Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Ok Twitter, I see where you’re going with this

In December 2011 Twitter unveiled a new UI, along with updated iPhone, Android, and web clients. The response from tech circles was immediate and extremely negative. Twitter 4.0 for iPhone got slammed particularly hard. Here’s John Gruber with a pretty good representation of the views expressed by many:

Twitter 4.0 for iPhone lacks the surprise, delight, and attention to detail of a deserving successor to Tweetie, offering instead a least common denominator experience that no one deserves.

By the time Twitter 4.0 came out I was already using Tweetbot, but I updated and played around with the app anyway, as I’m sure many did. I had three main issues:

  • Severely limited functionality. Some things I do all the time in Tweetbot are either impossible or very difficult to do in Twitter for iPhone. This includes easily switching accounts, adding/removing people from lists, seeing someone’s @-reply stream, and quickly getting to saved searches.
  • Inability to interact with tweets in the main stream. You can’t click on a link or someone’s profile from the main Tweet stream. You have to tap through to the Tweet detail — in many ways an unnecessary tap. More on this later.
  • The Discover tab. Like most complainers I assumed Discover was just a thinly veiled attempt to start shoving ads in our faces. Back in Twitter 4.0 this was just a list of seemingly random tweets, probably based on some global trending topics. There was always talk of customization, but the initial incarnation of Discover didn’t have much of that.

So, like many others, I joked about it on Twitter1, and then moved back to Tweetbot without another thought.

But that was not the end of the story. Slowly but surely, Twitter has been working on putting the pieces together of that consistent user experience they’ve been talking about for a long time.

The story unfolds

In June 2012, Twitter rolled out expanded Tweets, a way to see more information about a single Tweet (like an embedded photo or an article summary). They called the technology behind this feature Twitter Cards.

Then, in July, Twitter 4.3 for iPhone came out with support for expanded Tweets. This was followed by Twitter 5.0 in September, which included a redesigned iPad app (a topic for a different blog post, so let’s just leave that for now), as well as profile header images.

And then came Twitter 5.1 on November 16. It was a point release, sure, but I think this is the version that finally brings together two separate threads that Twitter has been working on for a while: Twitter Cards and the Discover tab. The release notes for Twitter 5.1 said this:

See what’s popular within your network on Discover.

— Tweets, tailored just for you, now appear right in the stream

— These Tweets show photo, video, and article previews so you can engage easily

This time something weird happened in my Twitter stream. I started seeing a few positive tweets about the new app. I even saw a few positive mentions about the Discover tab. Fred Wilson blogged about it just today.

I decided to take another look. I worked with Alex to implement Twitter cards on this site. I moved Tweetbot to another screen and committed to trying Twitter for iPhone as my primary app for a week. And now I think I finally see where Twitter is going with all of this. And that maybe we should have trusted them a year ago. Possibly even apologize to them. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.

Information consumption on Twitter

When it comes to information consumption on Twitter, I think there are two overriding user needs:

  • Get through as much content in as little time as possible.
  • Know as quickly as possible if a link is worth clicking on.

The first requirement is technically difficult, but conceptually easy to meet. Just make the app as fast as it possibly can be. The second requirement is more difficult though. In the context of Twitter (specifically on mobile) there are two pieces of information that is important to decide if a link is worth clicking on:

  • The source. This is easy to tell if you can see the URL, but since so many people still use URL-shorteners like bitly, the domain is often obscured, so you don’t know where the link is going to end up.
  • A summary of the article. This is not easy to do in 120 characters2, especially if the Tweet just says “This!! –>”.

Why not just click on a link to see if it’s worth reading? Well, because it messes with that speed principle. Loading a site takes time. Especially if you don’t know if the bitly link goes to Mashable and you then have to download a 2MB page with a gazillion HTTP requests. Clicking on a link is expensive, so you only want to do it if it’s worth it.

