Modular Design and Socio-Technical Dependencies: A Case Study on WeChat

Abstract

In nowadays China, WeChat is one of the most popular social platforms on cell phones. It is not simply a platform for messaging, but also provides functions that can greatly meet people’s needs in their everyday life. This essay will try to analysis the design principles of WeChat from aspects such as its modular design and socio-technical dependencies, based on two research questions: (1) What functions does WeChat provide that makes it such a popular application that people cannot live without; and (2) What are the technical and social reasons behind the phenomenon that WeChat does not provide users with delivery status notification (DSN).

Key words: modular design; socio-technical dependencies; WeChat; social media; DSN

 

1. Introducing WeChat

(One Day of WeChat)

Currently, Wechat is the most popular mobile chatting application in China. Released in January 2011 and developed by Tecent Company, WeChat provides users with multimedia communications as well as other functions such as online payment and location sharing (Xu, 2016). Step by step, WeChat has built up its unique ecosystem, and it is now regarded as an application “for China’s everything” (Pasternack, 2017). According to the statistics, the average times people check their WeChat per day is 10 times, and more than half of the users spend more than 90 minutes on this application per day (WeChat Blog, 2016). This essay will try to examine features of WeChat from different aspects. In the following parts, it will try to analysis reasons of WeChat’s popularity from its modular design aspects, as well as its design principles from socio-technical perspectives.

(WeChat Statistics, 2016)

2. Why is WeChat so Popular? – From the Modular Design Point of View

WeChat is a product with many add-ons that makes life easier and more convenient. It is not only a cell phone application for people to contact each other, but could also be the platform to post and share life with friends, the channel where people receive all sorts of information, and the tool to transfer money and make payments. With the updates, WeChat has gradually penetrated into many important aspects of people’s life by combining more modules and functions into this application. As Author puts it, new technologies arise by combining already existing technologies (2011). By interconnecting subcomponents, the designed system can manage a larger and more complex structure of functions. Every added module in WeChat has a hierarchy structure, combining more detailed design principles and features. Wang and Grover, product managers of WeChat also state that WeChat is just “simple features organize in a good way” (WeChat Blog, 2015). The following part will try to discuss some of the most frequently used features in WeChat and examine WeChat as a modular design.

 

2.1 As a Multi-Media Communication Tool

As a social messaging application, the most basic and essential function of WeChat is to help the users build up and keep connections.  By using the internet instead of basic texts, WeChat provides users an environment to stay connected with others without charges. One of the underlined assumptions under the core values of WeChat, according to Wang and Grover, is that the users will always be online (WeChat Blog, 2015). The internet environment provided by the boosting technique of mobile network and Wi-Fi supports the users to use WeChat and be connected as long as they want to. Based on that, WeChat offers users various forms of messages, including text message, voice message and personalized stickers. With all these features in hand, users can choose the channel they want to communicate through and express themselves freely.

Moreover, WeChat provide users chances to recall the last sent message within two minutes. Although it leaves a permanent notification in the chat for all parties involved in the conversation, with that feature, users can withdraw the unwanted message and keep other person from knowing the content of it. This could be a very useful feature when the user sent the message to the wrong person, sent the wrong file, or said something improper in the message.

(WeChat recall feature)

2.2 As an Ingroup Broadcast Channel – Moments

Moments is a unique function of timeline story posting and experience sharing. Similar to Facebook and Instagram, users can post stories on their timelines, and decide which group of people can see the post, as well as like and comment other users’ post. However, different from other social media applications, Moments only allow users to see the likes and comments made by mutual friends between the user and the person who posted the moment. In other words, the user cannot see the likes and comments from those they are not friend with.

According to Wang, that kind of “circle design” changes the content of the posts (WeChat Blog, 2015). Because the one who posted the moment will be the only one to know how many likes or comments she got, users would be more genuine and tend to post authentic things to share with friends instead of posting things catering public taste and make the posting process a competition, which would lead to more interesting posts.

