other product enables.

Constant improvement and evolution

Companies that provide building blocks have the luxury to focus on the constant improvement of their specialized functionality. That’s a luxury a developer can’t afford if that functionality is not the absolute core focus and key differentiator of the product. In-house solutions are often built for today’s needs, as a quick project to solve an immediate need. Through time, requirements and expected features change. A communications platform such as Layer has the luxury of focusing on delivering all the features at the quality level of a horizontal communications product — and always pushing the bar higher. At Layer our focus is always on providing a simple to use SDK, with clean APIs, powered by scalable and reliable infrastructure that keep evolving to meet the changing needs of developers’ products and businesses.

Community and Support

Because building blocks are used by large numbers of developers and are not one-off solutions, it is fairly easy to find additional support in the community. On top of that, the companies behind these build block products typically provide great documentation and long-term support to ensure their customers are successfully using their products. That’s hard to say for one-off, home-brewed solutions built by teams that have mostly moved onto other, equally important internal projects or have even left the company. We are proud to provide developers using Layer with great support with 100% satisfaction rates.

Reliability, maintenance and scale

Most projects start as a proof-of-concept, and then later evolve into viable, shippable products. Infrastructure built to support a proof-of-concept will usually require a substantial amount of time and resource to reach a production-ready state — not to mention the ongoing cost of maintenance, operations burden, and scaling to support a product’s success. Often scaling up means reworking the entire architecture several times. Operating large scale communications infrastructure is expensive and requires a lot of highly specific domain expertise. Layer’s communications service was built to support scale from day one and is maintained by a dedicated team of experts with highly relevant domain expertise.

We love to power great experiences. Get started with Layer and enable the power of communications in your product.

The rise of the mobile mega niche

When the “Big Bang” of the modern Internet exploded more than 20 years ago, the first set of shockwaves impacted macro sectors like shopping, media and travel. And those shockwaves fundamentally altered the landscape for their offline counterparts.

Fast forward to today, there isn’t a major sector that hasn’t been completed transformed by successive waves of innovation from Web 1.0 to the modern mobile app world.

What happened along the way is that more than 3 billion people are now on the Internet*, and at those numbers, even a small niche represents a very large aggregate community of interest.

Enter the mega niche and the power of passion.

Passion brings people together, and passion creates connections within people that share it in very powerful ways. Today, 3 billion people are finding each other to share their interests with others — in many cases using crude Web 1.0 bulletin boards.

These mega niches aren’t small: some are tens, even hundreds of millions of community members strong. The shared interest that brings them together can be literally anything — cooking, cars, clothes, parenthood, watch collecting, tennis, surfing, skateboarding, home design, bird-watching, a popular podcast.

Giving these groups the power to communicate in the context of their shared interest is tremendously powerful.

Apps that are well-designed and cater exclusively to a mega niche community, away from other, less relevant content, can be captivating to their users. And there are opportunities to create these apps everywhere you look.

Car enthusiast mega niche: An app that connects people who share a love for old Volkswagens, despite those people spanning continents, would be exceptionally valuable and useful for its community. The bulk of the communication in the app would be centered around the topic of the cars the community members are so passionate about, which would keep users engaged. In such an app, communications features would enable community members to teach each other how to perform maintenance, share knowledge, buy and sell goods, exchange stories.

New mother mega niche: An app for new mothers would bring women all over the world together and enable them to share in the experience of motherhood, surely highlighting the similarities in experience regardless of location and also allowing women to benefit from others’ cultural practices. In such an app, communications features would enable community members to exchange experiences with sleep-encouraging practices for newborns, tactics to soothe fussy babies, recommendations about baby products and overall just provide one another support.

Skateboarder mega niche: An app for skateboarders would have potential to connect as many as 14M skateboarders in the U.S. alone. For app creators seeking to build a viable, sustainable app, that’s 14M people who want to engage around the topic of skateboarding. They want to learn how to do tricks, share commentary on a pro’s performance at the X Games, chat about their experience with a new deck.

Watch collector mega niche: An app for watch collectors would allow the small but exceedingly committed group of enthusiasts to share in their passion for watches. In such an app, communications features would allow users to exchange reviews, debate over minute mechanical and stylistic details in watches, discuss watch care and optimization.

For app creators, these mega niches are highly engaged and monetizable.

The interest within the mega-niche communities is extremely focused, therefore the content in such apps would be exceedingly consistent and on-topic. Bringing these like-minded people together, and allowing them to communicate in the context of their shared interest, provides great value and utility to an app’s users.

