Instagram is taking a lot of heat for supposedly ripping off Snapchat with a "stories" feature of its own. And at first glance—hell, even at second and third glance—that’s exactly what it’s done: Stories lets you share photos and videos that disappear at the end of the day. But start using it and you begin to get the sense that it’s actually a much better experience from a user interface point of view.
In the subtlest of ways—so subtle that they’re easy to dismiss as blatant plagiarism—Instagram has made serious design improvements on Snapchat that are hidden in plain sight—er, swipe. Here’s how.
1. You can actually tell when one user’s posts end and another’s begin.
As you’re cycling through stories in Snapchat, it’s easy to confuse the first few posts (or "snaps") in the beginning of the next user’s story with the last few in the story that preceded it. That’s because the only thing you have to chart your progress through a given user’s story is a tiny, abstract, ever-cycling circle at the top right-hand corner of the interface.
Instagram fixes that with a progress bar that runs straight across the top of the screen, simultaneously showing you how many posts this person’s story contains and how close you are to finishing up their whole story. There’s also a clearer animation to mark the transitions between one user and the next so there’s no confusion there. It looks like you’re rounding the corner of a box, not just shuffling a deck of cards.
In Instagram, you can also swipe backward to view someone’s story a second time—something that’s much harder to do in Snapchat’s one-way-only flow, especially since immediately after you view someone’s story, tapping their handle takes you to a private message instead of letting you replay their snaps. Annoyingly, the platform prods you to interact with other users one-on-one, even when you don’t want to. The way Snapchat separates its stories section into "New Stories" and "All Stories" means you have to look for who you’re interested in twice, in two separate, potentially really long lists.
2. Snapchat prioritizes content creation over consumption. Instagram flips that formula.
Most of the time when I open up Instagram, it’s because I want to consume content rather than create it. The design doesn’t punish me for that—that’s why it lands you on your feed as soon as you enter the app, not on your camera screen.
It’s the reverse on Snapchat, which prioritizes content creation first, discovery second. Most other social platforms actually let you check out what other users are posting before asking you to post something yourself. And personally, I find having to swipe away the camera page, then pass by it each time between checking my personal messages and my feed, to be a pain in the ass.
3. Checking who’s viewing your story posts is a lot easier.
Snapchat offers you a bird’s-eye view of how many users are watching each of your snaps, but in order to see who specifically saw the individual posts in your story, you have to tap into each snap separately and swipe up to check it, then swipe down to close it, and then swipe down again to leave the post before you can choose a new one to view. Instagram, on the other hand, shoots you off to a different flow once it knows you’re interested in the numbers—and just surfaces all the numbers and viewers at once.
This speaks to a fundamental difference that’s always existed between the two platforms. In Snapchat, the only number associated with your account is your Snapscore, which lives on your profile page and is the product of an opaque scoring system many users don’t understand. Instagram, on the contrary, is all about clear, very public tallies: number of posts, number of users following you, number of users you follow, number of likes per post—these figures are hard to ignore because Instagram doesn’t want you to ignore them.
One of the open secrets to the platform’s success is that it’s trained users—through design choices like this—to like watching those numbers tick up and to make decisions accordingly. So while Instagram’s viewer counter is also an eyeball icon with a number next to it, and while Instagram also shows you both a total head count and who those viewers are, it puts that information all in one place instead of making you dig for it like Snapchat does.
That’s a big difference, even if it doesn’t look it. Instagram may have been better at catering to content consumers than Snapchat is, but it seems to want to throw a bone to creator-minded users, too. By keeping robust follower data front and center, like it’s always done, it basically solves a problem for people who wanted to share a form of content Instagram didn’t initially support, yet keep a running head count of their followers all on one platform while they did. Now, not only can you create fleeting video content in Instagram, you can also check out exactly who’s seeing what, and when, more easily than you can in the platform that invented it.
Snapchat did something Instagram didn’t. It laid the foundation for a new kind of user behavior, not just a new kind of content. It didn’t just invent snaps, it taught everyone how to "snap." But now that behavior is commonplace. It's the vernacular. So Instagram is taking that basic language—which now everybody speaks—and tinkering with the grammar, adding new expressions, polishing up the prose. Its story product is by no means perfect, and the changes are small and easy to miss, or just label a knock-off. But if Instagram's bet pays off, it's going to be the go-to place for the conversation that Snapchat started.