Insta-Strength: Modularity and Usability of Instagram

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Arguably one of the most influential and oldest of the apps is Instagram. Started back in October 2010, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger created the platform for friends can post and share photos on an online community. Fast forward almost a decade later and Instagram has influenced almost every aspect of society. It has made people famous, infamous; it is one of the worst apps for our mental health yet the best for promotion and branding. By de-blackboxing Instagram, we can gain insight into the modular design principles and systems thinking behind the application.

If you decompose Instagram it interacts with multiple other applications or “modules” (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, your contacts, and Camera Roll). Each of these “subsystems have specific set of functions that makes a system what it is by combination” (Irvine). Lidwell talks about “chunking” and “flexibility-usability tradeoff” as universal design principles and I believe the Instagram creators incorporated those ideas in the foundational architecture of the application. The app combines a large data system essentially for said user of the application- all of their contacts from their phone or Facebook, their external social media information and most importantly their photos. Together, this information is re-grouped and organized in a user-friendly format solely focusing on pictures (instead of Facebook which is rather generalized). As Lidwell explains, “[a]s an audience comes to understand the range of possible needs that can be satisfied, their needs become better defined and, consequently, the designs need to become more specialized. This shift from flexibility toward specialization over time is a general pattern observed in the evolution of all systems, and should be considered in the life cycle of products” (Lidwell, p. 86).

The benefits and efficiencies of modular design can be seen in this case study where the components within Instagram are spread yet interoperate according to design specifications (Irvine). Take for instance something that cannot be seen by the human eye- the algorithm behind your personal Instagram feed. Instagram revealed that there are three main factors that determine what you see in your Instagram feed: Interest (how much you will care about the post), Timeliness (how recent the posts are) and Relationship (whether you regularly interact with the account). On the other hand, there are three other factors that have a minimal effect on your ranking; Frequency (how often you open Instagram), Following (content from all accounts you follow) and Usage (how long a user spends on Instagram) {}.

instagram algorithmInstagram Algorithm - Feed Before and After

There are also “silent rules of Instagram” or according to Anna McNaught “The Unwritten Rules of Instagram: Do’s and Don’ts.” I knew a few on these lists like “be mindful of posting times” and there a lot of studies on when is the “best” time to post (mornings vs. evenings???). It’s crazy how much we get wrapped up in this idea- there are even platforms for you to optimize on your Instagram following (like Later). Here are a few Do’s and Dont’s for Instagram:


Martin Irvine, Introduction to Modularity and Abstraction Layers (Intro essay).

Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill ButlerUniversal Principles of Design. Revised. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2010.

How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2018: Everything You Need to Know