As we’ve ramped up our Digital Insights work over the last few months, we’ve had the opportunity to talk with people around Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East about the digital tools they use to stay in touch with each other and the world around them. These conversations have reminded us that we have to work hard to stay on top of the growing number of messaging apps on the market today, as what was popular six months ago might no longer be today. “App-a-Thon 2016” is our way of quickly immersing ourselves in different messaging apps to learn about their functionality, look, and feel. How does it work? The entire DAI ICT team signs up for a platform, and for one week, we use it to chat with each other, send images and video, and explore the quirks and features of the app.

So far, we’ve covered WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram. This week kik takes center stage.


Key functionalities: Send and receive text as well as photos, videos, animated GIFs, memes, stickers; bot shop where users can browse chatbots by category; easy access to popular viral videos and memes; add-ons such as Filekicker and Tru Tower enable file transfers and audio messages respectively; group chat functionality allowing for groups with up to 50 users; kik codes (like barcodes but round) allow users to quickly add new contacts (and chatbots) and join new group chats; build your own chatbots (yes, you still need to know some code); free to download and use, brands can pay to attract users to their channels.

Pros: Easy-to-use platform with a very simple and intuitive user interface—doesn’t include a lot of clutter leading to sensory overload and epileptic seizures; cross-platform compatibility means that anyone using any combination of phone and operating system can use kik; kik games and points incentivize engagement with the app and brands. Kik codes are a quick way to add users and join groups; quick access to viral web content; user identity is based on a username, not a mobile phone number.

Cons: Kik’s user base is it relatively small compared to other big name chat apps, but it is also very young 82 percent of users are between 13 and 24, and the app’s functionalities reflect that. Location sharing is not possible; bot store lends itself to spam and abuse—kik struggled mightily with spam bots, particularly ones transmitting adult-natured content, although it finally seems to be winning that battle; private group messaging is limited to just 50 users per group; last, but certainly not least: Security—kik ranks low in information security, providing transmission encryption for messages, but retaining encryption key access. This means that that your messages can still be accessed and read by kik.


Karim: Personally, I’m not sold on kik for either personal use, or in the context of international development work. While I do appreciate the ease of use and intuitive interface, particularly in comparison to Snapchat which feels like it’s designed for people with severe attention-deficit disorder. It seems kik is better designed for sharing viral web content than it is to be a well-rounded communications toolkit. My bot experience was decent enough, but no better than with other messaging apps. This surprised me, because kik—along with Facebook Messenger—has made a huge bet on chatbots as the next big thing for people who want an even easier solution than apps, and brands that want to engage their audience. Brands such as Skull Candy and online viral video platform Funny or Die have found success reaching users through kik. Perhaps the rub lies in the user base—a very Western, very teenage user base (not typically work-ready young people whom we tend to engage in our work). The disconnect was quite clear when I used the Chatty McChatface bot to (supposedly) connect me with real kik chat users to discuss topics of my choice (although those choices were limited to such substantial topics as “Music: Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift”…which I immediately chose.

Random kik User: Yeaa
Me: Taylor Swift is the best. I love her songs.
RKU: ;)
RKU: But Selina Gomez also rocks
Me: oh totally. She’s the bomb diggity.
RKU: Yaaaaaasssss
Me: My favorite is still Coltrane though
RKU: awesome choice. 2 gud.
Me: What do you think about Kaiser Wilhelm?
RKU: Not sure I have his new album…

Adam: First of all, according to kik, 40 percent of U.S. teens use their app, so they’re certainly doing something right, even if they can’t help Karim find a random chatter who wants to discuss the intricacies of late-19th century German nobility.

Taking a queue from the success of WeChat’s chatbots in China, kik has lashed itself to the mast of the chatbot craze, alongside Facebook Messenger. In an ocean crowded with messaging apps, whether chatbots will be the critical differentiator that sets some apart from the rest remains to be seen. Certainly kik is betting that they will, despite the fact that in the U.S. market, the advantage of chatbots over apps and mobile-first websites is still not clear. I suspect this is due to relative differences in the cost of mobile data; far more plans in the United States include unlimited data which means apps and mobile websites are an easy download, whereas in China most people are still on prepaid plans and pay for each megabyte, so data-light chatbots are far more attractive for users.

In the context of international development, chatbots offer the same advantages they do in China: a simple, data-light interface that (at least in theory) makes it easy to interact with brands and organizations. With a little imagination, I could see governments using chat bots to deliver simple services online, provide access to records, host budget data, and create an easy avenue for citizen feedback. I could see small businesses deploying chatbots to improve marketing and e-commerce, and local civil society organizations using them to educate citizens.

Still, with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger dominating the messaging app wars in most of the world, it’s unlikely that space for a challenger like kik will open up, unless that killer chat bot suddenly appears and the Facebook Messenger version just isn’t as good as kik’s.

So what do we conclude?

Will kik be the AOL Instant Messenger of the 2010s—hugely popular with the tweens, but quickly rendered obsolete and forgotten? Or will we all be ordering our pizzas, Ubers, and clothes via kik chatbots five years from now? Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Tech Crunch’s Faisal Khalid sums up the current state of chatbots in his provocatively named article Let me tell you why chatbots suck:

“Ten to 15 years back, when apps started taking over the world, the benefits were crystal clear. It was just quicker and easier to use an app on your phone to do stuff than to try to use the mobile web. Today, the same benefits—speed and efficiency—aren’t apparent when I use chatbots versus the mobile web. And even when they are, the lack of accuracy means I’m never quite sure if I can really trust the chatbot to get the job done.”

Until the perception that chatbots have no tangible benefits over apps and mobile web sites changes, we’re unlikely to see kik as a popular tool in the places DAI works. Anyone who has read our Digital Insights work knows that our approach to mobile messaging apps is predicated on engaging people through the media they already use instead of attempting to introduce entirely new platforms. Chatbots themselves are based on this premise—they can even be accessed (with an @) within chats between two people, which is a pretty cool little feature that removes one more barrier to using them. Still, lacking a user base outside the United States and Canada, kik won’t have much opportunity to show the value of its chatbots in the rest of the world.

Interested in hearing more about other the other apps we tested in App-a-Thon 2016? Subscribe now to receive a weekly digest of our newest blogs sent directly to your inbox!