Digital Design: Instagram and the Pursuit of Beautiful New Things

For some Silicon Valley companies, the mantra is: “Slap code together, design a quick user interface, and get it to market.” And above all, as Mark Zuckerberg would remind us, “Keep shipping.”

In the very near future, such talk will probably give Instagram founder Kevin Systrom heartburn. That’s because Systrom thinks designing software code should be an inspired effort, just like the delectable creations of top chefs around the world.

When it comes to digital products, the idea that form follows function is being tossed out the window. As a New York Timearticle describes, it’s no longer necessary to simply examine a digital device or application to discern what it does. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a sense of beauty and simplicity necessary for digital products. In fact, the goal for software engineers designing best-in-class digital products is to build instinctive and intuitive applications and devices.

Perhaps that’s why Kevin Systrom’s Instagram was worth one billion dollars to Facebook. As noted in a Financial Times article titled, “The Aesthete of Silicon Valley Who Makes Photos Beautiful,” Systrom is obsessed with building things that are inherently beautiful.  Systrom says great chefs who painstakingly labor over their creations and add high-quality ingredients despite potentially higher costs inspire him. “The things we’re creating solve a need,” he says, “but in the meantime, they should be visually stimulating and fun to interact with.”

An obsessive personality, Systrom would likely have been a better disciple of Steve Jobs rather than of his new boss, Mark Zuckerberg. “Kevin notices the details that most of us don’t notice,” says Clara Shih, a friend of Systrom. “He’s a slow walker and lets himself get distracted. He takes time not just to smell the roses but to analyze the roses and think about the detail.”

Technological advances are coming so fast that it takes us a long time to assimilate all the benefits of each product and service. For example, software companies are notorious for rolling out hundreds of new features in each release, only to have customers use very few.

As our digital lives get inevitably more complicated, there will be an insatiable customer requirement for simplicity and aesthetic beauty. And as user interfaces get more cluttered, clarity in purpose and design will drive market share (as Google can attest). Indeed, the elegance of a single search box—unencumbered by advertising—is one reason Google has the lion’s share of search requests.

Instead of focusing on additional features that users will probably never use, digital companies of all stripes perhaps should aim for a crisper design and greater ease of use.

Ultimately, making digital products easier to use takes a long time in discerning and studying user behaviors, capturing those learnings, and using them to design better and more intuitive devices and interfaces. However, much like how top culinary chefs take the time to use better ingredients and obsess over the tiniest details in presenting their creations, digital creators will need to endeavor to stress the small stuff.

For digital consumers, naturalness, comfort, and fit will matter more in the near future. And thoughtfulness in terms of design and ease of use will be the next generation of differentiation for digital companies.

Finally, there’s been a bit of stress for Instagram users now that Facebook has purchased the company. Despite Facebook saying it will run the company independently, plenty of users fret that Instagram will lose its touch. However, wouldn’t it be something if Systrom didn’t end up leaving Facebook after all and instead became the company’s Jonathan Ive? It could end up being a “magical” pairing.

Has Personalized Filtering Gone Too Far?

Too much Information

In a world of plenty, algorithms may be our saving grace as they map, sort, reduce, recommend, and decide how airplanes fly, packages ship, and even who shows up first in online dating profiles. But in a world where algorithms increasingly determine what we see and don’t see, there’s danger of filtering gone too far.

The global economy may be a wreck, but data volumes keep advancing. In fact, there is so much information competing for our limited attention, companies are increasingly turning to compute power and algorithms to make sense of the madness.

The human brain has its own methods for dealing with information overload. For example, think about millions of daily input the human eye receives and how it transmits and coordinates information with our brain. A task as simple as stepping a shallow flight of stairs takes incredible information processing. Of course, not all received data points are relevant to the task of walking a stairwell, and thus the brain must decide which data to process and which to ignore. And with our visual systems bombarded with sensory input from the time we wake until we sleep, it’s amazing the brain can do it all.

But the brain can’t do it all—especially not with the onslaught of data and information exploding at exponential rates. We need what author Rick Bookstaber calls “artificial filters,” computers and algorithms to help sort through mountains of data and present the best options. These algorithms are programmed with decision logic to find needles in haystacks, ultimately presenting us with more relevant choices in an ocean of data abundance.

Algorithms are at work all around us. Google’s PageRank presents us relevant results—in real time—captured from web server farms across the globe. sorts through millions of profiles, seeking compatible profiles for subscribers. And Facebookshows us friends we should “like.”

But algorithmic programming can go too far. As humans are more and more inundated with information, there’s a danger in turning over too much “pre-cognitive” work to algorithms. When we have computers sort friends we would “like”, pick the most relevant advertisements or best travel deals, and choose ideal dating partners for us, there’s a danger in missing the completely unexpected discovery, or the most unlikely correlation of negative one. And even as algorithms “watch” and process our online behavior and learn what makes us tick, there’s still a high possibility that results presented will be far and away from what we might consider “the best choice.”

With a data flood approaching, there’s a temptation to let algorithms do more and more of our pre-processing cognitive work. And if we continue to let algorithms “sort and choose” for us – we should be extremely careful to understand who’s designing these algorithms and how they decide. Perhaps it’s cynical to suggest otherwise, but in regards to algorithms we should always ask ourselves, are we really getting the best choice, or getting the choice that someone or some company has ultimately designed for us?

*  Rick Bookstaber makes the case that personalized filters may ultimately reduce human freedom. He says, “If filtering is part of thinking, then taking over the filtering also takes over how we think.” Are there dangers in too much personalized filtering?

Marketing “The Shack”

The New York Times says The Shack has been a “surprise best seller.” Published in over 30 languages around the world, The Shack now has over 7 million copies in print and ranked first on the New York Times best seller list for 70 weeks. Some might argue the success of The Shack derives from effective use of traditional and social media marketing efforts. However with most book titles struggling to sell 1,000 copies, might there be something more to the success of The Shack than just good marketing technique?

Written by William Paul Young, The Shack was intended as simply a story for Young’s children and a few family friends. After reading the book, friends encouraged Young to send his novel to publishing companies. However, after rejection by more than 15 publishing companies, Young decided his book probably wasn’t ready for a wider audience. That is, until his friends banded together to form their own publishing company for The Shack.

In an attempt to not spoil the plot, The New York Times writes that The Shack is a “slim paperback novel … about a grieving father who meets God in the form of a jolly African-American woman.” And while the content of the book have made for lively debate on talk shows, religious forums and book clubs, Mr. Young states that The Shack was simply meant as a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain.”

With a mere $15,000 for an initial publishing run and a “starter” $300 marketing budget, The Shack became an instant phenomenon as buyers passed the book to friends, and others purchased cases through Young’s website.

And while controversy may have helped create awareness of The Shack, one would be remiss not to appreciate marketing efforts for the best seller.

In addition to use of traditional media to spur sales such as book signings, speaking engagements and website development, publisher Windblown Media also made extensive use of social media.

For example, a specific and bold call to action asked readers to visit The Shack website and share their own personal experiences after reading the book. In addition to an author blog, website visitors could join a Flickr group to share pictures of “beauty,” sign up for email updates, become a fan on Facebook and follow author tweets.

Also of significance, the marketing campaign accessed terrific word of mouth techniques, as the author encouraged readers to share the book with friends, blog about The Shack, buy books for women’s shelters and prisons, and even write reviews for local papers, magazines and websites.

The results? While some authors clamor for even 10 reviews of their book on, The Shack racked up over 4,000! A cursory review of Amazon’s listing shows that the book definitely struck nerves, sparked controversy, and deeply touched readers.

While Paul Young and Windblown Media certainly employed traditional and effective marketing techniques to maximum effect, selling seven million books is no small potatoes. Indeed, The Shack reached a tipping point then quickly accelerated to become an international sensation.

The question remains, why? Is success of The Shack due to marketing, or is there something more?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!