Instagram vs Quora and the Battle for Attention

The past couple of months I  (like many others) have found two new social media services to play with: Quora, a social question-and-answer platform, and Instagram, a social photo-sharing application. It’s early days for both, but I’m already seeing some interesting lessons being learned from these two new entrants to the social space.

Okay, it’s unfair to pit Quora against Instagram, they’re two totally different services. But they are both social platforms, and they do both compete for our attention in a time when attention is becoming increasingly scarce.

So my view so far: Instagram is working, Quora isn’t. Here’s why.

It’s all about simplicity

In a recent blog post, Om Malik offers three things that a hit consumer internet service needs to be a success:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Be simple to use
  • Be fun to use

I agree, but if we really want to boil it down, success relies on just one of those things: simplicity.

With the abundance of information reaching unprecedented levels, any social offering will need to be increasingly simple. That means simplicity across the whole spectrum, from the proposition to the user interface; easy to understand, easy to learn, easy to use, easy to share and easy to fit into your life.

As a user experience designer I’ve adopted ‘simplicity’ as something of a mantra. Giles Colborne, Managing Director of cxparnters, has written an excellent book on interaction design called Simple and Usable, which provides many great examples of ‘compelling simplicity’.  (As an aside I’m looking forward to Giles bringing these thoughts to bear in his presentation on Publishing on the iPad at the next Digital Breakfast that I’ve been organising with the APA).

So it’s on the principle of simplicity that I judge new services like Quora and Instagram.

Simplifying the user experience

Let’s start with Quora. It’s s a straightforward proposition – ask questions and provide answers to people in your social graph. But the experience itself is more complicated. I find myself wondering: who should I be following? How can I be sure that the answers are valid? How can I filter out the noise? And how can I get real value from this service with minimum effort?

There are voting mechanisms and other pieces in place to ensure that Quora answers some of these issues, but for me it’s still not entirely ‘flowing’ and simplicity is compromised. And it’s not just me – even early advocate Robert Scoble is having his doubts.

Instagram on the other hand is a joyfully simple experience. Once you’ve loaded the app on your iPhone the rest becomes second nature. Take pictures, ‘treat’ them with easy to use filters, then share them with others. Ratings and comments are a bonus and they don’t add complexity.

Of course the photo sharing proposition is not a new one – we’ve been able to share pictures on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and many other social platforms for a long time now.

But there’s something about the distillation of the photo sharing experience on Instagram that makes it so compelling. It’s a classic case of ‘less is more’. The noise I’ve experienced on other social platforms here becomes not only bearable but inspirational. The more great pictures I see the more I’m inspired to create my own.

And that’s the point – Instagram is an inherently creative experience, arguably the best social creativity tool yet created.

What’s remarkable is that Instagram has been hugely successful despite shortfalls in other areas, such as its poor website and iPhone-only application (see ReadWriteWeb’s post 7 reasons why Instagram should not have hit 1 million users in 10 weeks). Or maybe that’s part of its strength – the creators have focused entirely on creating a compellingly simple user experience, and the rest is just gravy.

There are other lessons in the Instagram success too, principally around agile methodology and small team development – see Robert Scoble’s excellent post on Why Google can’t build Instagram.

Of course none of this guarantees it long term success. Many other factors come into play for that to be assured. But right now it provides a stark example of how, when designing for the user experience, simplicity wins.