The powerful interaction design of Instagram stories

design дек. 14, 2019

It more than just following the principles

In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg wanted to buy Snapchat. Evan Spiegal (CEO and Co-Founder) declined. Snapchat was still a new kid on the block which had caught attention in the west, but had a notorious reputation, and Facebook was still a default.

In 2016, when Instagram introduced Stories, I didn’t understand why, I mean Instagram was for posts and we already had Snapchat! Snapchat was in its prime; from sharing mundane nuances like my food with a friend, to new comedians emerging from behind those AR filters, Snapchat was raging. For most of us, Snapchat was kind of a private space with selected friends. I dismissed Insta-stories on my first reflex, because who wanted to publish the banalities of my life to such a large audience.

In 2019, stories have become the omnipresent interaction tool of every app owned by Facebook (Instagram, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp), and now extending to other apps like YouTube and Google Photos, Spotify wrapped. Snapchat is the skeleton in everyone’s app drawer & Instagram is making more revenue from its ads on stories than on ads on its scroll.

What has made this simple interaction tool so powerful? It is all in the design of this highly addictive tool, psychologically engineered at every level to give a dopamine rush.

Capitalising on the smartphone

The first social media was on the web and engagement was primarily through a laptop or a desktop, but ever since smartphones came in, it’s been on our fingertips. By virtue of the smartphone’s form, content creation as well as consumption of picture based content has significantly risen. This is not just because of better cameras and their accessibility but also because of higher immersion with larger screen space. Thus a shift from predominantly text-based content which was more popular during the early days of the internet(blogs and forums) to picture based media (Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest).

Apart from technology enablement, cognitively too, its easier to consume images than attentively read text. Stories break away from the traditional gestalt’s principle of continuity, and engage with the user once story at a time, and allow deeper immersion in just 7 seconds (15 secs for a video), by using all of the screen space. Stories is one of the few interaction patterns that is built mobile first as compared to the scroll-based interaction which came as a legacy from the desktop.

Immersion in a story vs. a post

Power of Gestures

If you’d see the construct of the story-creator tool as well as the consumption tool, all buttons are transcluscent, unlike a loud CTA prompt. There is no forward or back button or even an arrow to indicate it, apart from the tiny timer on top. Almost all actions are under a derived from swipe gestures (legacy: Tinder), making them part of your muscle memory. This non-intrusiveness of buttons adds to the immersion into the picture, and reduce any cognitive overload of reading while posting or browsing.

The minimal photo editing filters are carefully sitting under swipes, rather than a carousel to pick from, so as to rely more on your intuition of what looks good or what doesn’t. All text additions are done from a limited range of fonts. Users not spending too much time editing is very likely to lead less abandonment of their …‘Snapsterpieces’, thus pushing users to create in a single frame rather than the three-step progressive disclosure format on Instagram posts.


In our minds, stories are effervescent and thus should be as spontaneous as possible. Its capturing our life in real-time from a party we attended to a flower we came across, as compared to old-school posts that are more r̶e̶t̶r̶o̶s̶p̶e̶c̶t̶i̶v̶e̶ throwback in nature. This allows anyone to put in anything, from badly sung songs from a karaoke party to morning selfies to EVERY moment from the vacation. You can put in anything and everything. (The side-effects of this have been talked about enough, so I’m not going there)

This removes a lot of psychological barriers on what image are users presenting a large audience and the judgement around it, and to what can be more acceptable on the content stream, thus giving higher freedom of content.

To build on top of this Instagram has added a range of other engagement formats allow you to take quizzes and polls or AMA’s which makes users not only contributing to their friends survey about Beach vs. Mountains but even ask their favourite celebs on ‘What is their opinion on XYZ matter’.

Because its always gonna be 7 seconds, its the perfect ad space for anything (even your own life), and from there you can redirect anyone with piked interested to other places like a blog or a youtube video and so on.

& Engagement

After all this picture taking, engagement is the reason, we’re posting in the first place; the dopamine rush to have anyone respond to your social cue makes the entire effort worthwhile. Stories optimise even there by going reaction-first and type second, which allow even passive observers to engage as quickly as possible rather than spend time typing in detail. Thus more reacts are created with ease.

But what if you didn’t get a react? Cause maybe the story was very meh? This too has been overcome, cause you know someone is watching from that tiny icon full of viewers. The impact of this icon is mighty though, as Instagram is a social media platform more than just a picture sharing one, it satiates the self-expression by validating visibility. So you know, that its never going to be that no one’s watching, and we do know that we like being watched when we can dictate the narrative

The unending content stream

The Unending Stream

By now you already know, that stories are a carousel of back-to-back full-frame pictures, where each user (& advertiser) add their frame to this unending carousel. You never run out of content because you’re looped to the start till someone adds something again. The frames move on their own, without you putting an effort (or thought) to scroll, and keep you raptured like watching a movie.
If something catches fancy, you can hold the frame for as long as you want, and you may want to do that, because maybe you won’t see this story again after it’s 24 hours. Because you never know how many stories will you be provided, you’re consumed by a FOMO, hooked in the truest sense, and thus making it the number one space for advertisers to reach to you.

So as you see, the design of stories could not have come up with a traditional approach but rather a highly technical understanding of psyche, cognition and hooking models, and a radical approach to design. This simple interaction tool is powerful and wicked genius at the same time, to enable a business of ads under the garb of a photo-sharing app .

Other Notes:

So I’ve talked a lot about how Instagram stories are designed to be addictive. And since enough has already been talked about the ‘act of picture-taking’ elsewhere, I wanted to talk about how the format of stories has leveraged a change in our behaviour.

Versatility of Progressive Disclosure

Since its onset, Instagram stories has undergone subtle changes but a lot of improvements came from how users started coming up with creative ways to use this space. The multiple story format allows you to use progressive disclosure, and I see ingenuity in how a lot of pro-hobbyists and media accounts are using it, to break large stories into small bytes of consumable information.

Listing a few of my favorites here:

  1. Comics by Evan Mc.Cohen
  2. Wired’s flow chart format in stories
  3. Atlantic’s weekly quiz
  4. Wired’s/ Atlantic’s/ New Yorker’s weekly headlines

Bye-Bye Landscapes

That meme is outdated, bro….

While on my recent vacation, I noticed a change of my behaviour towards taking pictures of vast sceneries, I held my phone in portrait mode, even for videos. Why? Because the portrait mode is the default layout for any phone. One may even observe a trend in video creators who have started working on vertical content because that meme has become outdated, and if we’re gonna see everything is portrait mostly, then it’s time to adapt.

About Highlights

While we’ve talked about effervescence of stories, there exist Highlights, which let you preserve certain memories forever on your profile, or share them as a post. The entire idea of preserving something for others to see it and form a perception of us, is the part of exhibitionism we’re indulging in. Because eventually, Instagram stories is the advertisement of our lives, and we want to build as well as dictate the narrative on who we want others to see us as, thus handpicking aspects of our own personality we like, be it hobby paintings or travel memories. Would it be surprising if in the future, the Instagram profile prioritises its layout towards highlights than posts? I don’t know yet, but won’t dismiss the possibility.

Highlights are forever…

What happens next?

Facebook is betting big on these stories, and we know that because there is a separate tab for it on WhatsApp and a lot more real-estate on Facebook than ever before. But does this push for replacing the scroll format entirely, just because it’s more engaging? Will there be a hybrid format which includes posts and stories? Only more time on Instagram can tell.

Thanks to Aditya Ganeshan.