Instagram: A Recipe for Success

When it was first released in October 2010, no one would be able to predict Instagram’s success  and the impact it would make in the world of mobile application services. Today, with over 150 million users [1] and with a strong mission to capture and share the world’s moments [2], Instagram’s founder, Kevin Systrom and co-founder, Mike Krieger can finally be thankful for being restless and following their instinct.

From Independent Company to Facebook Ownership

Systrom's original idea

The progenitor of Instagram

The story of Instagram begins with Kevin Systrom, a Stanford University graduate , and his idea, originally named Burbn, to build an application service which would allow the users to share their location with their network of friends and acquaintances. His ongoing struggle to launch Burbn, lead Systrom to persuade Krieger, another Stanford graduate and longtime friend, to become the co-founder of the project. After settling on an agreement and managing to attract a strong funding of $500,000 dollars from the venture company Andreessen Horowitz and  from Steve Anderson of Baseline Ventures, project Burbn was green-lighted. [3]

However, in the early stages of the design process, they realized that their application might be facing a premature death since the basic idea resembled other location-based and check-in based services, without offering something unique. As a solution to this problem, they decided to change the focus of their application from location-based service with the optional attachment of a photo to a photo enhancement application with an optional check-in function. Thus, Instagram was born. [3]

An Instant Success

An Instant Success

Instagram’s instant success and ever-growing popularity managed to attract additional financial support, including Matt Cohler of Benchmark Capital with $7 million of funding and later on Roelof Botha of Sequoia Capital with a funding of $50 million dollars. What started as a small company of only 13 employees was rapidly turning into something bigger. This resulted in a plethora of offers from potential buyers, most noticeably Twitter and Facebook. But, Systrom and Krieger were turning down one offer after the other, claiming that they would prefer to remain an independent company accepting only investment. Yet, a massive offer by Zuckerberg and the promise that Instagram would operate relatively independently within Facebook, made Systrom reevaluate his decision. As a result, in April 2012, Instagram was purchased by Facebook, making Systrom and Krieger richer by $1 billion dollars- $300 million in cash and the rest in Facebook stock. [3]

This change in ownership shouldn’t be taken lightly, since it has the potential to transform the entire concept of Instagram and make its founders reevaluate their business plan. According to Emily White, who joined Instagram from parent company Facebook in March 2013, Instagram should be ready to start selling advertisement within the next year [4]. However, before the team can start to integrate marketing on Instagram, they need to find a model that will not alienate their  users. After years of operation in an ad-free environment, Instagram might be running the risk of losing a significant amount of its subscribers.

Designing Instagram’s Success

But what are the design patterns of Instagram that make it so attractive to its dedicated audience?

In their book, Designing social interfaces: principles, patterns, and practices for improving the user experience, Crumlish and Malone enumerate the key features that can lead to the designing and the creation of a successful social media application.


Easy, fast and ready to go

First, since Instagram falls under the category of mobile applications it has to follow some basic principles of mobile application design. It has to be fast (10 minute rule), easy and shareable [5]. With a simple design which consists of only five main buttons, the ability to like a photo just by double-clicking on it and the additional feature of geo-tagging the photo on a global map, Instagram’s designers can rest assured that they fulfilled all the basic rules of mobile designing.

Second, the designer should define the social object that will be in the centre of his application [5]. According to Jyri Engeström, the main reason that some social networking services are more successful than others is that they are built around a strong social object. Following Karin Knorr Cetina’s concept of object-centered sociality, he explains that social networks are not made up of people. Social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared social object [6]. In Instagram’s case, photos have been turned into objects of sociality. The users are socializing about the photos and by creating them they establish a social relationship with them.

Finally, when designing an application with the main goal of social interaction, the user should be offered some basic tools for social engagement. This can be achieved with the inclusion of comment spaces, thumbs-up/thumbs-down liking tools and a following function [5]. When it comes to Instagram, the user is given the ability to comment and like a photo. The liking function does not come in a thumbs-up/thumbs-down form, but in the form of a heart shaped liking button, in order to avoid the polarization of opinions. Finally, the users can express their interest in another user’s activities and objects by following them.


1. Instagram Blog.

2. Buchanan, Matt. 2013. Instagram And The Impulse To Capture Every Moment. Newyorker, June 20. Accessed September 9, 2013.

3. Swisher, Kara. 2013. The Money Shot. Vanity Fair, June. Accessed September 9, 2013.

4. Rusli, Evelyn M..2013. Instagram Pictures Itself Making Money. The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013.

5. Crumlish, Christian and Erin Malone. 2009. Designing social interfaces: principles, patterns, and practices for improving the user experience. O’Reilly Media.

6. Engeström, Jyri. 2005. Why some social network services work and others don’t – Or: the case for object-centered sociality. April 13, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013.

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