The Instagram Redesign for Reels and Shop, Learnings from the Auto Industry

comparing instagram UI before, in between and after the transition to reels and shop

Instagram recently did a big redesign of the app. UI and especially UX changed significantly. Many complained, as usual. The interesting part to me is how Instagram rolled out the new interface and the new user experience. It got me thinking.

Let’s rewind back to 1860. The automotive industry was born. The beginning was humble. Companies built horseless carriages, not cars. It took many iterations until cars became a thing much later. One hundred years later, the GUI (Graphical User Interface) was born. Think about SRI International–Xerox PARC and all the mind blowing work that took place back then. Baby steps with GUI on screens by amazing people. Computers like the Macintosh came later.

Back to cars now and the folks in Detroit and Japan. They had plenty of time to figure out how to build cars and how to introduce them. They refined their product and strategy to the point a car sparked emotions. Imagine that. Metal, oil and color would make people see character and soul in the combined mix. Model after model after model. Cars were getting better and better in a mostly linear, approachable, familiar yet exciting way.

Slowly but steadily, every new model would carry along the heritage of the previous model and iterate on the vision for the future. Think about familiar evolution, with guest appearances of familiar revolution, rather than knee jerked polarizing newness.

Let’s have a quick look at a car that provoked lots of emotions and has been around for a while. The Honda Civic (thanks Tim Stevens). The first two generations look almost identical, but the newer model had changed. Third gen introduced some strong visual changes but kept the essence of what made a Civic as Civic. Fourth generation honored third gen, but pushed design in a different direction. You get the idea. It’s all new and same from generation to generation but in hindsight the evolution is remarkable.


There is a reason for that. People don’t like changes. We like the familiar because we feel we are in control. We react strongly to change because it’s different. Especially when we feel we put time and effort into something, but suddenly someone flips a switch and makes it different. Our muscle memory spasms. It’s painful. It’s against our mental model of the world, our motor skills and more.

Some companies know how to deal with this pain and smooth things out. Instagram is one of them. They nailed it with introducing Reels and Shop to the primary screen. They changed the UI and UX, but they did so smartly.

First they changed the Instagram logo (smaller and to the left) and refined the icons. The new yet familiar UI replaced the old one. No-one complained about it. This minor change stayed active for a few days. It was the intermediate step until to make the big upcoming change feel less severe. Only after this transition period the new UI appeared. With the new logo and icons in place, Instagram “only” had to move some icons and replace others. Checkmate.

People complained, as expected, but not much, neither for long. As an outsider, I cannot say if the transition was butter smooth. I don’t have any data. I just have a feeling it went pretty well. The execution of such a major change was ingenious. Instagram’s team had to show a modal explaining some changes, but that was “minor” in retrospect.

As UI and UX designers, we can learn a lot from other industries that at a first glance appear alien to digital product design. The auto industry does this very well, while people pay thousands of dollars to buy and use a car. Delivering familiar evolution model after model. It seems Instagram did the same thing for a digital product and a billion people. That’s something quite remarkable.

P.S Finally restored the images.