Four Product Principles that Drove Instagram's Success

I publish essays about the creator economy and product management every two weeks. Join thousands of other readers by subscribing below:

Dear subscribers,

You can learn a lot about building products by following Instagram's evolution.

In this post, I cover Instagram's core product principles, which Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger shared on my favorite episode of Patrick O'Shaughnessy's podcast:

  1. Community first

  2. Do the simple thing first

  3. Do fewer things better

  4. Ride the wave

1. Community first

"The only reason your product should exist is to solve someone's problem." - Kevin

When Instagram launched in 2010, sharing mobile photos was difficult. Kevin and Mike wanted to make it easier to share photos by helping people do three jobs:

  1. I want to take high-quality photos: Early mobile phones took blurry and low-resolution photos. Instagram added filters to make these photos look good.

  2. I want to share photos with my friends: Sharing photos on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms separately was a pain. With Instagram, people could share photos to all platforms at once.

  3. I want to share photos quickly: Uploading photos took forever due to slow connection speeds. Instagram started uploading a photo when the user was still writing a description, which made the upload feel instant.

As the app scaled, Kevin and Mike continued to apply "Jobs to Be Done" to serve their community. They encouraged product teams to:

Ask: "Does this product help the community or the company?" 

Your community can tell what your company's true intentions are, so be authentic and talk to them as real people. 

For example, in 2012, Instagram's community of iPhone photo enthusiasts were not happy that an Android app was in the works. Instead of ignoring user feedback, Kevin and Mike spent a lot of time talking to their community. They built trust with users by explaining why Android was needed to help Instagram become a platform where many communities can thrive.

Observe how people are hacking your product to do a job

People will often hire your product to do jobs adjacent to the job that you had in mind. Observing how people are hacking your product to meet an unfulfilled need is one of the best ways to determine what to build next.

For example, in 2013, Instagram's algorithm flagged an account for fraud because it kept uploading and deleting thousands of photos. After a manual review, the team discovered that this account was a store. The store would upload photos of items for sale and delete the photos when the same items sold out. This behavior was an early example of commerce, which is now a big bet for the platform.

2. Do the simple thing first

Do the simple thing first is about understanding the most important user benefit that you're trying to deliver, and then delivering that benefit with focus and clarity. When you have limited resources, you don't have time to make things complex. Instead, you only have time to make things work.

For example, the first ad auction system that Instagram used was a whiteboard that listed advertisers who wanted to run ads on the platform. Although this solution wasn't scalable, it helped the team validate if advertisers wanted to run ads on Instagram without building a full ad auction.

3. Do fewer things better

"Do the simple thing first" is closely tied to "do fewer things better." Once you validate an idea, you must spend time crafting it into a delightful product experience. Going the distance to ship a few finishing touches could make a huge difference in how much users love your product.

For example, early on, the Instagram team wanted to make browsing the feed "feel like glass." They would browse the feed on older phones to personally feel how sluggish the experience was. In product development, it's natural to want to build the next shiny feature. But before you do that, take a look to see if you've made the core experience (e.g., why people use your product in the first place) magical.

4. Ride the wave

"You don't wake up one day with a vision. Instead, you notice these trends that are happening in the world." - Kevin

People would often ask Kevin and Mike: "What's your five-year vision?" Their response was something along the lines of: "Would you rather spend time prototyping a visionary idea or solve a problem that a billion people have today?"

I love this quote because it means that "being visionary" is just about identifying a job that your users want to hire your product for while riding a major wave of change.

Riding a wave of change in your industry is like surfing. If you start paddling too early or too late, you'll fail to catch the wave. Instead, you have to spot the wave coming and time it just right to succeed.

When Instagram got started, it rode the mobile wave of better cameras and faster connection speeds to success. In the decade that followed, the app’s most impactful updates were also part of major waves:

  1. Ranked feed: People hired ranked feed to help them see the most relevant content from friends and public figures. Ranked feed is part of the machine learning wave that continues to evolve today.

  2. Stories: People hired Stories because they wanted a quick, low-pressure way to share their lives. As Mike described: "In early Instagram days, people posted 4 to 5 times a day. Over time, the feed made people more selective about what they posted (e.g., never "double-insta"). Instagram had gotten worse at the original job that people hired it to do, so Stories was needed." Of course, Stories was also part of a major wave of communicating through disappearing photos and videos instead of text.

Many waves are easy to spot because they span multiple years and decades (e.g., machine learning, e-commerce, remote work). But how can you tie these waves to a job that users want to hire your product for?

One way to tie these concepts together is to start from first principles and question all assumptions. For example, when the iPhone launched, many competitors were already trying to ride the mobile wave. But few of them questioned the fundamental assumption that a physical keyboard was needed. Getting rid of the keyboard let the iPhone accomplish the job of browsing the internet on mobile much better than any competitor.

How to apply Instagram’s product principles

I think Instagram’s product principles can be applied to any product. Take a look at your own product and ask these questions:

1. Community first

  • What job will users hire my product for? (see my jobs to be done post)

  • Does this product help my users or just my company?

  • Are people hacking my product to do an adjacent job?

2. Do the simple thing first

  • What is the most important user benefit that I want my product to deliver?

  • Is my product delivering this benefit in the simplest way possible?

3. Do fewer things better

  • Am I going the extra mile to craft a delightful experience?

  • Am I focused on one or two tasks that really matter?

4. Ride the wave

  • Is my product riding a major wave of change in the industry?

  • Have I questioned long-held assumptions when riding this wave?