Twelve Dimensions to Innovate on Communication Apps

AIM, Messenger, and Skype were supposed to have completely ensnared the global population by now.  But instead we have a cacophony of comm apps that seems to grow every year: Viber, Tango, Kik, TextMe, TextPlus, Hangouts, Line, QQ, WeChat, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Secret, Whisper, Hipchat, Yammer, Slack, …   I find it remarkable that the list of popular apps just keeps growing.

Remember: comm apps were supposed to create network effects that would keep users coming back to the most popular apps.  New entrants into the space were supposed to face an enormous uphill battle to get any users to “defect” from their existing communication networks.  But instead we’ve seen a continuous parade of new (mostly mobile but some desktop/webtop) communication apps launch and grow.  

Twelve Dimensional Communications

If you examine each of the communication apps listed above, you’ll notice that the designers of each app made different choice on these dimensions, below.  Each new permutation leads to a novel looking/feeling communication experience and creates a new reason to try out a comm app.

  • Identity
    • real ID
    • pseudonym/handle
    • anonymous
    • anonymish (identified by “friend”, “friend of friend” or location)
  • Visibility of identity
    • public
    • friends-requested/followings by user
    • anyone with user’s contact info
    • anyone within geo-radius
    • ACL set by user
  • Media
    • short text
    • long-form text/prose
    • photo
    • stickers
    • emoticons
    • voice
    • short video/clip/animation
    • streaming video
    • music
    • question/poll
    • single-bit
  • Network formation
    • unilateral add contacts
    • reciprocal add friend & add-back
    • unilateral follow
    • ask to follow
    • random 1×1
    • random group
  • Presentation
    • threaded conversations
    • (reverse) chronological newsfeed
    • topic / hashtag feeds
    • upvote-ordered feed
    • feed with stickies/pins
  • Synchronicity
    • realtime
    • async
  • Visibility of messages
    • public
    • anyone within geo-radius of sender
    • all friends/contacts of sender
    • all friends of sender and commenters/respondents
    • all friends + friends-of-friends of sender
    • all friends + friends-of-friends of sender and commenters/respondents
    • private group
    • private 1×1
  • Editability of messages
    • none
    • author-only
    • ACL/group of editors
    • any viewer
  • Persistence
    • permanent unless deleted by author/editors
    • session-permanence (e.g., until hangup/disconnect)
    • ephemeral w/ self-destruct by time/popularity/response
    • ephemeral unless screenshot/fave/saved/clipped by viewers
    • ephemeral w/ rescue by author
  • Response
    • thumbs up / hearts / likes
    • replies
    • re-posts / re-shares
  • Response permission
    • any viewer can respond
    • subset of viewers (e.g., friends of sender, location radius around sender, time limit, first X respondents, etc.)
  • Delivery
    • unilateral push by sender to recipient for any message
    • push by sender after 1-time accept/add/follow recipients
    • push by sender only for specific events (e.g., mentions/direct/tags/nearby)
    • curated push by system/moderator
    • pull/refresh

Some examples:

  • Skype is a pseudonymous text/voice/video comm app based on group and 1×1 conversations with reciprocated connections.
  • Facebook Messenger is a real identity text/sticker comm app based on group and 1×1 conversations with reciprocated connections.
  • Secret is an anonymish text/photo comm app based on semi-public unilateral broadcast to friends & friends-of-friends with limited response permissions.

There are probably even more dimensions to examine (please leave your thoughts in comments!) — so suffice it to say that communication apps are playing in a (at least) 12-dimensional space that is IMMENSE and has room for tons of innovation.  When we think about how large of a design space is available for communication apps, the number of popular apps suddenly doesn’t seem so large at all and it’s actually kind of odd that app developers have limited themselves to a relatively small corner of the available design space (mostly involving text/photo sharing with private groups of reciprocated connections). 

There’s room for many hundreds more comm apps, each picking out a different and interesting combination of design decisions along these 12 dimensions.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many more WhatsApp-sized opportunities waiting to be discovered in communication app space.  And as the cost of developing new apps continues to drop, my advice to entrepreneurs who are interested in this space is: try to systematically test and probe as many different combinations of the 12 dimensions as you can!

If you are working on a novel communication app and you’re running into venture capitalists who won’t give you the time of day because they think messaging is “done”, please ping me on LinkedIn ( or AngelList ( — let’s talk!