Dear Instagram I love you but…


Instagram is, for me, the hottest, stickiest, most aspirationally delectable, most egoically satisfying, least stressful social network.

I contribute to it thoughtfully and haphazardly, eagerly and casually. (Follow my meager contributions @schildkrout.) I feel like a pedestrian artist when I post, which is all I am and all I need to be.

Everything on earth is equal here: the fluorescent postmodern city and the smirking eskimo, Miley Cyrus with her penis pizzas and this kid all unstoppable on a Chicago half-pipe, this man-eating hammerhead and my now-old student’s baby in a clown costume. All in a day’s work. A hundred strange glimpses — small gifts in opposition to the ubiquitous forces of solipsism and myopia.

It brings me closer to the best of what my friends are giving to the Internet.

I see better because of it, recognizing the nostalgia that’s already built into things. How everything is arranged, just so.

I explore, I putz, I gasp here and there — and I laugh my ass off. Daily.

And yet, I think Instagram could be a good bit better.


The adjustments I have in mind probably won’t quickly change the key numbers reported on Facebook earnings calls, but I think they will make life on Instagram happier, more fun, and more inspiring for those of us who love it most. Simply put, these suggestions will make Instagram more fully itself.

And in this way, I hope they will make its moat wider and its walls more defensible in the long-term.

1. SANCTIFY THE IMAGE


  • NO REPEATS, NO END: Allow me to jump down in the stream to photos I haven’t yet seen. This will take some fancy in-stream design and architecture work, but will be a big win. I often find myself popped to the top of my stream but with a still-lingering hunger to view more photos; I bounce because it’s just too tedious to get all the way down below everything I’ve already viewed . (One UX solution would be to let me tap the clock icon to reveal a navigable timeline. Another option would be to use the top nav—probably via a pulldown.) Point being: help me never want to leave.
  • SWIPE SWIPE COAST: When I tap into a photo/video from the grid UI in a user’s profile (or anywhere else) I should be able to swipe to get to the next image from this user. I would view significantly more images if this were implemented.
  • FULL-SCREEN APPRECIATION: Allow full-screen photo/video viewing. There are many challenges here: a black background/border-type solution will be needed; tap is already taken as a ‘liking’ action; screen size issues will make this implementation extremely annoying for devs/designers; and this may decrease the overall number of photos/videos viewed per session. But the benefits of being able to see photos/videos without distraction will outweigh these challenges and make it clear that Instagram values the creations of their users above all else. Worth it.
  • UNCLUTTER COMMENTS: There must be a better way to display comments (both which actual comments to show and how they look) so the stream doesn’t feel consistently inundated with this jagged, hard-to-read randomness. Among other things, please do a better job demarcating the poster’s original comment, algorithmically choosing other comments that are relevant to me, and aligning things for readability’s sake. (And do this without losing comments’ power as a marker of the community’s engagement and emblem of the live-ness and indie-ness of the whole experience.)
  • WAIT IS THIS A VIDEO? Clean up the video viewing experience. Right now I have trouble telling if something is a video, whether there is sound, whether the sound is on, where in the video I am, etc. It’s not that I can’t figure this out; it’s just that there is a subtle dissonance in the viewing experience of videos that I think can and should be cleaned up. You added videos, now make it count.
  • TV KILLED THE… The delightfully passive viewing experience of TV is nearly replicated by the ubiquitous mobile stream….but not quite. I’d love to see some experimentation with fundamental mobile UI that gives a nod to the genius of TV. The “card” is all the hype, I know, but sometimes I want a hands-free viewing option. Sort of like a bar mitzvah slideshow, but better. #extracredit

