Bugs in the Wild is a case study series where I identify live internet bugs and propose product redesigns.
Instagram’s setting page lists a feature where users can toggle “Hide Inappropriate Comments” to hide offensive comments on Instagram. Here’s what it looks like on desktop and mobile web:
There’s a distinction between the native app platform (the Instagram application that you download to your phone) and the web platform (www.instagram.com viewed in a desktop or mobile browser). Separate engineering implementations across these platforms can result in disjoint feature sets.
The first, most apparent issue is inconsistent messaging across the platforms.
On web, the Instagram settings option reads “Hide Inappropriate Comments” versus the native app’s message “Hide Offensive Comments.” The description text below the title is even more dissimilar. Instagram should display consistent messaging across its various platforms for the same toggle options.
However, there’s a deeper, functional issue.
The Offensive Comments toggle doesn’t actually sync across platforms. What does this mean? If I turn the toggle on in my web browser, it won’t switch it on in my app, and vice versa. A user may see a very different Instagram feed depending on their access point, even when authenticated into the same account, if their toggles are unsycned.
First, we should ask if this is an issue at all. Perhaps users prefer to have disjoint settings between their phone and their desktop. For instance, maybe a concerned parent has turned on the safety toggle for the phone to prevent their child from accessing inappropriate content. That same parent might not mind if their desktop web access point has inappropriate content.
However, it’s unlikely that this was a deliberate decision on Instagram’s part. The vast majority of users would expect this setting to synchronize across their entire Instagram experience, and it’s confusing for users that view different experiences on their different access points.
We haven’t even yet discussed the engineering complexity of maintaining two separate toggles for the different platforms. The right solution: the toggle should be consistently associated with users’ authenticated profiles.
We have a simple solution, but the task of synchronizing this setting isn’t so straightforward.
A smart, low-cost approach could be to simply remove the web-accessed toggle, which forces users to access this setting only in their mobile app. While this may be a reasonable approach, Instagram still needs to make some decision for the users who have an unsynchronized toggle. Let’s take a look at the four cases that a user might be in.
In the top-left and bottom-right quadrants, Instagram doesn’t have to change much. The user already has their toggle setting synchronized. Instagram can synchronize the setting behind the scenes, and the users’ experience on the platform won’t change.
Note: It might be worth considering communicating this decision to users if Instagram believes users who toggle this setting on/off have learned to expect the disjoint behavior. However, this is unlikely, and is better deprioritized.
However, if our users are in one of the other two cases, we’ll need to take action. Should Instagram default the toggle to Hide Inappropriate Comments ON or Hide Inappropriate Comments OFF?
As you might guess, the right move is the conservative action: if the user has the safe setting turned on in one of their platforms, we should turn it on for the other one and synchronize the setting. If this decision is unclear, just imagine the frustration of a user who thought they had set Instagram to be safe, and then saw inappropriate content in their feed.
Communicating To Users
We’ve come a long ways from identifying the simple toggle bug, but we’re not quite done yet. Safety is a sensitive and delicate feature, and many users may be frustrated if safety settings are changed under the hood without notice.
It’s important to communicate these changes to the user, and offer users the ability to modify the setting. Instagram should notify the user on the setting-adjusted platform about the setting change, and let them know what exactly has happened.
Here’s a simple example below for how Instagram could message this to users who had their web safety toggle off, but their native app safety toggle on (the bottom-left quadrant).
This notice might appear on the page for one or two views, and then disappear.
Now, we’ve developed a full product proposal for how to deal with a user setting migration. Of course, in an actual implementation, all stakeholders should be involved in the product decision, including engineering, UI/UX, PM, and leadership. This blog post somewhat closely maps to a Product Requirements Document (PRD) — a common document created by tech product managers.
To Instagram — I hope this blog post is useful in some way, but I’m also sure your company has quite a few other tasks to focus on at this point. To others — I hope this simple example can demonstrate some of the work and thought that goes into product management and user experience decisions.