Instagram Lite: A global collaboration between research and design

By Adam K.
8 min to read
March 29, 2022
Three detached mobile device screens display Instagram Lite in a fanned array above a phone.


See how teams in New York and Tel Aviv launched an app tailored to the needs of people in emerging markets.

We launched Instagram Lite in 172 countries and territories worldwide in 2021, bringing the Instagram Lite experience to people in emerging markets and enabling them to connect with friends, family and followers. Here, we share our journey of launching the app with teams halfway across the world amidst a pandemic and how we’re thinking about the future of Instagram Lite.

Our challenge

In the summer of 2019, we discovered that people on low-RAM (1.5GB or less) Android phones weren’t having the best Instagram experiences. When we looked closer, it was clear their experience of Instagram on these devices was slow, buggy and unreliable. We also learned that many people using low-RAM devices live in emerging markets like India, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America where, not only are the devices different, but so, too, are the needs of people in those areas—especially compared to people in the more developed markets on which Instagram had historically focused.

In short, we weren’t providing the same well-crafted Instagram experience to these people as we were for those who had easy access to Wi-Fi, speedy networks, low-to-no data constraints, and space on their devices for a plethora of apps.

Our mission

We kicked off an international collaboration between two teams within Meta: the Instagram Interfaces team in New York City and the Lite Interfaces team in Tel Aviv. The New York team would provide context about people who used Instagram in emerging markets, along with information on how to communicate its value to them. The Tel Aviv team would provide context about people who would use Instagram Lite, given their experience building Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite for the same low-RAM audience.

Our hypothesis was that by creating a lightweight, fast and reliable app, we would make Instagram more accessible to a new set of people whose device constraints might have prevented them from enjoying Instagram in the past.

By combining the design principles that make up Instagram’s DNA (People First, Simplicity and Craft) with the knowledge and expertise gathered over years working on Facebook Lite, we set off to build a fast and reliable Instagram that could let everyone in the world create, share, and be inspired.

Our approach

Generally, it’s easier to design products for people we’re most familiar with: ourselves. In developed markets, this often means tech-savvy people using high-powered, large-screened iOS and Android devices with always-on, reliable internet and unlimited data. However, this experience looks different for many in emerging markets.

Three family members wearing South Asian clothing ride a farming vehicle while one holds up a phone.

Family members in developing countries often share one device.

For example, many people in emerging markets use older, smaller, slower, low-RAM Android devices with low storage. Often, data can be expensive, connectivity can be spotty, and access to Wi-Fi (even within the home) can be limited or nonexistent. Family members often share devices with one another, causing many to prioritize apps from which the whole family can benefit. Digital literacy — the ability to understand technological norms like navigation, gestures, hyperlinks, and common iconography — may be poor for low-RAM device users, especially in people who are newer to the internet.

Designing for our people

One of our Instagram Lite design principles is that we have a responsibility to leave no one behind — and this includes people with lower digital literacy. For example, people new to the internet often rely on clear, explicit cues to understand how to use an app. Swipe gestures and words like "Feed" may seem obvious to some, but are completely foreign to others.

A mobile device screen's Previous and Next button animate near a headline that reads Tap arrows to move forward or back.

We combed each surface to uncover hidden gestures and implement more explicit cues.

For example, when designing the Stories Viewer for Instagram Lite, we learned that people new to the internet struggled to understand how to navigate Stories because the gesture navigation of taps and swipes were hidden. People were looking for visible prompts to tell them how to interact with the app and what to do next. We took several design variations to our researchers and found that people understood and preferred explicit arrow navigation controls.

Designing for speed

One of our core values at Instagram is a focus on craft. Well-crafted products should be not only pixel-perfect, but also intuitive and responsive — giving people a sense of agency and control over their experience.

When it comes to Instagram Lite, we believe that performance is a key aspect of craft. Unlike designing for Instagram on iOS or Android, where someone can lean on the power of hardware for processing-intensive transitions and gestures, when designing for Instagram Lite, we think a lot about how to design experiences that reduce the necessity of processing power. For example, we may remove animation in a few key areas such as Stories Viewer or Camera to deliver as performant an experience as possible.

Instagram Lite also provides touch feedback, the visual reaction displayed after someone taps a button or other on-screen interactive feature. The intention of this cue is to remove uncertainty about the app’s performance and to confirm a person’s action. For example, after a person creates a bio on Instagram Lite and taps the Save button, the button illuminates to confirm that the app is saving the bio text. This feedback is important because elements can take a significant time to load on slower networks.

An animated demonstration of Instagram Lite shows buttons providing visual touch feedback.

Visual touch-feedback on Instagram Lite.

Designing for smaller devices

Given that many low-RAM devices tend to have smaller screens, our entire Instagram Lite design system was built with these screens in mind. For example, we condense margins and generally aim for more information density. We're mindful not to bury calls to action and make sure to place important information higher on the screen to avoid it being cut off.

Two side-by-side mobile devices show the differences between the Instagram and Instagram Lite grid page.

Left: Instagram profile; right: Instagram Lite profile.

Collaboration, scaling design and building empathy

Collaborating across the world

We knew our collaboration was going to challenge our design teams based on opposite sides of the world, with a 7-to-10-hour time difference. As a brand new team in a 2019 pre-COVID world, we benefited from building relationships early on with lots of in-person interactions. The New York team brought context about Instagram’s values and priorities and the Tel Aviv team shared insights about the Lite user, given their experience building Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite for the same audience.

Despite spending a lot of time sharing knowledge early on, we knew we were going to have to do well at asynchronous collaboration since the majority of our time would be spent remotely (little did we know...).

A screen from Workplace on a mobile device shows a post requesting design feedback from a Meta employee.

A screen from Workplace.

Our internal, work-focused Meta product is called Workplace, and we used Workplace Groups a lot — often sharing our designs through written posts. Posting in an open Workplace Group allowed us to “design in the open” and articulate our thought process to stakeholders and anyone in our company who was interested in following along. This provided transparency to our stakeholders and allowed them to provide feedback on design concepts. Our weekly New York and Tel Aviv design critiques over video chat were another key forum where we solicited feedback from our design partners.

Scaling design

We wrote our own design principles for Lite interfaces to scale design and guide our work. We also built our design library from scratch. Luckily, we were able to translate many components over from the Instagram Android app, but we took care to optimize for small screens, make cues clearer and incorporate learnings from Facebook Lite and other projects. Also, we were one of the first teams on Instagram to use Figma to house our library, which helped us maintain consistency and a high bar for craft across the app.

Four design mockups of Instagram Lite screens.

A glimpse into Instagram Lite's design system.

Building empathy

To stay in the mindset of the people who would use Instagram Lite, we all used low-RAM Android devices to test our designs. We also regularly leveraged monthly remote research sessions in India to put designs and prototypes in front of people to gather feedback and build empathy.

Influence of the Facebook mental model

Qualitative user experience (UX) research revealed that new-to-Instagram participants’ mental model of Instagram Lite was heavily influenced by the Facebook “friending” model, including their expectation that all accounts required “friend/follow” acceptance rather than a public vs. private account model. When some people saw Feed for the first time, they thought each post was a friend request or a notification of a friend request.

Non-Instagram participants preferred visible controls and interaction elements such as messaging and reacting because they created experiences similar to those they had on Facebook. Gestural interactions were less successful because they were invisible by nature and difficult to uncover without guided support.

Language changes following cognitive testing

We found that Instagram iconography and terminology was not well understood by non-Instagram users. For example, the word “Feed” was most associated with the term and icon for “Home.” Most assumed “Follow” meant the same thing as a “Friend request.”

Because of these research findings, our content design team continues to be extremely conscious of how we refer to the surfaces in the app. We don't use "Feed" and try to avoid "Explore," instead using more descriptive language that's interface- agnostic. For example, when driving new users with low follower counts to the "Explore" tab, instead of the word “Explore,” we use "Watch videos, browse photos and search for accounts you might like” or “Discover trends and find accounts you might like.”

Looking forward

We’ve come a long way, but our journey is just beginning. We launched globally in early 2021, and early signal shows that by giving people access to IG Lite, we’ve been able to lower the barrier to entry on Instagram for a significant population in the world.

“I can download fast. The videos open fast. This is the best thing about the app.”

- Instagram Lite teen user, India

Going forward, we still have major obstacles to overcome, and many opportunities for unique Lite-specific solutions. But we couldn’t be more excited to keep working on a product for our next billion users.

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