How I would have stuffed up Twitter: Usability’s quest for simplicity

I’ve often wondered what it was like in the early days of creating Twitter. It must have been interesting times working out what the social network would be, what it would look like and how it would function. Of course, no-one then knew for certain it would be the slam-dunk success of today.

In those early, startup days of rapid development and innovation, there must have been countless arguments, debates and jousts over how it would look and how it would work. It must have been an exciting, creative and nervous time, with endless testing, trial and error.

I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to have been a member of that early team — and how I would have influenced Twitter during those conceptual stages. As an early internet professional (since the days the web was just text) I’ve had a penchant for product development and usability. The Twitter team would have certainly felt my influence as I made my voice heard during the social network’s early development.

I’ve thought about it and the conclusion I’ve come to is that I probably would have cocked up Twitter. So thank god I wasn’t anywhere near that team, because there wouldn’t be a Twitter today.

I’m not being trivial: In this self-deprecating statement, lies important lessons in simplicity and not-over designing an internet product or service. Here’s how the travesty might have taken place:

Firstly, I would have laughed at the proposed 140-character limitation. I mean it’s obvious right? Why have 140 characters, when you can have more? This is the endless, non-linear internet. Think Jack, think… you’re not getting it! I probably would have drawn parallels to SMS, putting up a strong argument that I thought we were going backwards. Maybe I would have quit the team in disgust at the philistines around me if I hadn’t won that argument. How could it be that I’d be so wrong?

Lesson one: In this debate, I’m coming at Twitter — the fledgling product — at a purely technical angle, not a sociological one. Just because we can have more than 140 characters, it doesn’t mean we should have more. The promises and abilities of the medium (the web or an application framework etc) shouldn’t be the only factor that guides the decision here.

It’s a sociological and business decision that makes the 140 character limit so important, and effectively makes Twitter, Twitter. The character limit simplifies our interaction, allows us to consume multiple tweets at once, and keeps the conversation concise and digestible. This is much needed in our busy, distracted world of endless digital information. You could even argue that Twitter has killed off many blogs. Why? Because it’s easy and convenient. It’s blogging lite, without the hassle and commitment. And that’s 140 characters.

Lesson two: The other lesson here is that bells and whistles don’t necessarily win on the web. The goal of achieving human interaction and networking in an easy, accessible manner is more important than pretty pictures. The simplest way that facilitates this functionality, wins. This again probably boils down to limited time and attention spans.

In all likelihood (and I’m really coming clean here), I would have mounted an argument to have multimedia, voice, photos, and rich font types, colours and sizes added to people’s tweets. And again I would have gone to bed that night mistakenly believing the Twitter team benefitted from my valuable input.

Look at some of the most successful companies in the world: Google and Apple. Of all the major sites Google has won because it is so simple and clean. People find its services easy to use and simple to use. It is about daily utility, not congested bells and whistles. Apple is the king of white space, smooth simple stuff that works. Simplicity wins over convolution. Convolution confuses, irritates and makes people want to run away. I don’t want to run away from my iPhone, I want to take it to bed with me every night.

Lesson three: Internet products, sites and services fly when they fundamentally mirror, and then improve on real-world behaviour and desires.

This is why Twitter is successful: The byte-size tweet mirrors real-world conversation, the way we actually communicate in the offline world. In normal life, we tend to have short conversations and discussions here and there daily. It’s rare we enter into long debates or lectures on a daily basis. Unless it’s a specific occasion, your job or you’re a student, this is not what we do most of the day. Reading blog after blog after blog (after blog) is like being lectured to. That’s cool every so often, and for complex issues I want to get a handle on — but please, not every day.

Twitter also mirrors a sociological reality even in the way people connect to each other. And here’s the nasty truth we all know: Following isn’t reciprocal. I can follow Ashton Kutcher or Jacob Zuma on Twitter, but it’s unlikely they will follow me back. They don’t know I exist. This describes the the social structure and barriers we find in everyday society. It’s why Twitter’s following is fundamentally better than Facebook’s friending.

The big lesson
So now that I’ve spilled the beans and told you how rubbish I would have been at innovating on Twitter, I’ll tell you what I have learned from this. When creating a website, app, mobile site or any internet thingy, it’s important to stay focused and keep it simple. It’s important to fundamentally understand what you are trying to achieve and not get distracted by bells and whistles or seduced by the amazing capabilities of the medium.

Most importantly remember you are here to solve real-world problems and mirror real-world desires and behaviour in society. That’s why you are doing this in the first place. It’s simple really.

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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