2. EMPOWER THE EDITOR


  • LET US EDIT OUR EDITS: Add either a) an editing history area through which I can undo or adjust specific editing actions (complex solution) or b) undo/redo buttons to the editing flow. This would significantly speed up the editing process without eliminating the brand-central experience of filter-choosing. Most importantly, this would eliminate much of the hassle of trying out multiple filters.
  • CONTRAST ISN’T SPECIAL: Move the half-sun, contrast feature into advanced editing. If you absolutely need three options on that editing menu bar (which would be weird), then I would suggest putting “editing history” there as a third option.
  • GIVE ME GREAT FRAMES OR NONE AT ALL: If your goal is to essentially eliminate the use of frames (which is how it seems), cool. I’m 100% into that. But if you want people to use frames, then they should just be an advanced editing option and multiple frames should be available independent of what filter you choose.
  • DRAFTS SAY, “THIS IS ART”: Allow me to save posts for later. Right now I use this workaround: I turn airplane mode on, post, (it fails), and then when I’m ready to actually post I “retry.” A “drafts” option would let me prepare photos when I have the time to do my editing, and post them when I want them to go live. (Adjacently, I should be able to tap into my failed posts—or drafts—to edit them before posting.)
  • SILENCE: Allow me to eliminate the sound in my videos when posting.
  • LOOPING: The infinite loop video was once Vine’s trademark. But that’s over. You can add a looping option without being a copycat. Do it and take Instagram video up a notch. But be ready to lose some image views because I just watched that looping baby sloth video 9 times in a row.
  • SLOW MO: Allow me to post slow motion video. (On iOS, I take a slow motion video but the app doesn’t recognize that and renders it full speed.) Letting me turn my regular speed videos into slow motion through the app (or, if this is too much, via a hyperlapse type tool-app) would be even cooler. #nicetohave
  • PANO: Allow me to upload panoramic photos (to be viewed through a phone tilt). I don’t think too many people will use this feature and I understand well the cross-device power of square photos, but I would like to see a gentle move towards a more immersive experience, particularly if Facebook ultimately wants to own the platforms we socially inhabit (e.g. VR). This also is a contender for a tool-app. #nicetohave
  • CRAZY TOWN: Test more advanced editing options. I’m quite scared of what this will do to the purity of the experience, but I do sometimes want more advanced editing options (wilder filters, grain, blur, overlays, etc.) If you charged for these, it would protect the system from their over-usage. You could also offer them only at certain times (e.g. Halloween specials). #probablyabadidea

