Hacking Skype

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Skype has become an ubiquitous communication tool, although over the past few years there seems to be growing customer dissatisfaction – it seems to have lost a bit of its charm. Recently we were inspired to do “design hack” to show how we would like to see Skype look and feel, but most of all behave.

A-B_skype2                          > launch demo of Skype Hack-A                              > launch demo of Skype Hack-B

For many of us Skype has become a verb. This seemingly is the ultimate achievement of a brand – in theory – but lets examine some other brands that became verbs: like Xerox and Kleenex. They clearly became part of our vernacular: “Please pass me a Kleenex” and “I need to Xerox this report for todays meeting.” Ironically how often do we sneeze into an actual Kleenex; and when was the last time you made copies on an actual Xerox machine (I personally can’t remember). Skype’s similar achievement of consumer brand awareness could be a warning sign. Not unlike the dinosaurs Xerox and Kleenex, is Skype waiting to vanish from daily life, leaving only their fossilized definition in Webster’s Dictionary?

There were many reasons for Xerox’s loss of industry leadership, but I will venture one overriding issue was that they lost focus on what they are Best At.* When I think of the last time I copied on a Xerox machine I do remember my experience: of all the buttons and baffling settings, “to collate or not to collate, that is the question.” I also remember the frustration at not being able to make a simple copy on a standard 8 x 11 sheet of paper – I didn’t want all those options, just a damn copy.


Skype is starting to feel like Xerox to me. It’s the little stuff that keeps getting in my way: Like why do I always have select the video option after I make the call? I’m on Skype primarily for one reason – I want to make video calls. And why is video not working so often, its just “greyed out” with no apparent reason?

My guess is when you think of Skype, you most likely imagine “free and easy video calls.” They built their brand  being “Best At” this simple task. The big question is has Skype’s started to stray from its brand promise, the very thing that brought them their notoriety? To answer this question we felt we needed to offer an alternative, something to compare and contrast – so we decided to “design hack” Skype.

First, why did Xerox become a dinosaur?  Most products, software and hardware alike, feel the need to grow over time. Unfortunately “more is more” marketing philosophy dictates growth for growth sake, adding more stuff must make the product that much better. Most products cannot resist this type of development, and quickly succumb to the perpetual pressures of “feature creep.” Products grow bigger and bigger, become huge behemoths that seem “too big to fail” (sound familiar). They loose their agility, inevitably lose focus and purpose, thus stop delivering the greatness. They become bigger, not better. They become dinosaurs.

The key to limiting such cancerous growth is to stay true to ONLY what they can be Best At – all extraneous development efforts are wasted time and energy which eventually take the product “off-brand.” Apple is Apple because it doesn’t fall into this trap (for the most part). It grows muscle and cuts fat over time, like a disciplined athlete, growing stronger not just bigger. Their future success is determined on whether or not they can maintain their discipline to stay true at what they are Best At. Many companies say they want to be like Apple, but few have the conviction or discipline to make it ever happen.


You might recognize these two familiar home pages. I think its clear who better understands their core purpose. It takes tremendous restraint and discipline for Google not to utilize all that white space on their home page – only their brand and search field dominates this uniquely empty web-scape. You could say this “white space” is the most valuable real estate on the internet; fundamental to its value is the fact that it is not crammed with stuff like Yahoo’s home page. Google has no confusion about what it is Best At, and continually resists the temptation to dilute its value with their customers. It keeps its home page “lean and mean.”

We love creating flowing experiences. Like the quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, we believe designing perfection starts, not by adding more, but by reducing to the essential. And I must admit I grow quickly tired of products that cannot get out of their own way. Inspiration came to us after having a particularly troublesome Skype call with one of our clients: Instead of complaining to each other about our frustration, Kevan and I decided to be proactive. We thought we would design and share openly what we would love to see: a Skype that did just what we needed, and nothing more.


Skype Hack-A: (Slide)

Skype Slide is a simple horizontal layout with your caller list on the right and your selection on the left. This bucks the current trend of selection on the left and focus on the right, primarily to focus on the selected person – this is your focus and where you spend time interacting more so this is the priority of the interface.