(WeChat Moments)

 2.3 As an Online Payment Method – WeChat Wallet

With the 5.0 update, WeChat has introduced the feature of wallet and payment. Users can bind their bank account to this application and complete monetary transactions. Users can complete purchases and make payments through WeChat wallet for a variety of things from mobile top up, pay utility fees, buy film tickets to order taxi and food delivery. Online investment is also imported in WeChat, providing the users with a high interest rate to encourage them move their money from saving accounts, which also provides a fund raising method for Tecent company.

(Various purchases that can be realized by WeChat wallet)

That feature boosts the micro-business in China. With free and almost real-time money transfer, people are able to run small businesses on their WeChat account. These business runners use WeChat as a free platform for advertising as well as one-on-one customer service channel.

(micro-business runner advertising her products via Moments )

2.4 As an Information Channel – Official Account

Except for the main function of multi-media communication, WeChat is also used as a channel to receive all sort of information via the official accounts. News feeds will be sent to users based on a mechanism called server push, which can “send the data from server to client in an asynchronous fashion” (Sampathkumar, 2010). After the user subscribe to different official accounts according to their interests, these official accounts will start to feed the users with articles. Since the messages are asynchronous, users can read the feeds sent from official accounts anytime after it is published without worrying about the message will be gone or be refreshed if they do not read it as soon as possible, as well as share it with friends on WeChat or share it to other social media platforms such as Weibo.

Official accounts have boosted many business and media related industries in China. For companies and advertisers, official accounts enable them to engage with consumers with a new method (Xu, 2016). As the messages are sent to the followers individually, users can reply to the server push and have “direct conversations” with the service providers via the official accounts from Q&A, feedback, to book a service, and no other users can see their conversation even if they have followed the same account. It has also induced the generation of self-media. As long as the user’s identity is verified, everyone can create their own platform and post articles and opinions. That creates a channel for direct communications between the blogger and the followers. As users can subscribe or unsubscribe an official account at anytime, the self-media as well as advertisers are demanded to offer “more valuable contents as well as a high level of interactive experience with the audience, (Xu, 2016)”, instead of using it as a broadcast tool for message bombardment.

(Types of Official Accounts that Users Follow, 2016)

(Number of Followers on Official Accounts, 2016)

 

3. Why There is No Message Delivery Notification? — A Socio-Technical Analysis

Combined with all these modules of functions, WeChat is an important application penetrating every aspect of life in China. It is not only used for contacting each other, but also for payment, and receiving all sorts of information. However, as a messaging application, WeChat does not provide users with message delivery status notification (DSN), which is also called message sent/read confirmation. It is a feature helping users to know whether the messages have been delivered or read, normally realized by a small icon below the sent message. WeChat also does not tell the users if the person they are talking to is online or not. Although Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp see these features as essential and important, WeChat is designed without them. The next part of this essay will try to analyze the reasons behind that from socio-technical aspects.

(Messenger: Know when messages are delivered and seen to reach people instantly)

(WhatsApp: Message Status Identification)

(WeChat: Only shows whether message is pending to deliver/failed to deliver)

 

3.1 Technical Aspects

DSN feature might be left out from WeChat for an optimized user experience, not because that WeChat does not have the technique to support DSN feature, but out of a comprehensive consideration ensuring users can receive the messages in real time. According to Pappu, Carvalho and Pardalos, Quality of Service (QoS) is a discription of the overall performance of a service, and translation delay is an important aspect in QoS measurement (2013). QoS capabilities allows system designers and administrators to attach priority to the message or communication channel (Pappu, Carvalho, Pardalos, 2013). To have the message delivered within the required time, the bandwidth of the network as well as network traffic are important considerations.

Deshpande has determined that, the maximum allowed time for a message to deliver is 8ms. Which, translated into a bandwidth requirement, is 7.144 Mb/s. He has also mentioned that the differences in the traffic of a network and the network architecture will alter the results, thus the actual bandwidth for the delivery of a message could be higher or lower according to the network.