3. UNLOCK THE ECOSYSTEM


  • ELEVATE THE #: Make hashtags a central and organized form of discovery, alongside people and images. There will be a hundred benefits to this move. If I’ve liked a number of photos with the same #, actively show me other photos with this #. Events, trends, etc. could be aggressively organized by #; these could then be curated into #olympics #grammys2015 #underthesea and so on. Most importantly, allow me to tap into a # page and “watch” that #. Then I could receive updates about activity associated with that # (perhaps in the activity area or through a modular in-stream experience). Elevating the # will multiply the power of the ecosystem by a new dimension…and that dimension already exists waiting to be utilized.
  • STREAMLINE DISCOVERY: Kill the current bulky differentiations between people, image, and # discovery. Right now that tab structure in the search area feels like a symptom of a missing discovery strategy rather than a smart UI option. Experimentation is needed to find the right discovery experience. (Rdio’s recent “home” work is a good example of a fairly radical attempt to create a compelling stream-based discovery experience. It needs work, but it’s a good pointer.) As a user I’m not really thinking about whether I want to discover photos or people or #s, I’m just looking around and want to find amazing things; honor this.
  • WHY THE CAT?: Similarly, the discovery/recommendation algorithms should be streamlined so that I only see images/people/#s I’m likely to like (my impression is that there have been significant improvements on this front over the last 18 months). In cases where it isn’t obvious why I will like something, I need a compelling explanation about why I’m seeing it. For instance, if I follow basically only @natgeo and their photographers, I should obviously be exposed to new, hardcore nature photographs; but if, additionally, the app suggests to me an image from a random high school friend, I should see their name next to the suggestion (or something) so that I don’t get the impression that your algorithm believes I will like an awkward cat photo from someone I don’t know.
  • NO MORE VERTIGO: Discovery UI (in settings, profile, search, and on-boarding) should be universalized to whatever extent possible. Right now, these experiences are far too disjointed.
  • THE IMAGE IS THE POINT: In Discovery UI throughout the app, images should always lead. This means that images need to be big enough to really see (the photos in the settings area, for instance, are way too small; likewise, the three-photo width grid is too crowded and should be a two-column grid). It also means there probably should be images anywhere there is discovery (the suggested users dropdown in the profile, for instance, doesn’t show any photos by users suggested there.)
  • SEND ALICE DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: Too often I start to dig in (tap photo, tap user, tap photo) and then have to tap my way back out to follow a new discovery path. I should basically never have to back my way out. Swiping might be a good solution for this: from allowing me to swipe through more than three images per suggested user in the discovery area to swiping between photos once I tap into them from the current photo discovery area. Always make me feel like I can go farther; never make me feel like I’m backing up.
  • MEMORY LANE: Let users explore the more distant past. This would be a fairly easy UX piggyback on the idea I began with about jumping in the timeline and could create a delightful, nostalgic type of engagement. It might be best to limit the opportunities to do this (for instance, you might only be able to explore “#thisdate” in history.)
  • I WAS #HERE: Get Local right. I want the option to see amazing images based on (my current) location. But I would vehemently abhor some lame map view, circa 2010. Here’s an idea: quarantine the hashtag #here for an aggressively (if algorithmically) curated set of images based on my current location. So I go to the #here page while I’m at the Grand Canyon and I see a collection of gorgeous images people have taken of the wonder there. You could also then open access to similar experiences for key locations/moments (e.g. a huge protest, a friend’s wedding, etc.)
  • WE ARE THE WORLD: Use email to wow me. I know, this kinda violates the whole mobile purity thing…but I think that’s silly 2012 dogmatism. A cool option would be a monthly digest — introduced on email and push, and viewed through the app — of Instagram amazingness from around the world. Hard to get this right, but I, as a user, am open to broader, occasional exposure to the creativity happening in a community of which I am a contributing member. Could be done on an opt-in basis. #extracredit
  • GOOD FRIENDS & BULLSHIT: I want to organize my followers into lists to support mood-based browsing. These list could be auto-created or manual. Examples for me might be: “Good Friends.” “Random Friends.” “Nature.” “Illustrators.” “Fashion.” “Bullshit.” Then I could filter my home stream so that I don’t have to always look at everything (sometimes I don’t want to see the bullshit, sometimes I only wanna see the bullshit.) Side effect: I’d be sure not to miss posts from my good friends. I know this one is controversial and probably would be a superuser feature, but I think it could improve the quality and frequency of engagement.
  • FOMO FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD: Create a concept of “trending” — if a post by one of my friends is getting a ton of likes, I want to know about it. Likewise, when I post something really wonderful, I want people to see it who didn’t happen to check the app that hour. The sense of FOMO that plays counterpoint to these critiques certainly draws me back to the app, but I think it could be considerably appeased without any decrease in actual engagement. Push notifications (opt in) and some kind of discovery module (possibly even in the stream if you wanna go really nuts) could be used for this.
  • THE STREAM IS A BONSAI: I don’t want a stream filled with garbage. And when I post I’m very aware that the people who have entrusted me with a ‘follow’ will need to spend a bit of their time looking at what I’ve posted. This dynamic relies implicitly on the idea of un-following. So make un-following easier. When I first joined Instagram I engaged in a year or sort of indiscriminate following that resulted in a big mess of a stream. SnoopDog and 100 random friends of friends. But mass unfollowing with the goal of re-setting my stream proved to be difficult. I believe I could only successfully unfollow ~8 people at a time, and arduously at that. My engagement dwindled. I know this happens to many people. Trust our taste and make it easier to rapidly clean things up.
  • BRANDS EARN THEIR KEEP: And for #extraextracredit: transform the Instagram advertising model by adjusting pricing based on the organic popularity of a brand’s post. Said otherwise, make it more expensive for a brand to show me an ad I’m less likely to think is cool. So: Nike creates an unbelievable photo of a runner streaking through the Amazonian wilderness or whatever; if it’s organically liked by a large percent of the people who see it (and, perhaps, if it’s aligned with what I seem to like) it should cost Nike less money to show me that ad. This would flip normal targeting-based pricing on its head and would heavily incentivize brands to create unbelievable, inspiring, ecosystem-enhancing content. You could supplement this with one out of @medium’s playbook, letting brands sponsor (and inspire) certain #s, which could then be released as curated (paid) digests. The hotter the ad, the cheaper the ad.

