Why Yo Isn't Dumb At All, Yo

Yo Screenshot

There's been a lot of buzz about Yo lately. It's a dead simple app that has only one feature: it lets you send a push notification to your friends with the message "Yo!" That's it.

Many have bemoaned its stupidy, others have championed its simplicity. Personally, I find it amusing, if trivial. But there are a few reasons why I think it's gained popularity, and a few UX lessons to take away.

The 'ping' isn't a new concept

We've long talked about 'pinging' someone, whether they're across the office or across the ocean. It's a simple act of getting someone's attention, seeing what they are up to, or just letting them know you're thinking about them. Yet very few apps have made functionality that serves this very stripped-down use case - most require us to send some kind of additional message along with the ping. So it's not like Yo created a new behavior - it simply supports an incredibly simple and obvious existing behavior.

Push notifications are an interface

Most mobile app interfaces happen within the application itself, and as designers and developers we're usually thinking about how people use our products when we have their full attention. But this is actually fairly uncommon - it's far more likely that users are doing something other than using our app or site at any given moment. The result is that many of our interactions with services, particularly on mobile devices, occur in the form of push notifications. Other apps have embraced this (ESPN's ScoreCenter comes to mind as an app I primarily interact with via notifications) but Yo takes the paradigm to its logical extreme, making the notification itself the whole of the interaction.

Short messages are really common

I have saved shortcut on my iPhone keyboard that allows me to send the message 'Status' by double-tapping the s key, and it's probably the second most common thing I send via iMessage or SMS (the first is '10-4', shortcut zz to minimize distance from input field to keystroke). I'm sure I'm not alone in this "micro-messaging" behavior. Keyboard shortcuts are a nice way to accomplish my objective, but the fact is that for these use cases, a standard messaging UX is far more complicated than it needs to be. Yo fills a similar need - and those of my friends who use it are getting far fewer 'Status' messages from me these days.

Context is everything (and it always has been)

A Yo at 10AM on a Monday from a colleague means something different than a Yo from a friend at 4:30PM on a Thursday. And they both mean something different than a Yo from an accomplice early on Sunday morning after a long night out. Context has always been a key to understanding when it comes to messaging (and all forms of communication, really) - often times it can communicate more information than the content of the message itself. So even with Yo's restrictive messaging capability - literally the same two characters every time - it remains remarkably adept at communicating sentiment. You really don't lose that much in translation, especially when you start adding dimensions like response time (how quickly I get a 'Yo' back), frequency (how often they 'Yo' me), and repetition (how many successive 'Yo's there are).

There will be more messages, silly

The radical simplicity of Yo is part of its novelty and a large reason for its strong initial traction, but that doesn't mean its utility would be entirely diluted by adding more messages. The interface could easily be tweaked to add more messages (think swiping the whole contact list right or left to move between 'Yo' and 'Sup'), and you can considerably increase its functionality without adding much friction or removing much of the user delight that goes with the current, uber-minimal approach. And if I could configure 4-5 of my own one word quips, it could probably steal another 10% of the interactions I currently have with iMessage.

Will Yo become the hottest app of the century? Probably not. Will it ever be enough of a commercial success to justify the hype and funding it's received to date? Unlikely, in my opinion. But it most certainly isn't as stupid as it appears at first glance, and there are lots of little lessons to be learned when it comes to mobile, UX, and the way we'll all communicate in the future. So pay attention, yo.

UPDATE:

Yo has a hot and fresh new API (one endpoint, boo-yah) that's spawning all kinds of interesting new use cases. Check out their Twitter handle to learn more.