Asynchronous Callbacks: For the Gram

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science is not ‘I found it!’ but ‘hmm, that’s odd?” – Issac Asimov

Sometimes creating great user experience is about clearly defining what you can’t control and leveraging engineering feasibility to build something that seems amazing. Twilio founder Jeff Lawson wrote in Ask Your Developer about the power of have an engineering mindset to innovate. In it he explains:

“A software person isn’t necessarily about being a developer but about when faced with a problem asking ‘How can technology solve this?’. It’s because being a software person is a mindset. It’s not a skill set. Software mindset starts by listening to customers, rapidly building potential solutions to their problems, getting real feedback and then constantly iterating to improve. With this constant progression, anyone can apply a software mindset to solve more and more of the world’s problems.”

Marty Cagan of Silicon Valley Product Group wrote that being able to include engineering perspectives is the single greatest contributor to building disruptive technology.

Kevin Systrom was a photography enthusiast who worked at Odeo while in college and later would work for Google.  While he was at Google he started a social media-type app called Burbn that included many functions including photo-sharing.  At a party he met Marc Andreesen and Ben Horowitz [the OG VC Bruhs!] and told them about his app.  They agreed to give him 500k in seed money to see where he could take it.  Given his love for photography he decided to focus in on that aspect of the idea.  He had a few family and friends use the app in private beta and their feedback would guide the problems he would conquer next. 

Two things his “users” were telling him.  First, most of them didn’t share as many photos because one user’s photos looked so much better.  That user was using a camera that had features allowing him to make them vintage looking and from there the idea of filters was born.  Kevin figured out how to apply similar filters to photos by shifting the RGB values and now everyone could easily touch up their pics.

Second, the photos took too long to load. Kevin and the other 2 people he had working with him at this point were not telecom or network engineers or anything close so they knew there was very little they could do about the speed.  The answer they came up with was such a simple, subtle thing but became the UX magic they needed.  When a user would upload a photo, they would immediately open the text box for them to “caption it”.  In the background the photo was asynchronously uploading.  It took most people 10-15 seconds to type a caption and most photos could be uploaded in 15-20 seconds at the time.  This gave the user the impression that the app was much faster than any other social media platforms at the time.

If you don’t know who Kevin Systrom is, he founded Instagram and when they launched on October 6, 2010 they racked up 25,000 users in the first day.  The company Kevin interned at, Odeo, would go on to become Twitter and Jack Dorsey funded part of their Series A round in February of 2011.  In April of 2012, they sold Instagram.  At the time the company had just 13 employees and they sold to Facebook for $1 billion.

By listening to his users and solving 2 (seemingly now) simple problems, they brought a product to life in a rapid form.  The moral here is to never stop listening and ideating.  Sometimes the big bang effect you’re looking for happens from very subtle moments.  If you want to hear move about Kevin’s story and what he’s up to these days, check out his recent interview on Lex Friedman’s podcast  [Side bar, Lex Friedman is one of the coolest AI researchers you’ll ever listen too, his pod is great!]

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