So this is where Twitter Cards come in. If someone tweets a link to sites that have implemented it, you can immediately see the source and a summary of the article to help you figure out if it’s really worth clicking through — even if a URL shortener is being used:

Twitter Cards

You also have to tap through to the tweet detail to click on the link; you can’t do it from the main stream. As I mentioned earlier, this extra tap used to annoy me, but I now think it’s a deliberate and important design decision. They are compromising immediate convenience for clarity of information. You might not agree with the decision, but it’s certainly not an oversight — I’m pretty sure it’s well thought through.

The implementation reminds me of the distinction between search results pages and product details pages on e-commerce sites. A search for “The Beatles” on Amazon doesn’t show you an “Add to cart” button on the search results page. You have to go to the product details page for that:

Amazon search

Twitter’s approach is similar. You have to view the summary before you can “commit”. The goal is to keep you inside the app until you’re absolutely sure you’re ready for the “purchase” — which in this case means clicking on a URL, emailing it to someone, sending it to Instapaper, etc. And now that the Discover tab is a much better customized version of photos and articles you might be interested in, the entire story is coming together really nicely.

There are still many features I miss in Twitter for iPhone. Having to poke around aimlessly for a while every time I’d like to see Tweets from a different list is probably the most frustrating issue at this point. But I have to say that Twitter Cards have made my experience so much more enjoyable and efficient that I’m going to stick with Twitter 5.1 for iPhone beyond my one-week experiment.

So what have we learned?

There are also some important product lessons to learn here. In his brilliant essay Subcompact Publishing Craig Mod sums it up nicely:

In product design, the simplest thought exercise is to make additions. It’s the easiest way to make an Old Thing feel like a New Thing. The more difficult exercise is to reconsider the product in the context of now. A now which may be very different from the then in which the product was originally conceived.

This is exactly what Twitter has done, starting with 4.0 almost a year ago. It was a gutsy move to rethink the entire experience — one they got a lot of ridicule for. And I’m sure the design team felt like this quite often:

Comments on the web

(Source: The Oatmeal)

But to their credit, they stuck to their guns. They knew where they were going, and instead of surrendering to the extremely vocal complainers, they kept their eyes on the vision and went for it. That’s good product management. And now, almost a year later, I think they are finally seeing the tide turning as we’re getting a better sense of the end game.3

So, uh, I believe an apology is in order. I’m sorry, Twitter. I see where you’re going with this. And I like it.

  1. Oh, the irony. 

  2. Not a typo. You need to leave 20 characters for the URL, ok? 

  3. Yes, I know, there’s the API debacle as well, but I’m talking specifically about the Product design aspect here. 

The Best vs. The Worst

A few weeks ago the Internet went nuts about a blog post by Dustin Curtis called The Best, in which he argued that it’s important to spend the time (and money) to find and purchase the absolute best of everything. The money quote:

If you’re an unreasonable person, trust me: the time it takes to find the best of something is completely worth it. It’s better to have a few fantastic things designed for you than to have many untrustworthy things poorly designed to please everyone.

The post got linked to by most of the sites I read, and I must have seen about 20 tweets about it in my stream.

I get the sentiment of going for the best, unwavering quality, and all that, but the post just didn’t sit right with me. I was going to write a response to it, but so far all I’ve been able to come up with is this montage from Arrested Development:

But yesterday, Moxie Marlinspike wrote a response that gets pretty close to the issues with Dustin’s philosophy. The Worst unfortunately steps into personal attacks, which is a real shame, because his argument is pretty solid, and would have been stronger without the snark. Anyway, the core of his message is this:

Hacker News could possibly be drawn to Dustin Curtis’ cutlery because it’s reminiscent of “simplify.” The makers of the cutlery took the concept to its core essentials, and nominally perfected them. But to me, “simplify” is about removing clutter — about de-emphasizing the things that are unimportant so that it’s easy to focus on the things that are. We shouldn’t be putting any emphasis on the things in our life, we should be trying to make them as insignificant as possible, so that we can focus on what’s important.

