Environment vs. Service – Twitter 4.0


Twitter has released their latest iPhone app version 4.0.

This was a complete redesign and re-imagination of what Twitter is. As with any redesign feathers were ruffled, specifically those of nerds/power-users/geeks/tech bloggers the world round. I include myself in that category, so I understand the outrage.

Really though, it’s a lost cause, and it’s misguided.

Before I go any further, let’s take a look at what Twitter changed.

Out with the old…

Gone are the usual Timeline, Mentions, Messages, and Search tabs. They have been replaced with Home, Connect, Discover. Home is where you’ll find the familiar Timeline view, which has itself undergone some design changes. The Connect tab does more than just replace Mentions. Now, Interactions include almost any activity someone has with you on Twitter such as follows, mentions, RTs, addition to a list, etc. There remains a dedicated Mentions section within Connect. Discover includes Stories (tweets and links about a trend), Trends, Who to follow and search functions. Kept in the Me tab are your DMs, lists and other profile details.

What’s important about all of these changes? By removing the familiar interactions and replacing them with new ones, Twitter is attempting to change the way its users interact with it. Twitter’s working on a paradigm change here, much like Facebook did just a couple months ago, and people were outraged then too.

How dare you change my Twitter!

Let’s take a look at a couple of the negative reactions following the Twitter update.

John Gruber mourns the death of Tweetie, what used to be the gold-standard of iPhone Twitter clients. He admits that what Tweetie presented (timeline, mentions, messages) was, to him, exactly what Twitter was about. Combine that with the simple, clear design, and that’s why he loved it.

Now that Tweetie has been laid to rest, he proceeds to file his list of complaints. The Connect tab is too complex. He writes off the Discover tab as pointless and full of “complication and conceptual mushiness.” Me is “the conceptual carpet under which Twitter swept everything that didn’t fit under ‘Home’, ‘Connect’, or ‘Discover’.” He notes that all over the app are slight design flaws and UI inconsistencies. He also laments the hidden nature of Direct Messages.

I understand most of Gruber’s gripes. I really do. What I don’t get is why he is so fixated on comparing it to Tweetie. Tweetie’s been dead for well over a year. What did you expect, John? Did you really think that giant Twitter was going to stay true to Loren Brichter’s intent for Tweetie? I would hope not. Twitter is no longer an indie service for tech-obsessed nerds like us. It’s a worldwide juggernaut with hundreds of millions of users. It’s becoming more and more mainstream by the day. More on this later.

Furthermore, normal people don’t care too much about complication or “conceptual mushiness.” A power-user’s definition of complex is very different from that of a normal user. Normal users don’t care about the concept of a tab. They care what’s in it. Connect tab has your mentions. Discover has trends. Me has your profile. Complicated? Hardly.

As for Direct Messages, I don’t think they’re very popular, and I’m not alone The proof is in the placement. If Twitter’s metrics were telling them that they’re widely used by a bulk of their user base, I’d like to think that they would have kept them front-and-center. I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that the overwhelming majority of my normal user friends have never-to-rarely used DMs.

Moving on.

Brent Simmons takes issue with the tab labels (Home, Connect, Discover, Me). To him, Connect and Discover scream marketing speak, too abstract and lacking in meaning. He even goes as far to say that people don’t use Twitter to connect and discover. These words are not trivial. “Words are as important as graphics and animation. Words are part of the user interface.”

Before I disagree with Brent, a disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be a UI expert, but Brent is. I know very little about marketing or user interaction. I’m looking at this from a “normal user” perspective.

While I agree that words are important, I don’t think they’re of primary importance. Brent’s right is saying that tab names are hints. Users might need these hints at first use, but that’s it. After that, they’ll associate Mentions or Messages with their location, not the name of the tab. Thus, the tab names lose their significance. Even at first use, I would argue that the names don’t make as much of an impact as Brent claims. There are only four options. A normal user isn’t going to look at the tab bar and be confused, especially because the familiar @ and # icons are still there. A normal user couldn’t care less that Connect and Discover lack meaning. You could name them whatever you want. A normal user doesn’t care what it’s called; they care what’s there. Where do I go to find my mentions? Where do I go to find those hashtag thingies? That’s what counts.

