How Instagram stays in focus

A quick look at Instagram’s unique release model: make what you have better instead of adding stuff.

One of the biggest challenges in designing and building web applications is to find and keep focus: to only build what is necessary and to leave out the rest.

So when a company keeps a really tight focus on their core product they should be applauded. Instagram is one of those companies. If you’re not familiar with the app, Instagram is about as simple as can be: you use it to take pictures, apply filters to them, and share them on social networks. That’s it. That’s all the app does. And it has been a wild success…Instagram is growing like a weed…they’re just about to hit 10 million users in about a year.

Instagram has just released Version 2.0 of their popular photo-sharing application and the release notes show a laser focus on the core features and only their core features. Here is what they’ve improved: speed of filters, added 4 filters, faster tilt-shift, larger images, and optional borders. That’s it. Those are the core features of the product…they’ve essentially taken what they have and sped things up.

In other words, Instagram has not added any new features with this “largest revamp” to the product. They’ve simply improved what they have to make it even easier and faster to share pictures.

So here’s a simple playbook:

  1. Focus on improving what you already have. Don’t add new features, improve existing ones.
  2. Make what you have faster. It can always be faster. Remove delays (like Instagram did by removing filtering delays…they even now have live filtering)
  3. Improve usability Instagram also redesigned their already-successful photo taking screen. It would have been easy to skip this…
  4. Resist the urge to add new features. Wait until the market demands it or you have real evidence that your business is hurting as a result.

Here’s the thing: What Instagram has done almost never happens! It is incredibly rare in the world of web applications to have such tight focus on the core functionality like Instagram has done with their V2 release. The vast majority of releases contains new features that add new capabilities to the product.

To wit: there is an entire vocabulary built around the problem of keeping focus: Feature creep, MVP (minimum viable product), lean startup, (release early, release often). And the problem has only gotten harder in the last few years in which development has sped up significantly. Web application frameworks, Amazon’s cloud services, and social coding services like Github have made it extremely easy to build faster than ever before. As a result it can be hard to imagine what it looks like to keep focus over time on a very small feature set.

So when a company like Instagram is able to keep extreme focus on only what is necessary they should be applauded and emulated as much as possible. Your users, who are already using your app, will love you for making it even better.

Published: September 21st, 2011