There’s a mega niche of people who like pretty much anything and everything. Every subreddit could, and should, be an app.

Many of these apps currently give their users information/content, but don’t provide them any way to communicate with one another. Imagine how much more engaging and useful these apps could be if they allowed their users to connect with one another.

Apps that serve mega niche communities have the potential to foster extremely meaningful communications, with an exceptionally high signal-to-noise ratio.

Facebook has 1.3 billion users, which makes it one of the largest online communities in the world. But Facebook users’ only shared interest, presumably, is the people they communicate with through the app.

We’ve all seen evidence of the need for some sort of segmentation, or proof that some passions and interests would be better shared in a mega-niche community instead of a general one like Facebook. Take the Superbowl, for example. Non-football fans quickly become exhausted of mentions of the sport and long for a way to mute them in their feeds. At the same time, however, we see the NFL app’s numbers skyrocket during the Superbowl, proving how engaging an app that connects members of the football mega-niche community can be during such a relevant event.

Layer gives app creators all of the tools necessary to build the right native, in-app communications experiences for mega niches that are centered around any shared interest. We give you open-sourced UI components and features like text chat, video chat and messaging that supports any payload. We give you powerful-out-of-the-box push notifications, and typing indicator and read receipts so you can bring your mega niche together and give them a sense of presence in their conversation.

As always, we can’t wait to see what you build with Layer.

 

Every app is a communications app

Anyone creating an app aspires to delight their users (period), because delightful apps win.

Whether an app is centered around compelling content in sports, entertainment or news — or the focus is finding and buying a concert ticket or a t-shirt, booking a flight or hotel, or hailing a town car or taxi — enabling users to engage with one another in-app and in context is the key to a delightful user experience.

Contrary to how John’s tweet above may be interpreted,this is not about jamming chat into an app. It’s fundamentally about how the user experience is enriched by the context that comes from a shared conversation within the app. If users are not able to engage with one another in a high fidelity way within the app, they will find ways to continue the conversation through other channels, elsewhere. This robs the app of valuable engagement and follow-on growth.

Here are just a few examples of how apps we use every day can be transformed into a more engaging experience through context-rich, native communications:


An app for finding babysitters.

Without native communications:

This app is essentially a marketplace for babysitters and parents in need of a babysitter. The app pre-qualifies babysitters through background checks and then presents parents with a list of available babysitters, based on the date, time and experience criteria the parent sets.

Transformation opportunities:

  • Messaging to connect parents to each other to collaborate and discuss the selection and ultimate hiring of a babysitter.
  • During-job photo or video messaging from babysitter/kids to parents to keep parents updated on the kids’ well being.
  • Sharing of checklists and other content types so parents and babysitter can stay in sync during the job.

(What a babysitting app might look like with native communications.)

After adding native communications:

The app now better sets parents’ minds at ease, and facilitates communication during the most critical parts of the process that the app enables – 1. choosing a relative stranger to entrust with your kids and 2. the actual babysitting event.


An app for searching for real estate.

Without native communications:

This app indexes real estate listings and enables potential buyers to sort homes by an array of criteria – location, square footage, number of bedrooms, year built and number of days on the market, to name a few.

Transformation opportunities:

  • Messaging to allow prospective home buyers to discuss properties as they review online.
  • Photo messaging to allow home buyers to to document and contextually share images of homes they tour, even if one of the buyers can’t be present.
  • The ability to share property listings as content objects.
  • Calendaring to schedule time to tour properties.

(What a real estate app might look like with native communications.)

After adding native communications:

The app now facilitates a collaborative process — centered around an emotionally-charged, exciting life event — and allows home buyers to communicate in the context of the buying process.


An app for booking restaurant reservations.

Without native communications:

This app helps diners find and book reservations at restaurants. Diners can set search parameters like location of restaurant, type of cuisine and time of day.

Transformation opportunities:

  • Messaging to connect reservation booker to other members of the dining party.
  • Messaging to connect diners to the restaurant.
  • The ability to share menu items as content objects.
  • Location or instructions on how to get to the restaurant as content objects.
  • Payment confirmation via messaging.

(What a restaurant reservation-booking app might look like with native communications.)

After adding native communications:

The app now allows people coming together to break bread to communicate in context in advance of the dining experience as they choose a restaurant.


An app for planning travel.

Without native communications:

This app helps people organize and access travel reservations and details in one place.

Transformation opportunities:

  • Messaging to connect multiple people traveling together.
  • Reservations and other bookings as content types.
  • Notifications from airlines, hotels and car rental companies, providing updates on reservations, arrivals, availability, etc.