> Play video of Skype Slide Concept

As you can see in the video demonstration (link above), this design is caller focused – the selected callers Mood History is up by default, with Video Call and Text Messaging right at the top of their panel. All contact information is there but it’s behind a second info icon click. That’s it.

This design takes Mood Messages (Skype’s move towards social integration) to the next level. Skype’s addition of Mood Messages in their currently form is more distracting than anything else – a great example of one of those “more is more” features that starts to dilute Skype’s brand value (in my opinion). With Slide we tried to change that by making Mood Messages super easy to use and presenting Mood History prominently on Profile pages. This History fades as it trails off, mimicking how memory actually works. This trail of Moods does two things: it offers trending insight into that person emotional state, and most importantly, offers a “conversation starter.” This puts Mood Messages back on-brand for Skype and adds real value for the customer – making “Mooding” easy (and more frequently used), opens up emotionally relevant ways to initiate conversations, thus making contacting others that much “freer and easier.” In a nutshell, Slide’s design delivers on Skype’s evolving social brand promise. 

In addition, large circular thumbnails are easier to recognize, while supporting Skype up-beat and bubbly branding graphics. This look and feel is more human centered and keeps the entire interface fun and light. (The circular thumbnails also allude to the video camera lens portals that we all are peering through and the pupils of the eyes we are looking into.)      


> launch Skype Slide demo 

If you have not already done so, please play with the interface yourself by clicking the launch link above (you must use a Flash enabled browser to run these demos). Not everything is clickable in the demo, but I believe you will quickly get the feel for it.

For both of these designs, we returned to a separate video window allow for independent screen placement and sizing. We did add one new feature – the ability to apply real-time image enhancing filters for outgoing video. Drafting the popularity of similar Instagram filters, these live filters put you in the “best” light, helping to compensate for bad lighting conditions and poor video capture. We all want to look good right? Helping people look good in video conversation is an on-brand improvement to the user experience, thus continues to build Skype’s value.


Skype Hack-B: (Split)

Skype Split is a vertically oriented layout, with the entire interface in a single panel. Selected caller Mood History, Profile information, and Text Messaging all open up underneath the callers circular thumbnail maintaining an ultra lean footprint.


> Play video of Skype Split Concept

Again please play the video demonstration (link above). There is one big difference between these two designs besides horizontal and vertical layouts: Skype Split can call or text anyone with only one click. By favoring video calls and texts over supplemental information, this direction is purely focused on what Skype is Best At. Split is a direct and streamlined, its layout presents only the MOST used functionality, making calls “free and easy” again. Simply scroll to find who you want to contact, then it’s one click to place a video call or start texting. Split is intensional focused on Video, but is also completely adaptive. Making a voice-only, landline, or cell call takes an additional click. This systems is adaptive, retaining your last call option for each caller, so if you always voice call Lorena, then that “voice only” call remains your systems new default after one call. Slide (Hack-A) favors more social information promoting emotive display Mood History insights, but also needs 2 clicks: one to select who you want to contact, the second to make that call or text. Split (Hack-B) is thus 50% more effective in respect to its most essential functionality. Split’s design delivers on Skype’s original brand promise.


> launch Skype Split demo

I hope you have had fun playing with both of our A & B design exercises (link above). In conclusion I believe both designs are big improvements on the current offering by Skype. They both hold much closer to the core value proposition of Skype’s brand. One favors direct calling; the other promotes emotive status display as a prelude to calling. There is only one way to discover what the customer would prefer: conduct an A|B test and collect the get data. So I encourage you to play the videos, and experience the demos for yourself (you must use a Flash enabled browser to run the demos), and please let me know in the comments below which you like better and why.  I am very curious to see the results, and thanks for taking the time to play!



* “Best At” is in reference to Eric Ries book The Lean Startup. It is a must read to anyone serious about developing products for the Innovation Age, and compelling reading for anyone interested in a scientific and enlightened approach to customer centered design. 

Leave a Reply


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: