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Why is Tik Tok sweeping over the world? 
Tik Tok (Douyin/抖音) is a free Chinese short-form video app with more than 500 millions users across 150 countries, which was created in 2016 by ByteDance. If it’s hard for you to measure how big is the scale, just think that the ByteDance worth $75 billion-valued just surpassed $72 billion Uber Technologies to become the current unicorn king at the end of 2018.
Tik Tok was not the only short-form video app in China. It’s not even one of the short-form video pioneers. However, Tik Tok used “don’t make me think” methodology very well to provide easy and straight forward tutorials in the beginning to cultivate creative users. Provided with plentiful sound tracks on the platform, users easily picked up the basic video editing tool and created awesome short videos. When celebrities and popular streamers with fans joined Tik Tok, more users flooded in.

On August 2nd, 2018, Tik Tok merged Musical.ly, a former Shanghai based short-form video company. Different from Tik Tok, Musical.ly focused on the overseas market from the very beginning. On August 2014, the newly officially launched Musical.ly surprised users with 15-second to 1 minute short videos with sound tracks and effects. By the end of May 2017, the app attracted over 200 million users. Thanks to Musical.ly, Tik Tok saved the time and effort of learning the overseas market from scratch. And it soon became very popular among American teenagers and millennials.
The technological strength of Tik Tok
In a nutshell, Tik Tok has a good UX/UI design to not only attract new users, but also keep existing users.

  1. Only shows one 15 second video at a time with the full screen, users can’t see any other video. Users can’t even do anything else, but watch the video. It makes sure that users concentrate on the video.
  2. Avoid interruption and repeat. The app automatically provides a video to users when they first open the app. After the video is finished, it plays again. Users can watch it again and again or click the like button, or share it, or keep swiping up to watch more videos.
  3. Artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. Without asking users to manually filter out their preferences, Tik Tok uses AI technology to deliver content from user behaviors. The videos in “For you” tab are pre-selected catering user preference by the algorithms.
  4. Intermittent variable rewards. The videos generated by AI algorithms make users stay unknown of the next video. Swiping down and watch something unknown gives them a sense of mystery and make them excited.
  5. They have cute and creative stickers/filters too. Learned from Snapchat, American users are more than familiar with stickers/filters.
The marketing approaches of TikTok
  1. Use Press: Send out massive amount of press release, saying that TikTok users made a lot of money, and TikTok users got a lot of followers within a short period of time.
  2. Encourages users to create good content and share their short videos to their friends.
  3. Tik Tok asks users to sync their contacts. Once they do that, TikTok sends friend recommendations, based on users’ contacts. Tik Tok also sends out notification to users’ contact friends who are on Tik Tok (they don’t have to be TikTok friends, as long as they have each other’s cell phone number, and both of them have Tik Tok accounts), when they publish videos, saying that ‘your friend XX posted a short video XX, go check it out.’ Users can always turn this function off in the Privacy and Safety.
  4. The challenges that Tik Tok advocates also helps to increase user engagement. Because it is a lot of fun!
Karma’s a bitch is one of the challenges that become viral.
Why though?
  1. It’s a challenge that came from the show ‘Riverdale’. Many TikTok users made creative videos under this challenge. Tik Tok created a 1 minute video out from the short clips that users uploaded there.
  2. Users enjoy surprises. This meme shows how a normal looking girl/boy becomes very different and presentable.
  3. It only has one line “Karma’s a bitch”. It’s easy for English speakers and non-English speakers to understand what the video is about.
The downside of Tik Tok
According to BusinessofApps, there were 80 million US downloads of Tik Tok as of October 2018. Half of the downloads turned out to be active users. Tik Tok users spend average 52 minutes daily on the app. Users from Douyin, the Chinese version of Tik Tok used in China, spend about 30 minutes daily with opening the app four or five times per day. This data is only slightly behind the Facebook (58 minutes per day with the American Android app in June 2018) and Instagram (53 minutes per day in June 2018). This represents the high user engagement of Tik Tok, and also the addiction to it.

Fortunately, Tik Tok provided “Digital Wellbeing” feature inside of Privacy and Settings, similar as the feature of “Manage Your Time” in Facebook and Instagram. This may reveal effort that UX team has put in Tik Tok, fighting against the revenue goal. However, including time management feature in settings may not outshine the allure of the uninterrupted repeating 15 seconds videos and the mysterious intermittent variable rewards.

That shows the dark pattern of forced continuity. For first time users, it’s easy to stay in the loop of watching more and more videos instead of finding out the way to “manage your time” in the app.

In addition, the feature of syncing user contacts to Tik Tok might meet another type of dark pattern— Friend Spam. According to the paper of The Dark (Patterns) Side of UX Design friend, spam occurs when the product asks for your email or social media permissions under the pretense it will be used for a desirable outcome (e.g. finding friends), but then spams all your contacts in a message that claims to be from you. Even though Tik Tok does not claim the messages are sending from users, Tik Tok do take advantage of user contacts for spreading the user pool.

Last but not least, the numbers of likes, views, and shares that come from the mysterious AI algorithm might be misleading. Users do crazy things to attract more likes, views or shares. The unbelievable cases such as a woman dancing in front of a moving bus in Hong Kong have raised skepticism and criticism. Sadly, while users sacrifice their lives for Tik Tok likes, they can’t even check who the users are that have liked their videos.
Tik Tok emerged at the peak of short-form video storm, and successfully dominated the market within such a short period of time. This represents how important the cooperation of business goal, marketing scope and design thinking is. It also shows how information fragmentation is affecting mobile users.

Tik Tok solved the user need of having fun by watching fun videos in a lively online community with low effort. However, the ethical issues raised by Tik Tok should not be neglected. Let wait and see the next steps of Tik Tok.
This article is written by Shuhan Yu on UX Design : Why is Tik Tok sweeping over the world?
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