(What a travel planning app might look like with native communications.)

After adding native communications:

Since travel is often a group activity, this app now better serves travelers needs. It brings everyone together on the same journey, and allows them to communicate and share in the context of the trip — the flight, the hotel reservation, any activities booked, etc.


Adding communications to virtually any app improves its utility for its users.

Apps like the ones above are focused on either providing users with content or enabling them to take an action. Real estate listings are content. Securing a restaurant reservation and booking a babysitter for a night out are actions.

At Layer, we believe that the content or action the app is providing or enabling is only half of the apps’ potential. The other half is allowing people to communicate in the context of the content or action taken in the app. If an app creator has not yet given her users a way to interact with each other inside of the app, she’s missing the other half of her app. It’s not just about the content of the app, it’s about the dynamic between the people who use it.

Users of an app, by definition, form a community around a shared interest. (After all, they all downloaded the app for a reason.) Communities want to communicate, and communication binds a community together.

We’ve done a huge amount of heavy lifting so the app creator can imagine and have the experience that works for them and brings their users together, without burning valuable time and resources on infrastructure.

In addition to solving the hard technical challenges like cross-device consistency and synchronization and providing of offline support — which are built into Layer’s infrastructure — Layer offers an array of features to app creators that empower you to create the exact communications experience you desire.

  • Typing indicator helps create the sense of presence and intimacy of a real-time conversation.
  • Read receipts and delivery status notifications act as cues for your users, giving them a sense of the conversation’s progress.
  • Support for asynchronous video chat, or video walkie-talkie chat, lets your users hear and see nuance in the voice and physical presence of the other person in the chat.
  • Support for text chat lets your users dialogue efficiently.
  • Support for audio recordings lets your users hear intonation in voice, play music, or hear any sound relative to your product experience.
  • Support for content of any payload lets you dream up virtually any way to share data within your product. A tic tac toe game, restaurant reservation confirmations, airplane flight updates — it’s up to you.
  • Our UI toolkit lets you use thoughtfully designed and well-tested UI components that set the tone you desire in your app’s messaging experience.

We see these features and functions as building blocks for app creators. We built and delivered them so app creators may be freed to add technically robust and well-designed communications to their products.

At Layer, we believe the future of communications is contextual, added natively into apps of all sorts.

We can’t wait to see what you build.

Why messaging apps are so addictive

Today, there’s an app for just about everything. With all the amazing things our smartphones can do, there is one thing that hasn’t changed since the phone was first developed. No matter how advanced phones become, they are still communication devices — they connect people together.

Though I can’t remember the last time I actually talked to another person live on the phone, I text, email, Tweet, Skype and video message throughout my day. The “job-to-be-done” hasn’t changed — the phone still helps us communicate with people we care about — rather, the interface has evolved to provide options for sending the right message in the right format at the right time.

Clearly, we’re a social species and these tech solutions help us re-create the tribal connection we seek. However, there are other more hidden reasons why messaging services keep us checking, pecking, and duckface posing.

The Hook

In my book,Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, I detail a pattern found in products we can’t seem to put down. Though the pattern is found in all sorts of products, successful messaging services are particularly good at deploying the four steps I call, “the Hook,” to keep users coming back.

The Hook is composed of a trigger, action, variable reward, and investment. By understanding these four basic steps, businesses can build better products and services, and consumers can understand the hidden psychology behind our daily technology habits.

Nir Eyal’s Hook Model

Trigger

A trigger is what cues a habit. Whether in the form of an external trigger that tells users what to do next (such as a “click here” button) or an internal trigger (such as an emotion or routine), a trigger must be present for a habitual behavior to occur.

Over time, users form associations with internal triggers so that no external prompting is needed — they come back on their own out of habit. For example, when we’re lonely, we check Facebook. When we fear losing a moment, we capture it with Instagram. These situations and emotions don’t provide any explicit information for what solution solves our needs, rather we eventually form strong connections with products that scratch our emotional itch.

By passing through the four steps of the Hook, users form associations with internal triggers. However, before the habit is formed, companies use external prompts to get users to act. For messaging services, the external trigger is clear. Whenever a friend sends a message via WhatsApp, for example, you see a notification telling you to open the app to check the message.

WhatsApp’s External Trigger

Action

Notifications prompt users to act, in this case tapping the app. The action phase of the Hook is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. Simply clicking on the app icon opens the messaging app and the message is read.

