Buttons and Branding: Oxford Yubl

One of the first things I find on Yubl is a photo from Arsenal’s recent 6-0 Champions League win. A lucky guess perhaps. Shortly after follows news that Adolf Hitler’s childhood home is to be remodelled rather than demolished, accompanied by a vote between “Knock it down” and “Preserve the history”. History was just about winning. Just below, a user has photoshopped himself onto a topless photo of Justin Bieber with the spinning caption “Why have abs when you can have kebabs?” Welcome to Yubl, the flamboyant social media app that climbed above Skype, Pinterest and Periscope earlier this year on Apple’s free social networking apps rankings.

According to a report from BI Intelligence, 2014 saw 23% of teenagers list Facebook as the “most important” social media platform; a year later, the number had dropped to 14% as the popularity of Instagram and Snapchat skyrocketed. There were also declines recorded for Twitter, Tumblr and Google+. Although Facebook continues to grow in active users every year, the figures suggest that there is no shortage of room for innovation in social media circles.

In February, Yubl threw itself into the ring. No, that’s not simply slipped past a sleep-deprived copy editor. “It comes from your bubble,” product designers James Parker and Ben Copping explain to me. They are careful to insist it doesn’t translate into anything rude.Your chat is your private bubble, and then as you step out into your feed, the public area, that’s your public bubble, then there’s the whole of the Yubl network, which is explore, the largest bubble.”

“It combines both the benefits of having a chat with your mates with a new public space,” says Copping, although this sounds like it could also describe a shopping centre. “[R]eally what’s throughout Yubl is a new level of interactivity. Whenever you come across any particular kinds of posts, you’re actually connected with everyone else looking at those posts.” He describes how the app is based around buttons: “These use that interactivity to do things – so you can do votes through this, you can share locations, you can share content – it’s a richer way of interacting, both with your mates but also with content providers.”

Yubl is free, so relies on advertising to keep the buttons working. This of course begs the question of how to integrate advertisements with a platform that prides itself on emphasising the authentic and the spontaneous. “A simple example would be on Instagram,” Copping explains, “where you’re shown a lovely picture of a product and you think, ‘That’s nice, fair enough, whatever’ – that doesn’t really do anything for you. On Yubl, it’ll be more like ‘Hey, do you like this product?’ or ‘Do you like the product in this colour or that colour?’ – it’s much more about forming relationships with the brand, so you don’t feel like you’re just being bombarded with advertising. It’s much more about them asking you to get involved.”

This ethos appears to extend to planned functionality too, as Parker and Copping make clear: “Each person can have their own set of buttons. What we’re going to do in the future is release lots and lots of these buttons and people can just decide if they want to have them on the app or not. What that allows us to do is have everybody with a slightly different app, with a customised experience, and in doing so keep the experience really fresh. And hopefully that’ll all combine into an experience that keeps people’s attention.”

Whilst a new user might be attracted by a particular feature, then, the aim is to continue to provide new functionality to keep them using the app and to keep it comprehensive enough that people don’t need to be on many different services. “I think people are looking for a fresh start. Our features are unique, you can’t do them on other services. And in many ways we do bring together multiple parts of different social networks.” A good intention, even if it brings to mind xkcd‘s Standards cartoon, in which 14 competing standards become 15 as a result of the need to develop one universal standard for everyone’s use cases.

“I think people are looking for a fresh start. Our features are unique, you can’t do them on other services. And in many ways we do bring together multiple parts of different social networks.”

Nevertheless, there has been a tendency to react against the seemingly impersonal nature of a vast network of tenuous acquaintances, and the pair think Yubl may attract users in this way. “I think there’s movements away from moving those gigantic networks. So, for example, during our user testing some people said one of the reasons why they liked Yubl was the fact it allowed them to start again with their network, they didn’t have to carry those a thousand Facebook friends, they could start again and keep those numbers small.”

Unsurprisingly, given their tight-knit communities, universities are at the heart of Yubl’s plans: “We’re focusing on campus universities but also collegiate universities such as Oxford. And what we’re really hoping to do is convert those kind of quasi-large groups of people into fans, ambassadors – the superusers of Yubl because we think it really helps them in how they organise to meet up, how they arrange their night out.”

Caspar Whitehead and Dylan Smythe, two second year students from Trinity, recently launched a Yubl handle for the college. They explained what prompted the move to the new platform: “We saw that ‘Yubl’ was the highest trending search on the iTunes App Store and we decided to give it a go. It took a little getting used to but we soon started to appreciate the cool features of the app which are great for chatting and making decisions as a group (which pub to go to…).”

Nor are the benefits just social, according to the pair. Shortly after, they got in touch with the app’s creators, who proposed that they open an account up to the college as a whole. “They created our verified TrinityCollegeOxford handle and gave us complete freedom with our posts; we’ve been using it to pass on valuable promotions that we discovered last year, and in the future we hope to provide some exclusive deals only available through our handle.” Sure enough, amongst voting for the college’s Meme King and an offer of free pennies, the Trinity handle boasts brightly coloured promotions, both in and out of college.

“For us, Yubl is unique in terms of the level of interactivity you can put into your posts,” they explain, citing the app’s synchronicity in particular as lending a new dimension to interaction: “Everyone’s screens are linked up live so that stickers ‘do stuff’ simultaneously on each phone, like move about or make a sound.”

Despite this functionality, Caspar and Dylan don’t necessarily expect the app to replace Facebook or Snapchat any time soon. “Yubl offers a very creative way to connect with people. Having said that, we wouldn’t expect people to stop using other social media apps. As people use it more, they’ll learn how to get the most out of it and take advantage of all that it offers.”

Of course, the problem with any new social platform lies in the initial hurdle of attracting enough users to make it a permanent fixture rather than a passing phase – one Stone Temple Consulting report, for instance, suggests that 90% of Google+ accounts have never made a public post. Yubl seeks to solve this by focusing not on breadth of interaction, but depth, as James and Ben explain: “We think we can achieve a really good sense of community with smaller numbers that are more highly engaged and that goes back to the reason why interactivity is really important, because it’s about being authentic. And just having a gigantic network doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more authentic or more meaningful for the people who use it.”

I’m not convinced that Yubl’s premise necessarily leads to a more authentic experience, although as someone who uses Facebook for communication and Twitter like an RSS feed, the idea of authenticity still eludes my slightly utilitarian view of social media. Still, Yubl’s colourful, intuitive approach has clearly struck a chord with those who want a more customisable platform, one that seeks to focus on pre-existing relationships rather than a rabbit hole of Candy Crush acquaintances. For now, the app remains UK only – time will tell the impact of taking it to a global stage.

Yubl is free to download for iOS and Android phones.