However, connectivity in China could be barely enough to realize the requirement for real time message delivery. The average bandwidth in China is 7.6 Mb/s (Akamai, 2017), and that number differs from place to place – in some of the rural areas, the internet connectivity could be poor, rendering a slow sending and receiving of messages.  Also according to Wong, in the year 2016, the online population in China has reached 688 million, which is half of the population, and nearly 90% of them can access internet connection via their phones (2016). This could also result in more traffic in the network, which, as a consequence, requires a higher bandwidth for the delivery of the message.

(China Internet Bandwidth Ranking, 2017)

Under these operating conditions, DSN might be a heavy burden on message delivery, and could slow down the message sending and receiving process. Instead of offering a more advanced service of informing users whether the message receiver has read the message, WeChat needs to put the priority in ensuring the messages are delivered as fast as possible to increase Quality of Service. Thus to reach the best result of message delivery, WeChat is designed without this feature to make sure message deliveries can meet the timing requirements.

 

3.2 Social Aspects

Besides the bandwidth and network traffic constraints, WeChat is designed without DSN feature for other social reasons related to the privacy policy, the nature of this application, and the communicating style of the users.

On WeChat ChatterBox, which is the official WeChat blog, WeChat team claims that message read confirmation feature will not be provided to protect the users’ privacy (WeChat Team, 2014). In the blog post “Why You Won’t Find Blue Ticks in WeChat”, the team states, “we believe the exact time you read a message in WeChat is your business and no one else’s – unless you make that decision yourself. Users can chat freely in WeChat knowing the other party will not see any timestamp or receive information about your messaging behavior other than the content of the conversation you choose to share (WeChat Team, 2014).” In other words, DSN is deliberately excluded from WeChat features, so that the users would not be worried about exposing their messaging behavior, or figure out the time lapse between they see and reply the message.

Also, according to Social Networks in China, WeChat does not place a heavy emphasis on simultaneous online communications (Che and Ip, 2017). It provides an asynchronous communication mode, where “instant responses are not necessary for information exchange” (Che and Ip, 2017). Authors of this book compare WeChat with QQ, which is another chatting application designed and owned by Tecent company came out in 1999. They state that to some extent, the type of communication features is defined by the platform characteristics (Che and Ip, 2017). WeChat and QQ has different market positioning based on their characteristics. While QQ is a platform for synchronous chatting on both PC and cell phone when they are both online, WeChat users are more likely to conduct their conversation on cell phones, using their fragmented time slots in daily lives. Thus the feature of showing whether the other party has seen the message is unnecessary: users are expected to check WeChat messages in their fragmented time, thus the timing of the users seeing and replying the messages are non-deterministic in the communication. In other words, instant reply is not expected when people communicate on WeChat, and time lapse might exist between when user see and reply to the message. Without DSN feature, users can feel free to see the message and reply whenever they feel comfortable.

Moreover, to some extent, users will alter their messaging behaviour if DSN feature is introduced. Read notifications works as an “awareness cue”, as it “offers the interaction partner a detailed feedback about the online activities of a user”, and this information may increase users’ response pressure (Marques & Batista, 2017). Having the knowledge “the sender will be notified if I have seen the message” in mind, the user will either not to open the message when she cannot reply, or be pressured to reply right after she have seen the message. In addition, according to Wang and Gu, the Chinese rhetoric style is high context and indirect (2016), it puts a great emphasis on vagueness. DSN feature provides the users with excessively explicit information that they need to consider and deal with. Although the intention of DSN feature was to be informative about the message’s delivery status and help users reach higher quality communications, to some degree it actually causes concerns and pressure to the users.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, this essay discussed WeChat from its modular design and social-technical dependencies. The first part of the discussion tried to analyse the crucial modules in WeChat that make it an indispensable application in people’s life, and the second part of the essay tried to explain why WeChat does not provide DSN features for the users. We can also see that design decisions have an influence on the user habit, and sometimes users are affected in ways different from the designers’ intention. Designers should take the design impact on users into consideration as they add new features to an application.

 

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