When the habit forms, users will take this simple action spontaneously to alleviate a feeling, such as the pang of boredom or missing someone special. Opening the app gives the user what they came for — a bit of relief obtained in the easiest way possible.

Variable Reward

The next step of the Hook is the variable rewards phase. This is when users get what they came for and yet are left wanting more.

This phase of the Hook utilizes the classic work of BF Skinner who published his research on intermittent reinforcement. Skinner found that when rewards were given variably, the action preceding the reward occurred more frequently. When forming a new habit, products that incorporate a bit of mystery have an easier time getting us hooked.

For example, Snapchat, the massively popular messaging app that 77% of American college students say they use every day, incorporates all sorts of variable rewards that spike curiosity and interest. The ease of sending selfies that the sender believes will self-destruct makes sending more, shall we say, “interesting,” pics possible. The payoff of opening the app is seeing what’s been sent. As is the case with many successful communication services, the variability is in the message itself — novelty keeps us tapping.

You never know what you’ll see when you open Snapchat

Investment

The final phase of the Hook prompts the user to put something into the service to increase the likelihood of using the service in the future. For example, when users add friends, set preferences, or create content they want to save, they are storing value in the platform. Storing value in a service increases its worth the more users engage with it, making it better with use.

Investments also increase the likelihood of users returning by getting them to load the next trigger. For example, sending a message prompts someone else to reply. Once you get the reply, a notification appears and you’ll likely click through the Hook again.

Growing a “buddylist” on Snapchat is an investment in the platform

Through frequent passes through the Hook, user preferences are shaped, tastes are formed, and habits take hold. Messaging services are here to stay and we’ll most likely see many more iterations on the theme as technological solutions find new ways to bring people together. By understanding the deeper psychology of what makes us click by knowing what makes us tick, we can build better products and ultimately live better lives.


This is a guest post by Nir Eyal, whose new book,Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, is out now. You can also keep up with Nir at his blog, NirandFar.

This post originally appeared on Andrew Chen’s blog.

Why contextual communications will mean better engagement in apps

ComScore published its U.S. Mobile App Report yesterday. Much of it is really interesting: mobile app usage increased 52% in the past year; on the whole we spend 42% of our overall app time on just one app; iPhone users earn 40% more income than Android users, for a few examples. But one small, somewhat buried bit of information is fascinating to us here at Layer. And it has to do with engagement.

Across all age segments, the most time is spent on […] apps in the Social Networking, Entertainment and Messaging categories.

Another way to say this: apps designed to enable people to communicate with one another (social networking, messaging) are the most engaging apps available.

One of our theses here at Layer is thataddingcommunications makes, for the most part, any app better. And the biggest room for engagement boost is in apps that weren’t designed just for chat in the first place. A real estate app, a calendar app, pretty much any marketplace app. The addition of communications, built contextually into the product experience, will boost engagement and retention and make the product overall better and more useful. This is what we believe, and what we’ve seen proven out by our early access users.

But since the trend of adding communications to products that didn’t previously have the features is somewhat new (Pinterest, a top app itself, just added chat functionality this month), there’s not much data to tell this story at scale. This is likely because historically it’s been extremely difficult to build these features. We take the fact that apps rich with communications are highly engaging — like the ones referenced in the ComScore report — coupled by what we’ve seen in our beta, to mean that adding the same features to apps in other categories will elicit the same engagement benefits.

Another one of our beliefs: beyond just adding communications, there’s a right way to do it. We believe it must be intrinsic to the product experience so that it feels seamless. Contextual. Fluid. In-app. There are lots of experience benefits, and business benefits, too. All of which lead to better engagement. In a marketplace app, for example, having communication that doesn’t require the user to leave the app and move to SMS or email will mean higher conversions and a lesser likelihood users will simply connect directly outside the app.

If an app’s users have a personal connection to its content and are able to express themselves and connect in context, they will find more value in the app and use it more. At Layer we spend a great deal of time thinking about how transformational these features can be for both the app developer and the end-users of their products.

If you haven’t yet requested early access to Layer, please do. We can’t wait to see what you build.

Communication – much more than just chat

At Layer we are building the open communications Layer for the internet. A building block that developers can use to add communications to their products, in a simple way, while maintaining full control of the experience.

By definition, communication requires a source (sender), a message, a channel, and a destination (recipient). The matchmaking process, the content, and the purpose of the communication define the product. All three of these components can be built around the communications building block.

When we introduced Layer we showcased a simple demo application focused around sending text and photo messages in a basic chat interface, initiated from an address book of contacts. While that is the use case most people think about when we mention communications as part of an application, the use cases we’re seeing built are way beyond that.

