On the perils of changing an existing, highly engaging product.
This is a response to this week’s Startup Edition question: “How do you build engaging products?”
Facebook has a history of experimentation – changing things wholesale for large groups of users – and of changing the service so that it stays novel and rewards customer usage. So when Facebook bought Instagram and didn’t outwardly change it, I breathed a sigh of relief: perhaps they would keep a nearly perfect product as it was. I think there’s another reason driving the feature addition for video. Facebook needs additional revenue (eventually) to justify the $1b acquisition cost for Instagram, and customers are used to video ads on their TV. They might get used to video ads in their social streams as well.
Many customers really hated this move, because Instagram was already an incredibly engaging product. The uproar uncovers some interesting lessons about the process of creating engaging products.
What was great about Instagram?
Instagram succeeded by doing just one simple thing (capture instant memories using a square photo format on your phone) and making it fun – but not too fun. Instagram also succeeded by building a community of people who love pictures and who wanted to share those photos and ideas with each other. And Instagram borrowed some social metaphors from other successful products (notably, the hashtag from Twitter).
You might argue that Instagram succeeded by having a tight focus and a small, dedicated team that worked wonders and encouraged a community to do great stuff. (You’d be right.)
4 Things That Will Make Your Product Engaging (And Great)
The Instagram team did several things right on its journey to create an engaging product:
1) Collected the “I wants” and “I needs” – I want to share photos, and I need it to be easy, and I want it to have fun filters
2) Separated customer pain from general issues – There are many ways to take pictures, but when Instagram was created there weren’t many ways to share them quickly with friends
3) Identified a crisp problem statement – Why can’t I quickly share a beautiful still moment with friends and discover other great moments?
4) Focused on the everyday experience and made it great – they didn’t try to build all the features, just the ones they found people might use to capture moments in just a few steps, every day
What made the single purpose app 10x better?
The Wow Factor – the way that Instagram exceeded the expectations of customers – is the ability to jump into a social stream of moments that all look professionally produced. Standardizing the aspect ratio and using filters to tune the images to look great makes your photo stream on Instagram easy to review even if the photos are taken by many different photographers of many different subjects.
Adding video changed all of that. Instead of presenting information that you could consume at the same rate, adding video forces the customer to decide: video or audio? This seems like a small change but simply adding more, mandatory choices is a recipe to discourage engagement.
What could Facebook have done?
Facebook could have launched a separate app called Facebook Video – they have a track record of doing the same with Messages. A separate app could have created a vibrant video community without diluting the brand promise of Instagram.
Does anyone care about maintaining a single purpose app?
Looking back, I’m not sure if product managers care about maintaining a single purpose app – it’s too seductive to think about adding a habit to the habit that already exists as a means of building the brand. Is it damaging to do that? Maybe, though it will take time to tell if current or long-time Instagram users will change their behavior. I’ve turned off video auto-play for now.