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[Exclusive] Key to design is inclusivity and exploration: WhatsApp’s Idit Yaniv

There can be two sides to this coin — immense stress or a sense of responsibility. “For more than two billion people, it means that you need to be very intentional about any change that you are introducing,” says Idit Yaniv, who is head of WhatsApp Design at Meta, as she sits down for a conversation with HT.

Idit Yaniv, who is head of WhatsApp Design at Meta. (Meta/WhatsApp)

Yaniv is a firm believer in taking that responsibility very seriously, because it isn’t easy to deliver an app that simply works for WhatsApp’s active user base, last counted at 2 billion (and increasing). That makes Meta’s WhatsApp by far the biggest instant messaging app, worldwide. Numbers at the close of April by research firm Statista peg WeChat as its closest competitor, a distant second with 1.3 billion active users. Meta’s Messenger app (you may recall this as Facebook Messenger, from earlier) clocks 1.01 billion, while Telegram clocks in with 900 million and Snapchat has 800 million logged in.

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The latest pursuits of Yaniv’s team at Meta must now be visible in WhatsApp on your phone, with significant tweaks to the user interface. Depending on whether you’re using WhatsApp on Android or iOS, or even on macOS or Windows, there are changes that become immediately visible. Such as the green colour palette, which replaces blue, and its increased visibility aspect has become clearer as days have passed. There are new icons, a redesigned attachment tray (that’s where you’d find options to attach photos, documents, send location, add an event and more). The redesigned Android Bottom Bar and the iOS Top Bar (the difference is to play along with the OS’ design philosophies) along with Chat Filters give users a better grip on the chat status – unread chats, groups and so on.

I thought my eyes were simply playing tricks in cahoots with my brain, but that isn’t the case. Yaniv confirms that the Dark Mode is indeed a shade darker on Android now – that’s helping with legibility of text, if you prefer the dark mode on phones. In our conversation, Yaniv talks about the intricacies of designing an app that should work for the 2 billion users, aligning Meta’s vision for WhatsApp with what users are demanding and how they’re preparing for the arrival of Meta AI for more users in the coming months. She also gives us a confirmation that WhatsApp is indeed working on something referred to as ‘themes for chats’, which we may see at some stage later in the year. “It’s still very early work,” as Yaniv puts it. Edited excerpts:

Q. ‘What has happened with my WhatsApp’ – a common question many friends and family have asked in recent days. Some are delighted, some are still getting used to the changes. How difficult is it to design an app that’s being used by more than 2 billion people worldwide?

Idit Yaniv: It’s a really large responsibility and we take this role very seriously. Designing for more than two billion people means that you need to be very intentional about any change that you are introducing. Our mission is to connect the world privately, and the way we really think about that is through our principles. That helps focus on the changes. It’s about making sure WhatsApp stays simple, reliable, and private. Product and design decisions are based on those principles, and we keep going back to those when we have debates.

We were very clear on the principles that we’ve been crafting for this particular project. When you open the app after those changes, WhatsApp should still feel approachable, it should feel yours, it should have some sense of familiarity. Something needs to feel more fresh and more modern and cared for. When we decided on the changes, then we craft and tweak and iterate and tweak, and iterate until we get things right.

Q. How important do user inputs become at this point?

IY: We work really closely with people’s feedback. We do a lot of user research and look at what people tell us across the different channels of communication. We really want to make sure that we’re as connected as possible to what people want. It’s really hard to ensure everyone is excited about the new green colour on iOS after so many years of people just being used to using blue. So even for that we have explored more than 35 different colour variations, and at the end of the day we aligned on using the iconic WhatsApp green.

We have tried to unify the brand across the different platforms and see this as an opportunity to make sure accessibility is further improved. The colour contrast is improved and overall, but also easier to use. We also started working on a darker dark mode. All the colour changes are intentional and it’s all about helping people focus on the conversation, while making the app feel more modern and fresher over time.

Q. Among the latest changes, which ones do you feel really define the refresh?

IY: That’s a tough one! It’s hard to think about one thing, but if I go back to the principles of ensuring simplicity, it is then that we are able to really focus on the changes. I must highlight, two things. One is how we thought about bottom navigation and the bottom tabs on Android. That’s an intentional decision for two reasons – we wanted to ensure that it complements how people use other apps on Android defined by the native guidelines, and also that devices are getting larger over time which means having those bottom tabs closer to your thumb is helping people use the app more easily.

We have heard from users that they want more ways to control how they see and how they manage different chats throughout their day. People have different types of conversations throughout their day, and how can they filter and manage those chats. Therefore, it was an intentional decision to have the bottom navigation, which frees up more space at the top for us to introduce filters, as opposed to just adding more and more things at the top.

Q. How do design principles align with Meta’s vision for WhatsApp, and what users demand?

IY: We think about WhatsApp in Meta’s portfolio as a mission to protect people’s privacy and to empower them to communicate. All the design work ladders up to that. This is app that allows you to communicate privately, all of your personal conversations are encrypted, and the design should really enhance that feeling. This is your space, simple to use and it’s only about the conversations that you want to make throughout the day.

Q. Meta’s other apps, Instagram and Messenger more to the point, too focus on messaging. Is there pressure to unify elements between them, or is Meta happy for each to have its own identity?

IY: The goal is to feel like this is your space, it’s about the conversations. Our approach to native design and how it should feel easy to use, no matter what device that you are using. I think one concrete example of where we do use the Meta design system intentionally and when it’s really making sense, is about comprehension for users. If you had a chance to use avatars or if you create avatars on WhatsApp, the whole creation flow is designed in Meta’s design system. It does not look like WhatsApp and that is intentional because once you create your avatar, it will be the same across Meta’s apps.

Q. Tell us more about the green colour palette – what other colours was this up against, and why the need to move away from the familiar blue?

IY: We looked at colour variations from different shades of green and teal. We looked at the darker tones as well, at true black for higher contrast and also our cream palette as well. Then we kind of stress test everything across dark mode light mode and on specific devices. It is to try to ensure that when we design, it is for everyone and at how people will feel using the product regardless of how tech savvy they are. The key is to think about the most tech inclined user and the grandfather living in a rural location. We need to be very opinionated about how we refresh the app. That’s why we chosen the iconic green to make sure that the brand of WhatsApp is unified and at the same time, we’re staying very close to what users are telling us what.

One more thing that we are currently are exploring is making sure that people would have more ways to control how their chats are customized. So, themes for chats are something that we are exploring as well. With that, users will have more ways to control how their chats are looking. It’s still very early work.

Q. Will Meta AI integration provide a challenge in the coming months, considering generative AI’s broad scope means there are many points within WhatsApp where users are likely to call upon it?

IY: I’m very excited about what we are doing now with Meta AI. It’s really big opportunity to connect with users. I said earlier that our goal is to enhance how you already are communicating, and then empower you to communicate in new ways. So, Meta AI is a classic example for that, to discover new mediums and to help communicate in new ways, while getting more things done. It’s a journey that we’re just really started. I’m excited for for people using the product to be with us on this journey. It’s really hard to predict because it’s so early still, in terms of how we’ll end up with the product.

Q. Where does WhatsApp’s design go from here? How do you see it evolving over the next year or so?

IY: I think one thing will stay constant, which is this team will and should continue being very principled, about how we design, how we think about designing for everyone, and include everyone in that ability to communicate. We’ve to them empower people to connect in new ways. I’m excited about a lot of things that we’re exploring right now, and we will continue focusing on our principles and the people using WhatsApp. That is the biggest source of inspiration.

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