Words matter – how WhatsApp spooked many of its users by being vague in its messaging

There was a big furore when WhatsApp changed its privacy policy. Lots of people thought that:

  • their messages and interactions would no longer be private
  • WhatsApp would be able to spy on their conversations
  • WhatsApp would start sharing information with their parent company Facebook

People started looking for alternative messaging apps and the download rate of several messaging apps including Signal soared. Signal promised to maintain their user’s privacy and had 40m downloads in a single day shortly after.

Better content = Improved clarity

Since working in government, I have gained a keen appreciation of the importance word choices make when communicating with users, customers or citizens. That’s why we have professional content designers. Content Designers are responsible for making sure we communicate clearly but they aren’t the same as marketers. They are embedded in UCD teams and importantly – they don’t just publish things into the wild hoping for the best. They test their content to make sure it’s clear and helps users achieve their goals quickly and efficiently.

What WhatsApp did wrong?

At a guess, I would imagine that a content designer lost a battle or perhaps there wasn’t enough user research before rolling out this change in their privacy policy.

The change is nothing as dramatic as people thought and believed but the vagueness of the message was enough to spook WhatsApp’s users.

If WhatsApp had checked with their users to see what they understood of the message, I’m quite certain they would have designed the messaging different which in turn would have resulted in fewer users looking for alternative secure services.


WhatsApp has now changed the messaging. For some, the damage has already been done and they have lost trust in WhatsApp/Facebook forever – they are converts to the new messaging apps. For others, this recent change in content reduces their confusion and anxiety about privacy when using WhatsApp.

Categorised as Blog