It’s easy to view the newest, hottest social media app as yet another flash in the pan. A trend that burns out seemingly as quickly as it arrived. This is especially true in the case of TikTok, the music and video platform that sparked and moved as fast as a wildfire, yet has managed to not only sustain its popularity, but also grow into a venerable force in today’s fickle social media landscape.
This could be in part due to its demographic. While the platform began as an outlet for young people, it has achieved great success with those in the 28 to 40 set as well. The content of the platform has also transcended gimmickry and moved into the realm of major influencer and distributor of information, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis where it has become increasingly difficult to reach certain segments of the population.
But TikTok’s evolution and proliferation also has much to do with how the platform is constructed and functions on a technology level. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how TikTok works from a technological vantage point and how this build and functionality vaulted the upstart into the social media stratosphere.
TikTok: The Elevator Pitch
Let’s review what we know: TikTok is a social app to share music and videos that has about one billion monthly users. A majority of the videos use sound effects, text integrations, audio clips, and other dynamic features to tell super short stories, explain DIY projects, or simply provide a glimpse into the lives of the users.
Part of what makes TikTok such an intriguing platform for users and interesting case study for developers is the sheer wealth of video and audio editing and augmentation tools within the actual app. Whereas other apps that preceded TikTok (Vine and Dubsmash) needed external integrations or supplemental features to create the most dynamic video content possible, TikTok provides users with all the tools they need without ever leaving its interface.
Because of the flexibility and innovation users experience, along with the variety of content available to view and share, TikTok has gone from plucky tech start-up to true disruptor in the social media game. In fact, a recent article in technology publication Pocketlint spelled out some of the staggering stats surrounding TikTok’s growth:
“TikTok has over one billion global monthly active users – 63 per cent of which are between the ages of 10 and 29. Women on TikTok also outnumber men two to one in the US.”
Not bad for an app originally designed to attract teenagers looking to make music videos.
The Technical Elements of TikTok
The technical components of TikTok operate on the standard two-pronged approach to development and design: interaction design and system and modularity. What makes TikTok’s build somewhat unique is the ways in which it leverages these common components into something that is quite different compared to other apps on the market today.
First, TikTok deploys interaction design by displaying full-size videos as a way to grab the users’ attention and reduce the amount of time it takes for the user to both understand what the platform is all about and how they can harness its power for their own video creation.
According to this recent article, “the first time people enter TikTok, they can learn how to use it right away without thinking. Because the interface is arranged in a neat and easy understanding way, no matter how cool your interface is, less of it would be better.”
The second interesting element of TikTok’s interaction design is the efficient use of gesture design. This means users are somewhat restricted in the amount of movements or gestures that can be captured on the platform. While this might seem like a liability, it in fact creates a more reliable playground for users to play on as the limited number of movements reduces the chance for errors when uploading or editing video content.
Lastly, TikTok’s use of immersive design is another unique element in its construction whereby users cannot choose the next video they view. Instead, TikTok plays the most popular content in-full based on a user’s viewing habits, recommendations, and an internal algorithm designed to show users content they’re most interested in. The capacity to reduce video-hopping that occurs on other platforms results in a total immersive experience that keeps the user guessing as to what video content they may view next.
TikTok also breaks the mold when it comes to system and modularity. System and modular essentially function in concert with the design portion of the show, and TikTok’s algorithms also inform the modules used in the platform’s construction. The capability to shoot, edit, publish, and view videos are made of their own unique modules that more or less share data and information to inform each other — what you produce informs what you are suggested to view:
“The technology of recommending videos is also the consequence of modularity. What you watch in the next video is decided by different algorithm modules such as the content of the video that you like, the amount of video comment, the amount of forwarding.”
This synchronicity of production and consumption is part of what makes the app such a unicorn in the app development space.
Understanding the UX of TikTok
If all this wasn’t enough to truly make TikTok such a forward-thinking outfit in the app development space, then the UX of TikTok would have put the platform over the top. The developers of the app had a keen understanding of the behavioral psychology of their ideal demographic, not to mention the ways in which human beings at large want to interact with their media.
For example, take Hick’s Law, which essentially says the more choices users have, the harder it is for them to make one. Couple that with the similar notion that it’s easy to convince people to do something if you make it as simple as possible, and you have a strong philosophical foundation on which to design your app.
A recent article in UX Planet described how TikTok embodies this idea in each stage of the user’s journey, from creating an account to publishing content:
“The registration process is quick and easy. You have to provide your birthday, phone or email and confirm it. One task per step is a common solution because users perceive a complicated task easier to complete if it’s split into smaller ones…”
The same ease of use is evident in scrolling your TikTok feed: “TikTok’s designers have made slick and easy navigation. The content takes the whole viewport. The secondary content like creator’s name, description, music, and reactions icons (like, share, comment) are nicely positioned in the thumb access zone.”
And for content creators? More easy passage: “Creating TikTok video is easy as the rest of the app. Make a video or upload it, add music from the library, add filters or effects, and you’re ready to go. After you uploaded the video, the notification at the top of the screen provides you multiple ways to share your new video.”
The lesson for today’s developers with TikTok is not the innovation and ingenuity developers took in creating it, but how can you build on that innovation, take those lessons, and parlay this progressive, creative thinking into the next app that gives TikTok a run for its money.
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