In a sense, the best gives a nod to this by suggesting that getting the very best of everything will somehow make those things invisible to us. That if we can blindly trust them, we won’t have to think about them. But the worst counters that if we’d like to de-emphasize things that we don’t want to be the focus of our life, we probably shouldn’t start by obsessing over them. That we don’t simplify by getting the very best of everything, we simplify by arranging our lives so that those things don’t matter one way or the other.

Of course, the right answer is most likely somewhere in the middle. To seek out quality without letting things own us. But it’s good for the Internet’s equilibrium to hear the complete opposite of Dustin’s argument.

For another perspective, consider Charles Faraone’s answer on Quora to the question What’s your favourite parable? Charles tells the story of a university professor who gave his students a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups to choose from — some plain, others expensive and exquisite. Once all the students have chosen their cups, and only the plain and cheap ones were left behind, the professor commented:

While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress.

Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups. And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.

Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain Life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of life we live.

Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee. Savor the coffee, not the cups!

In other words, make the best coffee you can, and don’t worry about what you drink it in.

Read The Best, The Worst, and What’s your favourite parable?

Reimagining the traditional blog format

I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the reverse-chronological order on this site (and most blogs, for that matter). For me, the problem is that the latest few posts on the home page aren’t necessarily the most important posts I’d like readers to see. In addition to that, if a new reader visits an article through a link from elsewhere, and then checks out the home page, they won’t immediately get an idea of what the site is about.

That’s why I’m so excited about Ben Brown’s concept of Reader Aware Design. He begins with a question:

Presenting everything as a reverse chronological stream of posts made sense when we knew our readers were sitting at a desk, hitting reload on 30 tabs all day long at work. Does it still make sense when content arrives on an e-paper watch, an Xbox or a tiny slip of paper?

Ben says no, and he provides some recommendations as well as a proof-of-concept they’ve been working on. Read his post for the detail. Exciting stuff!

Designing to improve lives

Meagan Fallone wrote a great article on social entrepreneurship for Fast Company. From Technology Is Useless If It Doesn’t Address A Human Need:

We in turn can teach Silicon Valley about the human link between the design function and the impact for a human being’s quality of life. We do not regard the users of technology as “customers,” but as human beings whose lives must be improved by the demystification of and access to technology. Otherwise, technology has no place in the basic human needs we see in the developing world. Sustainable design of technology must address real challenges; this is non-negotiable for us. Social enterprise stands alone in its responsibility to ensuring sustainability and impact in every possible aspect of our work.

There is much we can learn from this approach. Even in the consumer space, we need to replace some “customer” thinking with “human” thinking and look for ways to improve people’s lives, not just get more money from them.

In another great article on social entrepreneurship, David Bornstein quotes Sally Osberg, president and chief executive of the Skoll Foundation:

“I’ve come to see how the ‘social’ that characterizes their purpose also characterizes their way of working. In other words, social entrepreneurs don’t just pursue a social end, they pursue that end in a fundamentally communal way.” This approach is badly needed at a time of extreme factionalism, she adds: “Regardless of whether you call it teamwork, collaboration or consensus-building, we need it, and we need it now.”

I’ve seen this first-hand in our work with Praekelt Foundation. Their passion for their work, clarity of purpose, and relentless pursuit of working together to create the best possible experience, is teaching me so much about how powerful design can be — in any context.

Quote: How to tell if your company has a design-driven culture

Look at your feature roadmap right now. Are there major initiatives and ideas that were generated directly from your designer or design team? If yes, was design in the room when the other items were created and prioritized? Congratulations, you’re design-driven.

— Cap Watkins, Building a Design-Driven Culture

Why Google might just be right about responsive design in Africa

Phillip Kruger argues that responsive design shouldn’t be used in Africa in a Memeburn article called Why Google might just be wrong about responsive design in Africa. He lays out his argument in two parts. First:

Responsive design only works on smartphones. So by default you are already ignoring 80+% of users in Africa. You are also reaching the 20% of users that possibly have internet access at home or work.

