Tech Life What they chose not to do

The Art of Not

I sign up for every single beta, trial, or preview that crosses my inbox as a virtual land grab for the “rands” username. Yes, I am very interested in whatever bleeding edge thingamahoo you’re up to, but the chances are this will be the only time I’m going to login into your service.

It is a function of my time, not your hard work. I’ve just searched for the word “invite” in the subject line of emails received since the beginning of the year and I’m looking at 20 new applications and services that showed up, and ironically, the one new service I’m using the most is the one for which I didn’t get an invite.

Yes, there are exactly zero emails from Instagram in my inbox, and that’s just the beginning of things they are successfully not doing.

Yellow train ride

Instagram Explained

Delivering the Instagram pitch is usually a study in disappointment.

Me: “You take pictures, tweak them with filters, and then share them with your friends.”

You: “Yeah, I have three of those.”

Same here. I grabbed Hipstamatic, took five shots, and didn’t use it again. I checked out Photoshop Express and ran screaming. I still regularly use TiltShift Generator, but that usage pales in comparison to how Instagram has become part of my day, along with 300,000 others and counting. And that’s with an impressive list of features Instagram doesn’t offer, including:

  • A significant web presence: the interface is the iPhone application.
  • Options for rotating or otherwise altering your photos, other than 11 filters.
  • Complex social networking features.

Yet in a crowded market of low-end mobile photo editing tools, Instagram has become an overnight success. Why? They said no — a lot.

The List of Not

Granted, one of the documented reasons for Instagram’s spartan feature set is the size of the team. As noted in the Quora article, the team allegedly spent a year working on the foundation for what became Instagram. But it was in an eight-week period that Instagram was designed, developed, and deployed. They could have waited another eight weeks and added a bunch more features, but they didn’t. I think each omission is interesting.

The lack of a significant web presence. Yes, you can share the URL for an individual photo via the website, but virtually all other interactions with Instagram are via the iPhone application — the website is currently an afterthought. This type of product launch is a testimony to the buzz and strength of iPhone as a platform, but I think it speaks more to Instagram’s tight focus on the one key workflow: “Grab a photo in a moment, make it better, and share it — with everyone.”

Nothing in that workflow needs to involve a traditional computer. Everything you need to participate in this workflow is sitting in your back pocket. Yes, the social angle of Instagram would be improved by a vast swath of eyeballs from the web, and I’m certain that’s coming, but the opportunity for that feature to matter has been created by Instagram’s choice to first intensely focus on the one workflow.

Limited options for altering photos. Ok, I didn’t run screaming from Photoshop Express. It’s a well-thought-out application that provides a solid set of photo editing tools, but after brief experiments I’ve never used it again for the same reason I’ve never written much of anything on my iPhone.

The interface of the iPhone is moment-based. You’re in; you’re out. Yes, I’ve lost many hours getting angry with Angry Birds, but for most interactions I want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. When I fire up Photoshop Express, the application asks, “Are you ready to spend the next 5-10 minutes of your life adding effects and borders to that photo of your cat?” The answer is no.

Other than cropping a photo to a pleasing Polaroid-esque square, the only options for photo alteration are a minimal set of 11 filters. No color correction. No brightness. No contrast. Where Instagram chose to invest their time (and yours) was choosing a diverse set of filters that seem to improve just about any photo.

Too dark? Try the 1977 filter. Flat color? How about X-Pro II? Too much color, but lots of detail? Try Inkwell.

Trio of Instaphotos

The Instagram folks could’ve lost their frakkin’ minds including any number of filters in their initial release, but they didn’t. They picked a sweet spot for filters that improve just about any photo without overwhelming you with choices.

Minimal social. Unlike many of the other mobile photo editing tools, Instagram does have a social component. There’s a backend service that uses a Twitter-like “we’re sharing everything unless you tell us otherwise” privacy model, but similar to other Instagram design choices, the social angle is simple.

Instagram heavily leverages the work of others with their social strategy. You comb your Facebook and Twitter friend lists as a starting point for a follower list, but more interesting is Instagram’s publishing feature set. It’s one area that’s feature rich. You can take your recently Instagramed photo and publish it to a bevy of services: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, and Foursquare.

While this represents a lot of functionality, I still see Instagram’s social angle as a study in Not. In the battle for eyeballs, Instagram knows they’ll be more successful long term by not trying to be any of these established services, so they embrace them. Once again focusing on the last step of the workflow: “share it — with everyone.”

Regarding Product Market Fit

There’s an inflection point in product development dubbed “product market fit”. It’s a milestone when a given service or product has found its market and can now focus on building a business.

It’s comforting, the idea that there’s a moment where you can safely say, “All that hard work has successfully resulted in our fit in this market “. Unfortunately, it’s only an event you discover after it appears. It’s a milestone, not a blueprint.

So, how’d Instagram do it? How’d they swoop into a cluttered market and grab 300,000 sets of eyeballs in eight weeks? Were they lucky? No. Did the have the benefit of examining the work of those that went before them? You bet, but that’s not the biggest reason.

The Instagram team could have gotten lost in any number of distracting feature buckets. In fact, based on the Quora article, it looks like they did, but then they threw away that application and built one intensely focused solely on photos.

There’s lots more coming from Instagram. There are subtle clues throughout the application that it could be adapted to share any type of media. Whatever they choose to do, they now have the opportunity to choose because of what they chose not to do.

Swim meet

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4 Responses

  1. Best Camera? Seems similar to Instagram but has been around longer.

  2. I sign up for every single beta, trial, or preview that crosses my inbox as a virtual land grab for the “rands” username.


  3. not providing alot of functionality is a win win scenario. as a developer you get to do less work and put more time into the important stuff. the lack of options also improves user interaction and acceptance making it easier to learn and use the system.

    although tuning the system’s main flows becomes harder when you shoot for perfection.

  4. I have to admit I do the same. I sign up for any beta, trial, or new service I read about that is remotely interesting. It drives my wife crazy. But I can’t help it. I have to check it out. Even for 5 minutes. Then they sit dormant after that 99 times out of 100.

    Gotta Love Instagram as well!