Instagram: The Billion Dollar UX

The Facebook/Instagram story has already been written about too many times, but one aspect that hasn’t been beaten to death yet is how their UX was the difference. In a saturated photo-sharing market, they blew past everyone just by making it easier to use. I mentioned it a couple months ago, but I believe we’re now entering an era of “Success by UX“. You can take a large, entrenched market and attempt to leapfrog it with design – and that’s a completely legit strategy! It’s certainly not easy to pull off, but there’s definitely room for it to happen.

It’s funny, when I first started working on startups a year ago, the presence of a competitor terrified me. But the more time I spend in the industry, the more clear it is that it all comes down to you. Sure, having competitors has the inherent risk of them nailing it before you, but more often than not most companies never actually make it. They end up with a “good enough” product that doesn’t inspire.

PicPlz had a couple years to try and perfect the experience on Android before Instagram arrived, but they couldn’t do it. When I had an Android phone, I stopped using PicPlz after a week or two because I had a too many frustrating moments. Even though they do essentially the same things, I post a pic every day or two now on Instagram, but never on PicPlz. All based on the UX. Crazy.

Take a look at this great visualization from Compete on Instagram’s vs. PicPlz’s growth. If that doesn’t illustrate one breaking free and winning while the other stagnates, I don’t know what does.

Instagram vs PicPlz traffic

But what excites me most is what startups we’ll see rise in a few years. With the recent success of UX-heavy Hipmunk, Pinterest and Instagram, it’s hard not to be inspired to make beautiful, easy to use products. Look around the internet and you still see lots of large, successful, but poorly designed sites. It might have seemed foolish to attack head-on with “easier to use” as your main competitive advantage before, but now it doesn’t seem so crazy.

Execution truly is everything.

Congrats Mike, Kevin and the team. You built a great product and deserve it.

If you liked this article, you might want to check out my post on what Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger had to say at SXSW about app design.


  • http://www.matthewrae.com/ Matt Rae

    The common theme in the thousands of blogs, posts, and articles about the Instagram Acquisition is UX, the writers just don’t know that. It’s funny listening to the arguments that all the app does is put filters on your pictures, “how is that worth $1 Billion?”. You hit it right on the head, it’s all about UX. We’re a ‘right now’ society, we don’t want to upload a photo to lightroom, or iPhoto, edit it on our computer and share it back to all our social networks. “Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication” really rings true for Instagram. Sure it only has one function, to share filtered pictures, but it condenses all the steps (upload to PC/edit/share), and allows you to do it in a few touches of a screen. Great article again Andrew. UX has to be at the forefront of any new start-up. 

    • http://andrewcross.ca Andrew Cross

      I always chuckle inside when people make that “all they added was filters” comment. It’s so much more than that. When do I get to see a magical Matt Rae UX?

      • http://www.matthewrae.com/ Matt Rae

        Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was any awesome UX (like instagram). In time my friend, in time.

  • http://twitter.com/ay_shake Ammad Shaikh

    I’m pretty picky in what I use in terms of apps, I usually trash them after a week. As for Instragram, I use it at least twice a day. I love the design and how simple it is. $1bil is a pretty steep price for an app without any revenue (I’m sure Google had something to do with that), but Facebook would have a tough time topping that from a design standpoint if they were to build their own app. Simple and clean is the way to go. 

    • http://andrewcross.ca Andrew Cross

      I also thought $1B was a really steep price until I read Scoble’s Quora post on it. If he’s right, it seems to be a bit more financially logical than what I originally thought. http://www.quora.com/Facebook-Instagram-Acquisition-April-2012/What-was-it-about-Instagram-that-made-it-worth-a-1B-acquisition-by-Facebook#ans1135602

  • Damian Roskill

    Thanks for the shout-out on my blog post – really appreciate it!

    • http://andrewcross.ca Andrew Cross

      No problem. Was a good post.