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Expanding a popular mobile
GIF keyboard

GIFs have emerged as a vibrant mode of expression in a time of rapidly expanding vocabularies. Tenor, a startup with an early position as the leading GIF keyboard, saw an opportunity to strengthen their product in this evolving landscape with a bold new identity and strategy. 

Our work accelerated Tenor’s ability to help people visually express their thoughts and emotions, culminating in their acquisition by Google in 2018.

As lead designer, my work with Tenor spanned developing the product-to-platform strategy, product concept development, UX and UI.


A GIF keyboard is a third-party keyboard added to your smartphone that lets you easily find and share GIFs in your favorite apps.


Expression is always evolving

Expression is always evolving, and GIFs are just the latest in a line of modes and memes. With this insight, we saw that we needed to decouple Tenor from the GIF.

In order to future-proof Tenor, we shifted from seeing the offering as a GIF keyboard to seeing it as framework agnostic of file format. Tenor is for GIFs today—and for however we express ourselves tomorrow. 

This accomplished, we leaned into designing an “expression” platform with a broad range of content features, encompassing personalization, content creation, and a community of users.


Product to Platform: Making the Leap

Tenor was ready for the next evolution. It had a defensible product with a critical mass of users. Their GIF keyboard attracted hundreds of thousands of frequent users to make a potential platform appealing to third parties—and consequently a profitable revenue model.

So we developed a strategy to ensure Tenor’s place as the platform for GIFs today, and for how we express ourselves tomorrow — via haptic responses, chatbots, virtual reality, and beyond.

We designed an experience that gives context to GIFs with a broad range of content features, evolving their product into a full-featured platform that encompasses personalization, content creation, and a community of users.


Expanding the canvas

The new interface strategy hinged on two key solutions for opening up the app. The first was unlimited vertical scrolling, an elegant UI solution that opens up significant screen real estate to extend the amount of content Tenor can offer. 

The second solution was to expand usage by pairing the keyboard with the native app. By combining these features, Tenor provides one place for users to browse, save, and create new content, and another place for users deploy the content via the keyboard while texting.


Personal touch

Other interface strategies include personalized search and customizable categories, to make each user’s keyboard unique. Search learns from the user’s expressed preferences and from implied preferences gleaned through usage – preference for animated GIFs over movie GIFs, for example. 

Mood slider

We also identified fun new ways users could search for GIFs, like the Mood Slider that would let the user filter through different emotions to find a GIF with the right tone.

Do you want a sincere or a snarky Happy Birthday GIF?

Freedom of expression

The GIF Editor is a strategy designed to open a whole new world of creative expression, allowing users to create and customize their own content in the native app – draw freehand, add stickers, type messages, even embed GIFs inside emoticons. Creation tools would give the user more freedom to convey emotions and build a personal lexicon, and cultivate deeper engagement in the experience. The camera-first tools would reside in the destination app, for a seamless experience.

Creation tools

What if you could personalize your GIF with stickers, styled text, color, and more?


Community of producers, consumers, curators and brands

Building community around the platform is key to Tenor’s new strategy. By adding meaningful touch points beyond the keyboard, the native app can cultivate engagement with a community of users who create, curate, and share unique expressions. 

Attributions enable users to connect to GIF creators. And social networks allow creators and curators to build a following. All work of these features work together to promote the content, the artists, and the community on the Tenor platform.


Finding the platform in the product

Companies that weren’t born as platform businesses rarely realize that they can turn their products and services into a platform. And even if they do realize it, they often struggle to find a strategy to achieve this transformation. 

Working with the Tenor team was rewarding, because, once we “liberated” the keyboard from its UI straitjacket — the leadership team was very receptive to disruptive new visions of the app and their business model.