“What the hell are they thinking?”

I mouthed this very thought almost audibly when I saw the latest November 2020 Instagram update on my Android phone. How does such a mature company take something working so well, and then screw it up?

Well, after some investigation, I discovered that Instagram is testing some design variations. This is a normal usability practice, especially for consumer applications when you have enough of a user base to gather meaningful information about behavior.

It plays out like this: Instagram has multiple new layout options and/or other changes to evaluate, and randomly chooses certain user accounts to experience a specific variant. They collect data on how people experience the variant versus the control (the previous experience). That data is evaluated and used to determine which variation, if any, to eventually implement for all users.

Now, here’s where Instagram made a mistake. Many Instagram users have multiple accounts, any of which can be accessed by switching between them in the app. So when Instagram rolled out their experiment, they didn’t take into consideration that one person may have multiple accounts. I am one of these people, as I maintain four Instagram accounts.

Four different experiences in the same app!

As luck would have it, each of my accounts had a different design variant. Below are screenshots of the four variations I experienced, with the content in between cropped out to focus on the header at the top, and the main navigation buttons at the bottom:

This is a game of which one of these is not like the other, but in fact, every one differs from the other, either with the icons, their layout position, or both.

Usability testing gone wrong

It took me days to figure out what Instagram was doing, and why I had very different experiences in the same application. Before then, I thought Instagram had simply lost their minds. Most other users probably are not aware of this type of testing, and therefore may still be bewildered why their app seems to have suddenly blown a gasket.

Instagram’s testing plan reflects poorly on them as a brand. We can take a lesson from this:

Negative user experiences leads to confusion, which impact the professionalism and trust in a brand.

Design impacts brand, either positively or negatively. In this case, even though the confusion was the result of poor usability test planning, it still diminished trust in the brand.