Why Instagram Is So Popular: Quality, Audience, & Constraints

Editor’s note: Guest contributor Nate Bolt runs the UX firm Bolt | Peters, teaches design research at SVA iXD, and made that one SF to Paris time lapse.

I get asked a lot why Instagram is so popular. It might be because we just threw the first iPhone photography conference, 1197, or because I allegedly run a company that studies and designs interfaces. It could also be the world of photography is changing so fast that lots of us nerds are talking about how a tool like Instagram can pass 10 million users in 355 days. The interface implications are fascinating, the company and technology dynamics of serving content to 10 million users with less than ten employees are fascinating, the artistic content is fascinating, and the reasons why people like me are so addicted to the damn thing are fascinating. Here’s a crack at why, since I think some other attempts haven’t quite captured it.


The quality of camera phone images and filters, whether you love or hate them, is now relatively high.

Instagram came along and offered the same quality and visual appeal as Hipstamatic and other phone apps, but added a simple and well-designed interface to let you choose filters after the photo was taken. The quality of the end image, along with the physical iPhone camera, just hit a certain threshold of quality where the images became visually appealing. Even if you compare Instagram photos to professional Adobe Lightroom plug-ins, Photoshop Actions, and all the tricks and desktop software that photographers use, Instagram photos have a decent quality. The Instagram images are certainly not comparable, in terms of quality or resolution, duh, but the images are at least interesting.

Of course there are all sorts of drawbacks, most notably in resolution, but the quality is simply high enough to make iPhone users feel there is some artistic merit to their images. And sometimes there is. I’m not going to say how Instagram compares to film because I know film photographers who will slit my throat while I sleep. But the image above, for example, is from one of my favorite Instagram users, Cole Rise, who is the creator of the Rise filter. It shows how an iPhone photo can approach the same technical quality as a DSLR. Even the original Instagram interface had close attention to quality – it was simple but well-designed. I heard Tony Fadell (creator of Nest and former iPod SVP) at Brooklyn Beta this year talk about the need for artistic passion in creating great technology experiences. Instagram delivers one of those great experiences because of their attention to quality in both the filters and the experience of posting photos. And yes, this whole section is a tribute to that crazy diatribe about “Quality” in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I digress.


It’s not just social, stupid.

So you have the nicer quality in Instagram, but so what? There are a bunch of apps that let you mess with iPhone photos.  The real clever part of Instagram is the audience component. Most articles tend to focus on the social or community aspect of the Instagram app, but labeling it a social networking tool is a mistake, because it’s not just social. It’s about having an audience for what you produce, and participating in an audience for other peoples’ photos. Basically, the same rewarding experience that people get (got?) from Flickr is what makes Instagram popular, but with these three differences:

Access. With popular or eccentric Instagram accounts, you get a peek into another world that isn’t quite possible with other services. If you want to only follow a circus security guard or a famous musician, you can do that through the intimacy of cell phone photos. You can also grant access to your close friends and family to share what you’re doing. It was the Community Manager at Instagram, Jessica Zollman, who pointed out to me, “Instagram can be a window to places and things you don’t normally get to see,” (disclosure: Jessica is a friend and co-creator of 1197).

Immediacy. You can get an immediate audience for your work. Plain and simple. If you’re a skilled photographer, handy with cats, pretty skies, or bikini tops, you can generate a fair amount of audience attention in a short time. This lets you put quick creative energy into photos and get them out to people in seconds. Knowing they’ll be be published instantly from the camera changes our approach to photos a little, and it’s attractive. Of course there is a ton of merit to the deliberate slow creation of photos, but we’re just looking at why people love Instagram, not whether it’s destroying the soul of photography. Let’s not go there. Besides, it’s not.

Those little switches. Using the APIs from Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and other services, Instagram lets you share from one single screen. Brilliant. I had never seen photo-sharing across services stripped down so simply before. The sheer volume of Instagram tweets, before it even launched, generated a lot of curiosity. That was a big part of how the app got popular. And yes, there is a lot of hatred for Instagram photos pushed through to Facebook or Twitter, because some of us may over-share, but again, it expanded the popularity of the app rapidly.

On the flip side of the API game, it’s obvious that opening up their own platform so that thousands of sites and apps could use the Instagram API was a smart move. It’s a classic example of why the ol’ API strategy works so well. It’s worth noting that Instagram doesn’t let you upload with their API, and it strikes me as a deliberate and purposeful choice. They keep the service constrained to iPhone photos that way, or at least force you to transfer your SLR photo to your phone, you big faker, which brings us to the final point.


It’s funny how hard it is to pick an interesting image from a giant grid on a web site. It’s also funny how many images we look at each day. What’s not funny is how much all that digital viewing numbs our senses and sucks our souls. I’m speaking in terms of science, of course. But when you display one image at a time in a series that’s essentially customized, based on time, something profound happens. More weight and significance is placed on each image, just because you have to consider it, at least for a split second, in your feed. Instagram forces you to focus.

It might seem trivial, but showing one photo at a time is a design decision that creates more value for each image, and enhances your viewing experience. Plus it doesn’t hurt to have the images trapped inside a beautiful iPhone screen. It almost doesn’t matter who you follow—their photos probably look better one at a time. From a UX perspective, we keep learning that interfaces with constraints are successful, and it seems like such a straight-forward principle (140 characters, ahem), but it’s kind of worthless on it’s own. Obviously you can’t introduce constraints without other elements, which is why this is the last point. There’s something enticing about knowing that most Instagram photos are created on the iPhone, since it introduces a NASCAR-like equality. That makes it fun to see what other people can create with the same technical constraints you have. Photography has always been all about the equipment, and not at all about the equipment. Knowing millions of people are creating with roughly the same camera and app as you makes it exciting creatively. So constraints, combined with quality and an audience are what makes Instagram so addictive.

The End Part

Social apps have an ephemeral quality. We used to joke that sites like MySpace or Friendster were like night clubs. They are cool for a little while, but then people want to go somewhere else. Every once in a while, you have a club that endures, but it’s rare. Even my beloved Flickr seems a little deserted lately. So what will keep Instagram popular in the long haul? Probably staying committed to a great experience that excites them, which is likely what they’ve been doing, and maybe avoiding acquisition. Of course that might mean continuing to make people puzzle at why there are no official web or Android apps, but given their record of relatively few performance and stability issues, it seems like they have a pretty good handle on what impacts popularity. In the end, focus always wins.

Photo credit: Cole Rise