This is an argument I see a lot, but it’s valid only in the context of target audience and use cases. If the target market for your service primarily uses low-end phones, then by all means don’t bother with responsive design. But let’s say you’re building a site to order take-out food and deliver in major cities, the situation changes dramatically. Now you’re most likely looking at a target market that sits squarely in the 20% of people who have smartphone access (and who don’t want to get off their couches and walk to their PCs to place an order).

This is why personas, scenarios, and use cases are so important. If you’re building a service for ALL THE PEOPLE (which isn’t advisable), then averages are appropriate. And those averages will rightly guide you to focusing on the 80% of people who do not have smartphones. But in most cases, the analytics that matter are not the averages of all users, but the specifics of the market you’re going after. Don’t dismiss responsive design in Africa because of averages. Dismiss it if it doesn’t make sense for your target market.

Phillip continues:

Responsive design is not lightweight. When using responsive design, the size of the download to the browser is still very big (in fact it’s very similar to what the webpage would be). All the HTML is still being downloaded (even parts that are hidden on a smartphone if you use media queries to set display:none in your CSS). Sure, you can have rules to download separate images for separate display sizes and that should help a bit.

Tim Lind wrote a comment on the article that addresses the problem with this logic:

Responsive design does not mean you can’t do server side optimisations. In fact it can help you to do these, and encourages a more efficient design process. You can design the content for the feature phones, and responsive media queries allows you to upgrade the design with a single stylesheet file for the smartphone or desktop (which server side optimisation could exclude).

One of the many good things about responsive design is that it forces designers and developers to spend a lot of time on optimisation to ensure light, fast pages. This is just good practice for web development in general — not just for mobile. Page bloat is a huge problem, with the average web page now being more than 1 MB big.

Page speed optimisation is just good web citizenship, and it should be a requirement regardless of whether or not a responsive design approach is taken. The other point to remember is that mobile networks already do a lot of compression on served images (see How should we handle responsive images?).

What worries me about this debate is that there appears to be no room for nuance. Responsive design is either the answer to all of Africa’s problems, or we shouldn’t do it at all. But as with most things, the appropriate approach is to say “it depends.” A mobile strategy shouldn’t be a decision between a native app or a separate mobile site. A mobile strategy should form part of a larger web strategy, and it needs to include a discussion about the appropriateness of responsive design. It might not be the right thing for your project, but it should be on the table.

I keep reminding myself of Ben Callahan’s statement in The Responsive Dip: “Just because you can’t, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.” Just because this is a difficult problem that we haven’t quite figured out, doesn’t mean we should throw it away and go back to how we’ve always done things. What we need to do now is push through and find elegant ways to apply responsive design in Africa. Where it makes sense, of course.

Update 2012/11/26: Phillip responded to all the feedback on his Memeburn post. See Google might be wrong – part 2. It’s good to get additional clarification on the Google talk that formed the backdrop for his original post. This isn’t the last discussion we’ll have about RWD in Africa, and that’s a good thing. We need to figure this out…

What design is really about

There’s quite a fight going on in the comments of Elliot Jay Stocks’s A conversation with Erik Spiekermann. If you’re able to wade through the mudslinging you’ll find some good points in there, like this paragraph by Erik himself:

Design is first and foremost an intellectual activity which has nothing to do with what medium you work in. It is about looking at a problem, understanding it, translating it into visuals, actions, and messages. That is solving the problem, whatever medium the solution may end up in.

The worst work is done by designers who have decided on a medium before they even know the problem that has to be solved. Just like a print designer (and I do not make that distinction myself) should not immediately think brochure or poster, an interaction designer should also be able to think about other media besides websites or apps. Otherwise you end up behaving like the infamous hammer: every problem looks like a nail.

This relates to a point I made earlier that we shouldn’t let technology or devices (what Erik calls “the medium”) guide product decisions. The problem and the use cases should guide those decisions.

How to be less boring

Scott Simpson tells us something I think we all desperately need to hear in his article in Issue 4 of The Magazine:

You are boring. So, so boring.

