Over the past two days, you may have received an SMS from a friend (or your crush/ cute guy/ cute girl that you’ve had an eye on) stating he/she wants to add you on MessageMe. It typically contains a link to download the app on the App Store or Google Play.

 

The next thing you know, everyone in your phone’s address book gets invited to MessageMe as well. You are left wondering when you authorised that.  Contrary to a popular warning message which has been gaining traction and making its rounds, however, this app doesn’t have malicious software packages attached to it. This means it will not install virus on your phone, nor sniff out your credit card details. Neither will it send your number to a certain Nigerian prince who might call you  for your bank details so that he can transfer you copious amounts of money. No, siree. Those fears are pretty unfounded.

 

But while the app is not a scam in itself,  its sneaky onboarding experience (kinda like wizard) does raise many red flags.  The app utilises design that is against standard UX principles: The design of its interface “tricks” users into selecting options most advantageous for spreading word about the app, without them truly realising the consequences. Borrowing the words of Harry Brignull, what looks like bad design is actually interface crafted with a solid understanding  of the human psychology, without the interest of the user in mind. Sounds creepy? Well, just a little bit.

Here is the step by step lowdown on how it works in MessageMe:

 

Onboarding

Following a prompt to key in your phone number, email and password, you will see this:

messageme main screen

Circled in blue is what your eyes gloss over and miss all too easily. After all, the text is small and grey. More attention-grabbing is the clean-looking button which urges you to  “Find Phone Contacts”.  Your gaze is immediately drawn to the black, bold font, and the button is practically begging to be selected. After all, finding your phone contacts is a step which appears pretty harmless. If you choose to tap on the arrow at the top right hand corner (as shown by orange marker) it will bring you to this:

messageme skip

Notice that the “No”  button is on your right side. This also happens to be the near(er) to your thumb as you hold the phone with your right hand, which is what most of us do.  MessageMe informs you that it works best when you have friends to talk to, so duh, why should you skip adding them right? So you click “No”.

 

This leads you back to the previous screen, and this time you are enticed to tap on the “Find phone contacts” button in the middle, which will bring you to this:

messageme sync

Notice how the positive response “Ok”  is now conveniently on your right side (again) and the prompt mentions nothing about inviting friend. Also, note that there is no consistency in their button placement.

 

To proceed to the next step, you will likely tap “OK”, bringing you to this:

message me contact list

At this stage, MessageMe actually tells you that selected contacts will be invited to the app. (circled in red) Only it tells you this in the same tiny, difficult-to-read grey font. Chances are, you will miss this, like you did earlier. Furthermore, everyone in your contact list is selected for you BY DEFAULT. The word “invite” is also mentioned as subtext under every contact name, but the app utilises the same annoying tiny, grey font.

 

At this point, you might be interested to invite only a handful of selected, close friends. But the interface is designed in such a way that only four contacts can be displayed on the bottom half of the screen at any one point. To invite Amy, Ben, Sarah, and Zoe, your thumb would suffer cramps from scrolling, if like me, you have more than 3,000 contacts. You might as well give up and accede to inviting ’em all. After all, the contacts are arranged in alphabetical order, and there is no way to filter them by the alphabets their names begin with, like you would do in your phone’s regular address book.

 

By this time, you get just a bit impatient and you really want to progress, so you tap on the arrow on the top right hand corner. You see this
messageme complete

The app says you’ve completed the sign up. Whoopee! What you don’t know is that it is simultaneously sending out invitations to all of your friends, asking them to join the MessageMe community. This, after obtaining your permission, no less. You just helped MessageMe become viral, and it didn’t even have to install a single virus on your phone while at it.  Talk about sneaky!

 

The app might have a slimy interface, but I’ve got to give credit where it’s due–it’s not altogether useless. In fact, some clearly think it’s a gem, considering the $10 million investment it just raked in. On top of that, MessageMe also received a favourable review on social media blog Mashable, which legitimizes its existence as a messaging app somewhat, I suppose.

 

What brings me to this: Is there really a need to resort to such underhand methods to  ensure an app is downloaded, if it’s a solid creation?

Then again, maybe the mobile messaging space is so saturated that “creative ideas” are needed to “growth hack”. Perhaps this strategy is working for the app, since it has already gained a solid download base of 1 million on android’s Google Play.

 

On the flipside however, MessageMe’s sneaky strategy might just have backfired when it comes to the Singaporean users they are trying to court.  After all, they seem to not only be a pretty savvy bunch, but kiasu as well:

Originally posted by @Stooffi via twitter, It has 606 shares the last time we checked. Guess the app is not the only one getting viral.

Originally posted by @Stooffi via twitter, It has 606 shares the last time we checked. Guess the app is not the only one getting viral.

 

Comments? talk to me on MessageMe XT 251 WEN (This is not a scam!)

 

Images edited using Evernote Skitch 

About the Author: Peter Loh is Vice President, Consulting in 2359 Media. In his role, Peter consults with brands and companies, helping them craft their mobile app strategy. He also actively advises clients on UX matters. Feel free to connect with him via email, LinkedIn or facebook