One of Layer’s main strengths is that it supports any type of message: text, photos, voice messages, video messages, location updates, meta-data or any other type of payload sent as part of the communication.

Communication interfaces take different forms for different purposes. It is exciting to see all the innovation happening on this front. Let’s look at a few examples of communication-based products that are very different from a typical mobile messaging product.

Single Notification app

Lately we’ve seen a few really interesting concepts that use the notification as the only interface for the delivery of a message. There is no full view of the conversation or history, but the utility of a communication tool remains.

Apps that use notifications as their primary interface (non-apps?) can easily be built and scaled on Layer. All you have to do as a developer is come up with a great interface to compose and address the message (or not). Layer handles the rest – delivering the message to all the devices of the recipient and triggering notifications.

Picture talking

A picture is worth a thousand words. Photos make it easy to reveal how you are feeling, where are you and who’s around you. A picture is easy to create – way easier than typing a message. Every picture that is sent creates a notification, and that leads to engagement. On the recipient’s side, it is easy and entertaining to consume. And just as easy to discard. It’s no wonder we’ve seen a lot of movement in the photo messaging space. While most of the experimentation is around the interface, interaction, and experience, there is ton of work to be done to send and deliver messages well. As a developer you need to take care of the sending/uploading, delivering a push notification, and finally downloading the content on the other side.

Content in context

Private sharing is massive. According to analysts, more than 60% of sharing is done in private conversations. Those conversations used to happen off-network, with no real content context. Today we see products that bring private conversations (not comments) into the context of an experience, leveraging existing content as a conversation starter. An illustrative example of this trend is reading applications, where I can have a conversation about a paragraph with a friend (or group of friends) reading the same book. Because the conversation is in context, we can see the paragraph, the highlights, and notes right in the conversation instead of having to copy paste them back and forth into a horizontal “messaging” product. The focus of the product experience is still reading, but communications around that content enrich the experience. There should be no compromises around that part of the product.

Meta-messaging

Ride-sharing products are a nice example of meta-messaging. Technology-powered experiences that facilitate communication between drivers and passengers, and enable easy transactions in exchange for value (a ride). If you dissect a ride sharing product, you might notice there are three main building blocks required to build it: a map, payments, and communications. The map stack is used to show cars and the passenger on the map, and the payments stack is used to process the payment. At the core, the communications stack is the most crucial part, sending location between a group of drivers (geofenced) to a passenger before the ride, and a single driver to passenger once the ride is confirmed. The messages in this communication are never surfaced as a typical chat. These messages get displayed in a very different way, contextual to the experience and problem that is being solved.

Layer is built to cover these kinds of use cases in a very simple way. You can send any payload, and we’ll do the rest, including the delivery of content and all the work around triggering notifications. Building blocks are already important in applications today and will become much more important in the world of tomorrow where creative teams of all sizes can focus on building amazing experiences and products. We can’t wait to see what these developers and product designers come up with.

The new building blocks

As a product designer or application developer, the most important thing to focus on should be delighting your users. After all, the only part of the product that your user will interact with is the top layer, an interface.

In order to get to that final, delightful experience as fast as possible, developers can go about it two ways. Either you build every underlying bit yourself or use pre-existing building blocks, provided by companies that focus on specific verticals and combine them with a great product experience.

In the early days of the automobile industry, car companies used to produce every single piece of a car in-house, including tires. They owned rubber plants and built entire cities around them. As a result, tire design was progressing slowly and production was often inefficient, due to a lack of deep specialization. So what happened? Independent tire companies came up with synthetic rubber, producing better-designed tires more efficiently than the companies focused on building an entire car ever could. Focus is important.

We’ve seen the same process in software. It has accelerated dramatically in the last few years with the advent of Internet APIs and SDKs, bringing efficiency and quality of building blocks up, while shortening the development cycle for products drastically.

Today, no one in their right mind would build an entire maps stack from scratch to show a listing or car on a map. Very few people would build an entire payments stack from scratch just to collect a payment. These are just a few examples of problems that are either hard to solve, regulated and full of secrets or technologically very challenging. Similarly it makes no sense to build an entire communications stack from scratch.

These building blocks are enabling many of the new product experiences we are seeing today. Imagine AirBnb without listings on a map. Imagine Foursquare without a map. Imagine having to hand out cash for every Uber or Lyft ride you take instead of just getting out of the car. Imagine not being able to pay a seller directly on Kickstarter or Etsy.

We can’t wait to see how developers take advantage of all the new building blocks and the experiences they will create.