Don’t take it too hard. We’re all boring. At best, we’re recovering bores. Each day offers a hundred ways for us to bore the crap out of the folks with whom we live, work, and drink. And on the Internet, you’re able to bore thousands of people at once. […]

The Big Bore lurks inside us all. It’s dying to be set loose to lecture on Quentin Tarantino or what makes good ice cream. Fight it! Fight the urge to speak without listening, to tell a bad story, to stay inside your comfortable nest of back-patting pals. As you move away from boring, you will never be bored.

This relates really well to a recent post by Able Parris called Focus Means Ignoring:

We need to spend less time looking to others for interesting things, and start spending more time doing the things that make us interesting. […]

Similarly, and I am saying this more for myself, it’s easy to give time and attention to the things you enjoy or are easy, but true character comes when you give focus to the things that are difficult but must be done. This means you have to ignore everything else, and know that you will be better because of it.

Just imagine the virtuous cycle this could set off… As people post fewer boring things like Foursquare checkins and retweets of how awesome they are, and we all take the conscious decision to read fewer boring things and instead spend that time listening, learning, and doing new things, we could slowly and collectively pull the current state of the social web out of that cesspool of boringness. Well, that’s a pipe dream, of course. And to be fair — there’s nothing wrong with clicking on a good animated gif every once in a while.

Anyway, back to Scott’s article. One of his recommendations for fighting the descent into becoming boring is what he calls “Expanding your circles”:

When you expand your social and intellectual range, you become more interesting. You’re able to make connections that others don’t see. You’re like a hunter, bringing a fresh supply of ideas and stories back to share with your friends.

This is very much related to Mark Granovetter’s 1973 theory of weak ties1. The theory states that because a person with strong ties in a network more or less knows what the other people in the network know, the effective spread of information relies on the weak ties between people in separate networks.

In other words, to get more interesting information out of Twitter or any other social network, you need to follow people who give you access to additional knowledge clusters. If you see too many tweets about the same thing in your timeline, or if your RSS reader shows 5 consecutive links to the same tech article, you may have too many strong ties.2

Go and and find those weak ties at the edges of your interests, and strengthen them. Otherwise we’ll just continue to talk about the same stuff over and over and over again. And that’s boring.

  1. “The Strength of Weak Ties”, Mark Granovetter, 1973. PDF link

  2. I wrote about this extensively in How to get more out of Twitter

Why mobile and desktop operating systems shouldn’t be combined

Dmitry Fadeyev makes the best case so far for why it’s not a good idea to combine mobile and desktop operating systems into a unified experience, like Windows 8 has done. From Blurring of the Lines:

The road to a good OS is not a blurring of the lines between PCs and tablets, but rather an amplification of the differences through a strong focus on the uses that each category serves. The desktop OS should make use of large screen real estate and the precise targeting of the mouse cursor. The mobile OS should be optimized for the small screen and for the rough tap of the finger. The desktop OS should focus on power users and multi-tasking, the mobile OS should focus on content consumption. The environments they run on are different, the use cases are different, and the solutions should be different.

That’s exactly right. This “unified experience” sounds like a decision made from the viewpoint of devices and technology, not use cases. For example, if you make decisions based on devices and technology, you may decide to create an iPhone app before you know what kind of phones people will use your service on. If you make decisions based on real use cases, you may actually find that very few people would use your service on a mobile device, so a better solution would be to (gasp!) optimise for desktop use1.

The irony is that even though Microsoft made a huge deal about their “no compromise” design philosophy, the Windows 8 experience will have to make compromises if the same software needs to work on both mobile and desktop devices.

  1. Wait, don’t slaughter me. I love Mobile First. I’m just saying that some services or applications just don’t lend themselves to mobile use. I’d argue that tax return software falls into that category. 

Quote: Jordan Moore on designing for the right people

If you are build­ing a web­site (re­spon­sive or oth­er­wise) and your pro­ject per­sonas be­come in­dus­try he­roes rather than those you painstak­ingly iden­ti­fied at the be­gin­ning of a pro­ject then it’s time to worry.

— Jordan Moore, Be careful who you build for.