Winning technology insights from WeChat’s unconventional founder

Written by Henry.

Allen Zhang, founder of WeChat

In the ever-evolving world of messaging and social apps, WeChat has seen unprecedented success.

It has surpassed 1 Billion MAU (monthly active users). It is regarded as the “operating system” for mobile users in Asia, with thousands of use cases — booking hotels/flights/movies, and managing assets, to name a few.

When my friends outside Asia ask me why WeChat is so successful in China, my usual reply is: “if you try living in China for more than two weeks, you’ll find yourself inseparable from WeChat.”

To present more concrete insights behind WeChat’s success, I found it instrumental to study the very creator of WeChat: 张小龙 (Allen Zhang, the literal Chinese meaning is “small dragon”). If you’re interested in technology and problem-solving in general, many of his insights on product management and tech will probably be of interest to you.

Allen is an introvert and computer geek. Some people have joked online that it’s “fascinating how a man who himself isn’t super sophisticated at communication built one of the most successful communication/messenger products”

Allen started his career as an engineer, and later became a product manager. He founded an email software startup, Foxmail, which was acquired by Tencent.

I want to share some of the top themes I came across after reading his posts and speeches. Each theme comes with a feature or product that best exemplifies it.

1. Less is more. Simplicity leads to beauty.

( 少即是多。 简单就是美。)

Example: “Shake” as a gateway to Search & Discovery

To illustrate the importance of simplicity, Allen once drew the following physics analogy:

Physicists state that our law of the universe is very simple. If the law of the universe is simple, why do we complicate features?

Reducing cognitive load and making the UI (user interaction) intuitive has served WeChat well.

“Shake” (摇一摇) is a prominent example. The UI is extremely minimalistic with no text or UI to start with. To use the feature, you just physically shake the phone. It helps the user discover friends who’re shaking simultaneously, and extends to other use cases such as off-line business purchases and even collecting red packets (free money, 红包)。
All you do is shake.

People used shake 810 million times in 1 minute during Spring Gala 2013 for audiences to collect red packets. This feature went viral, because shaking is physically visible. Everyone else sees you using it, and it spurs their curiosity.

This feature also extends to offline search and discovery, combined with iBeacon and Bluetooth technology. Users can easily find restaurants, exhibits, museums, and clothing stores nearby via this feature.

For example, at a plaza, you can shake in WeChat to discovery nearby stores and get rewarded with coupons and deals — this has been a killer monetization use case.

It is truly fascinating how a feature with such minimalistic UI and design elements has been so widely successful. As Allen puts it:

If a feature needs lengthy text explanation the design of the feature has already failed.

Simplicity has been the key to this feature’s success.

2. People are greedy and love random, variable rewards. Pleasure beats features.

(用户是贪心的,人类对随机,可变奖励上瘾。 “爽”胜过功能。)

Example: Red Packet with gamification

From a neuroscience perspective, human brains can not resist variable rewards. These rewards induce dopamine in our brains and create habits. Tristan Harris from TimeWellSpent has compared sticky apps that have variable rewards to slot machines in casinos. They create the same type of intermittent variable awards.

Allen Zhang and WeChat have taken this psychological device to unprecedented heights to optimize retention and hook people’s attention. Red packet (红包) is a prominent example.

In essence, it functions as a P2P (peer-to-peer) money transfer feature with gamification. The feature is also deeply rooted in the Chinese culture where people send red packets for celebratory and appreciative purposes.

688 million red packets were sent on WeChat on Chinese New Year’s eve in 2018.

Users send a red packet of amount “x” to a group, creating a race for others to click and claim the monetary reward. Here’s the catch: you can specify that only the first “x” users get the reward, and the amounts are randomized.

This induces huge amounts of FOMO (fear of missing out) and uncertainty about the variable rewards among the group.

The variable reward trio is satisfied — tribe (group members feel connected), hunt (a speed competition is created), and self (generates a feeling of accomplishment).

In the Hook Canvas Model, the corresponding action is extremely simple: you click on the rich-attachment of the redpacket, and the trigger is a notification that the red packet has been sent.

Variable reward does the rest — competing to claim the red packet and receiving a randomized monetary reward induces dopamine and pleasure among users. This made red packet an unstoppable feature. It leaves the users feeling accomplished and always wanting more.

3. Users are spending too much time on WeChat. A good product manifests “achieve what you need and be on your way.”

微信占用用户太多时间,好产品应该 ”用完即走” 。

Examples: Mini-programs and chatbots

This is the most counter-intuitive piece. Allen thinks the ideal software products should let the users achieve their goals with the minimum amount of effort and time spent, without lingering too long in the app.

“Achieve what you need and be on your way” (用完即走) means that users shouldn’t spend too much attention and energy on screen. And they should move on to other important things in their lives, like spending time with family and other productive tasks.

This concept was first brought up when WeChat introduced the “Mini program” (小程序), a highly anticipated feature. It allows users to access any app experience by a third party within WeChat without downloading that app.

For example, users can use the mini-program of (Chinese e-commerce giant) to purchase goods, and rent Mobike/Ofo bikes, all within WeChat. You can also watch Game of Thrones directly from the mini-program by Tencent Videos within WeChat.

This makes WeChat an operating system for all kinds of use cases. It’s a veritable Swiss army knife of utility features.

Here’s the catch:

WeChat does not promote any mini-programs to users, and barely allows mini-programs to send any push notifications.

To access mini-programs, users have to discover them organically on their own accord: either by scanning a QR code or searching on their own.

When it comes to push notifications, WeChat only allows the very minimum by mini-programs (only payment confirmation and if the users have used it within 7 days). The same philosophies apply to WeChat official accounts, also known as chatbots.

When users haven’t engaged with a chatbot account for 3 months, WeChat even promotes unsubscribe/unfollow (almost unheard-of in social apps).

This has helped users cleaned up their contact list and improve the signal-to-noise ratio on WeChat significantly. I love this feature, because it prioritizes real value (quality feed and more relevant content) over traditional metrics (volumes and quantities).

In this attention-deficit and clickey world, Allen and WeChat took a stance to give users more freedom. They let them choose when to use the app without creating too much “pull.”

Research shows users have been spending north of 4 hours per day on their smartphones. I personally have used 20+ mini-programs and subscribe to 150+ chatbot accounts: all of which are vying for their users’ attention.

I can hardly imagine what would happen if WeChat allowed them to freely send notifications, post banners, and use alerts. Users would constantly get distracted by notifications, most of which would likely be noise. Their attention and daily productivity would take a considerable hit.

Achieve what you need and be on your way 用完即走 (to other important things in your life) is perhaps one of the most controversial yet profound value propositions for a software product. The question comes down to the debate of metrics vs. real user value. WeChat has been praised for making the experience lighter and reducing the tools to the very essential.

If your product is good enough, users will come back on their own — you don’t need to pull them back.— Allen.

I formerly worked as a growth software engineer at Facebook. On average I spend about five hours daily using or thinking about different messaging and social apps such as WeChat, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram and Signal.

What are your experiences/opinions about WeChat or other interesting messaging or social apps? I would love to hear more. Feel free to comment below!

This article will also be shared on LinkedIn.

Winning technology insights from WeChat’s unconventional founder was originally published in freeCodeCamp on Medium.