Regarding the claim that people don’t use Twitter to connect and discover, I think he’s dead wrong. I use it to connect and discover, though I may not call it that. My favorite part about Twitter are the interactions and conversations I get to have on a daily basis with people that are physically and socially separate from me. I love finding links, tips, and cool things from my favorite writers. I’d call that connecting and discovering. Sean Sperte agrees.

“I’d like to humbly suggest that [Brent’s] wrong. That’s exactly what people want to do. That’s why they use Twitter.”

Right on, Sean.

Whether you agree with me or not, you can’t deny that Twitter is headed for somewhere new. This new vision doesn’t seem to consider us geeks. Gone are familiar gestures. Gone is quick access to DMs. So be it.

Throughout this article, I’ve attempted to look at it from a “normal” user’s perspective. I should know, at least to some extent, how normal users approach Twitter. I’m married to one. I work with a lot of them. I have maybe two friends who are as tech-obsessed as I am.

We must remember that we are the minority here. Twitter does not need to design and develop for power users because we aren’t their main customer. ((I’m aware that we are not really Twitter’s customers. We’re their product. Hat tip to Nathaniel Mott.)) The normal user is. It’ easy for us to forget that, living within our tech-centric Twitter and RSS feeds.

Normal users don’t care about gestures. Heck, they probably didn’t even know swipe-to-act existed. ((Sorry, Ben.)) As I’ve said, normal users don’t care about DMs. Normal users might care about Discover a lot more than we do.

Cody Fink said it incredibly well,

“Look at how big Twitter has gotten in the past couple of years. You can’t turn on a news channel without seeing an @username or a #hashtag. Public media organizations are asking their audiences to engage with them online. People are joining Twitter all the time and I think the big question for them is, “What do I get out of this?”

Twitter designed Twitter for iPhone 4.0 for those people, not the power user.

In reality, it doesn’t change much for me, as I am madly, deeply, hopelessly in love with Tweetbot. I actually had to re-install the official Twitter app before I wrote this. However, I think the app does clue us in to where Twitter is headed down the line.

Twitter began as a nerd-focused service. Up until this year, it was confusing and ridiculous to the outside world. ((Living in a college town of 45,000+ students, I noticed that even among college kids, who are usually very quick to adopt new trends, I got laughed at for having a Twitter.)) Now, it’s a global social enterprise that’s catching on like wildfire. Naturally, Twitter needs more users to keep growing, and that’s what they’re shooting for. They’re turning a social service into an ecosystem. Shawn Blanc sees this clearly,

“Now it’s about an entire platform where you connect with all sorts of people and brands, and where you find your news and stories and topics of discussion from the greater Twitter community. Twitter has a new model and it’s not nearly as centered around 140 characters as it used to be.”

I’m intrigued to see where Twitter goes, both as a user and a spectator. I hope they keep the core functions of Twitter alive, while adding new things like Discover.

One thing is clear: Twitter is for everyone.


BJ McGeever

I love technology, and how it intersects and transforms our day-to-day. I'm a coffee and music fanatic. I write at mcgvr. My wife and I live in College Station, TX, the home of Texas A&M. We work for Grace Bible Church in the college ministry, seeking to reach the nearly 50,000 college students our city is home to.

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  1. says

    It’s that second to last sentence that really captures how I feel, ” I hope they keep the core functions of Twitter alive, while adding new things like Discover.” I am a little peeved at the buried DM and UI switcheroos but that’s because I had gone back to Twitter’s native web/mobile experience. It’s always good to know that I can opt back into another app/client to drill back down to the basics.

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