4. MAKE IT PERSONAL


  • DON’T MISS A BEAT: Let me sign up for push notifications to alert me when specific people post. I want a push every time my girlfriend posts. Likewise for a few close friends.
  • MESSAGING?: Figure out the role and location of messaging. Perhaps there is huge usage of this feature in certain demos. I haven’t experienced this though, and so, for me, it feels like a strange add-on, a sort of vestige of the Messaging Wars, 2013. If messaging is essential, find a better place for it (the current top nav implementation feels very random). If it’s not essential, pridefully note your ownership of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and the VR platform that will potentially dominate all communication in the near future, and kill it.
  • CHECK IT!: Allow me to shares photos I find on Instagram as “private messages” inside Instagram. It’d be like a private retweet. The ecosystem is big enough now that most of my sharing of Instagram photos happens with people on Instagram, so why make me do that with eight taps (and lower CTRs on the receiving end) through SMS or email? This might be my favorite argument for keeping (but changing) private messaging.
  • AND JUST FOR YOU: Add private comments. This would be an engagement game-changer for me. And if you wanna go buckwild, let me send photos as private comments. If you did this, I think you’d see a lot of people starting to remix photos and having a more advanced visual dialogue.………..Which is an obvious next step in this, the second hieroglyphic age that you helped to create and embolden. #ohshit

It’s so hard for companies to prioritize the iterative changes that will make their most dedicated users happy. It’s an uphill battle against pressures to maintain precious ecosystems, keep growth pumping, stay competitive on a feature-basis, avoid overwhelming users with changes, scale, address fraud, appease monetization needs, and so on.

When you’re leading product you constantly struggle with this. At any given time you know of many features that would make your happiest users a bit happier. And you have the sense that there are 100 other contending ideas that you either haven’t discovered or don’t have the user testing mechanisms in place to correctly prioritize.

Indeed, it’s actually shockingly hard to get a clear and comprehensive sense of what random, smart humans who love what you’ve done really think you should do next.

Focus groups and user testing sessions almost invariably attract a rather particular ‘type.’ Surveys tend to elicit, at best, directional and, more often, banal results. Data shows you holes and trends more than it shows you longings; it also inevitably draws your eyes and concerns to the people you’re losing (signup funnel bounces, 1-day versus 7-day dropoff metrics, etc.) and to the magnetic (and dilutive) median. Your friends and colleagues are inherently biased. Most out-of-the-blue “superuser diatribes” — the kind your customer service team receives by email and forwards along to the product team — are gilded with a sheen of…instability. Finally, public critiques from haters, which can be found a dime-a-dozen if you’re really winning, might contain helpful nuggets but are so tainted by negative origins that they can’t really be trusted.

I hope to alleviate this challenge just a bit for the product leaders building the products I love most through a series of “I love you [X] but…” posts like this one. First up: Instagram.

Wisdom says, “build the very best product for the people who love it and use it daily.” But this is so tough to live by. So tough…and so important—particularly after you’ve made something that many many millions of people love and use daily. I hope this piece is a motivating cheer and helpful prod on behalf of the many many people who adore Instagram.


Hit me up on twitter @schildkrout or here through comments with feedback, ideas, etc. I’d love to hear suggestions for other Instagram improvementsif there are a bunch of good ones I’ll compile an addendum.

Special thanks to @savwolf and @meltwizard for their thoughtful feedback and contributions to this piece.

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