Airplane != Message

A few weeks ago, I was on the Instagram app (for iPhone) and ran across into a user interface snafu. When I went to revisit a private message from a friend, I just didn’t find where the inbox lived. After a frustrating time clicking what I thought was every obvious button on the app, I went to Twitter for the answer, and luckily, a friend helped me out within a few minutes.

It turns out that with the latest Instagram update, they changed the messages icon from a very practical picture of a message or card box to a picture of an… airplane?

practical message icon

non practical airplane icon

I am all about icons, especially when dealing with the small real estate that you get with a phone app, but one of the most important things when dealing with interfaces is to create clear, usable design affordances.

It turns out, you can swipe left to get to your Instagram messages or click on the airplane, but that was certainly not intuitive for this tech savvy millennial user, leaving me frustrated. Instagram is a beautiful app with few distractions that puts its content first. It doesn’t overwhelm the user with a ton of complex features, making it easy to use. However, when an app has such few features, they need to be spot on.

Icons on the web are cultural and learned quickly- the 3 line hamburger menu has become fairly ubiquitous, a picture of a house typically means home, and a picture of a letter usually means email or message. They help reduce clutter, can transcend the written language, and add some visual variety overall.

Instagram’s message icon (the airplane) is identical to the icon you can use to share content on the app (see below). While I get the connection Instagram is trying to draw between the two features, it falls a little short. To me, an airplane means “send” or “go,” not a place of storage.

Icons are powerful, but designers need to be careful about how they are used. Maybe one day the airplane icon will be synonymous with an inbox, but today is not that day. Not that I can speak for all, but I imagine most users would prefer clarity of function over ambiguity of icons even if it means adding a bit more clutter to the screen. When in doubt, a simple word (messages, inbox, etc) describing the feature would have done the trick and saved a bunch of time.

Heres a Ted talk about the process of redesigning the Facebook “like” button: How Giant Companies Design For You.