Robby Stein remembers when Kevin Systrom was just another startup guy, who’d created a photo sharing app called Instagram. They knew each other working at Google. Systrom’s idea for the thing was all around instant sharing—to capture fleeting moments, like a dog you met or going to the park. "People would comment, and then you’d have a conversation," recalls Stein. And yet a funny thing happened on Instagram’s march to 500 million users. The photo service that had been meant to be instant morphed into something less like a stack of polaroids and more like museum catalogue. The reason? Likes.
They had seemed like such an obvious thing to add. But over the years, it became clear that the service became less about sharing what you were doing. Rather, people would post photos, and then wait to see the likes roll in. Stein’s team talked to dozens and dozens of users, probing for what might be keeping them from spending more time in the app. They kept hearing about a fear of spamming people, and the pressure to post something popular. A feedback loop had set in, and reinforced itself: Likes made users more self-conscious about what they were posting, at the same time that improving cameras and Instagram stars were steadily raising the bar of what counted as a great Instagram post. "It started feeling like Instagram was for highlights rather than what was going on now," says Stein, who today is a product lead at Instagram, working with his old friend Systrom. Though Instagram declines to say if the company saw reduced engagement, it's not hard to see where the trend was going: A space dominated by highlight moments that became less frequent over time, as "highlight" was defined ever upward.
The solution was Instagram Stories, a way of quickly sharing videos and pictures that disappear after 24 hours. It was dubbed a Snapchat copy by almost everyone who used it, because it seemed to copy Snapchat's ideas about video messaging with a select group of friends. But even though Snapchat does that, the differences between the two are deep. Where Snapchat is so hard to use that it assumes a highly motivated user, Stories was a new feature introduced to audiences that hadn't explicitly asked for it. It had to work without explanation. That user-friendliness paid off almost immediately: Within just a couple weeks of launch, over 100 million of Instagram's users were on Stories everyday. Which was surprising. After all, Instagram had taken its core app, one of the simplest interfaces on the planet, and jammed an entirely different product into it. What could have been a nightmare of complexity instead was surprisingly easy to understand. That this happened at all comes down the power of tiny details.
Different Space Means Different Rules
Instagram revolves around the story feed—a stream of images and captions that users scroll past. In the very earliest days of designing Stories, Instagram toyed with putting them directly in the Instagram feed—a seemingly obvious solution that nonetheless created problems. The feed had become a permanent, carefully curated log of daily highlights. You couldn’t expect people to behave more freely in Stories, if they didn’t know that it wasn’t part of the Instagram they already knew. "It was important to have a different space with different rules," says Stein, who oversaw a design team that included Christine Choi and Joshua Dickens.
Those rules, ultimately, flowed from the idea that Stories would have to have different incentives and feedback loops if it was going to nudge people into sharing things without overthinking them. And so, Stories came to occupy its own real estate atop the feed—separated and self-contained, visible as a tappable row of profile icons.
What would happen if you were watching someone’s Story? Likes were out as a matter of course. But so were public comments, since those functioned much the same way as Likes. They created a burden to please and perform. So today, on Stories, you can watch what a person has posted, but you can’t do much else besides message that person directly, or skip to the next one. By deemphasizing what feedback you can give, the presiding value is meant to be self-expression rather than judgement—and also, direct connection with someone, rather than public dialogue, which Snapchat has always believed to be its secret sauce. For that same reason, Stories has the ability to easily choose who sees your post—and to look back and who has seen your post, with the idea being that you can always tune the audience you want to have, and how intimate a connection you'd like to share. So while it seems counterintuitive that audience members can't lurk on your Stories, the idea is that the audience should be personally connected to you as you'd like.
The principle of emphasizing self-expression works its way into the UI in more subtle ways as well. For example, one surprising thing about the Stories UI is that it actually forks the image uploading process. You might expect Stories to make it easy for you to access your camera roll, but it’s not—if you really want to, you can, by swiping upwards when creating a Story. But the gesture is a bit hidden, and the only images that’ll appear are from the last 24 hours. The idea then is that you’ll create in the moment, and that to put extra thought into what you’re going to post is, in some way, actually harder than the natural behavior built into the UI: Hit stories, open your camera, take an image.
Who You Are Is More Important Than What You Post
The next step in designing Stories was to figure out what would happen, once you took the picture. "That was a hard decision," says Stein. "We spent a lot of time trying to understand what was different from Instagram." Did the camera stay open? Were you punted back into the feed?
Instagram’s solution is subtle enough that it’s easy to take for granted what’s being communicated. After you take a photo, you’re back into the app, and up at the top row of profile icons, you see a ring rotating around your own profile. The communication is meant to tell you where your story has gone, while reinforcing a new UI affordance: The colored ring around a person’s profile means that there are new stories to share. Thus, the feedback that you get telling you that you’ve shared a story is the same as what tells a user that you’ve got a new story. "There’s a one-to-one mapping of what you see and what others see," points out Stein.
What you don’t see in the Stories bar are thumbnails of what someone has posted. Instagram’s designers tried that, but they realized that the thumbnail images weren’t just boring, they were again sending the wrong message. "It’s not about this one beautiful image," says Stein. "What I see is important not because of what you’re going to see but who you are. That’s why we show an avatar in the ring. You have a moment of serendipity." Serendipity and curiosity is why you’re supposed to be opening someone’s story—not admiration for what they’ve posted. And what they’ve posted is meant to be low-fi. If you want to add meaning, you do it not by taking a better picture, but by stamping the image with a message, or drawing on a picture to highlight a detail. (Mike Krieger, Instagram’s CTO and co-founder, personally prototyped one of Stories’s big hits: the neon writing, which was carefully calibrated to be as realistic as possible. Systrom himself suggested the cube animation that transitions users from one person’s Story to the next one.)
So far, Stein says that Stories has been a success in one important metric: people are spending more time in Instagram, and that time spent doesn’t seem to be cannibalizing people’s engagement with the feed. And that’s Instagram’s holy grail: Keeping people on the app, when so many apps are competing for their attention. It might not have happened if the Stories and the Feed behaved similarly—but by tweaking the rules of feedback, the experiences were different enough that the self-conscious competition of the feed didn’t simply migrate over to Stories.
As any great interaction designer will tell you, it’s feedback that allows any product to have a dialogue with a user. There’s many kinds of dialogue we can have, and it’s the rules of how that dialogue takes place that subtly craft what a product is, and whether people come back for more. With Stories, the UI might seem less prescriptive, but it's a mark of design subtlety that a UI can feel more open-ended while at the same time being built around a very carefully defined use. Stories might feel like a sandbox, but it's more like a carefully tended garden path.