Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The usability of Twitter

Twitter is a social networking site that allows users to broadcast small snippets of text to the twitter universe and your own small subset of this universe for friends and lurkers to read your posts. Posts are presented in chronological order with the newest posts on top and older posts fading off the page.

Twitter is crack presented to the blogosphere. But what makes it so addictive has a lot to do with good usability. Presented below is what twitter does right for the user and why it matters.

1. Immediate satisfaction
Twitter updates live every four minutes and hitting the refresh gives you new content immediately.

Posting is also as simple, usually showing up within seconds of posting, which then gets appended to your “recent” list.

2. Positive Identification
It’s not enough that text from friends and strangers parade across your screen, but there are photos associated with these text posts. Seeing the photos makes you want to read the text. It is no surprise that pretty young girls who post quirky interesting snippets have lots of followers. arielwaldman and kitta are followed partially because they have pretty faces and partially because of their interesting prose.

On my twitter (dlumer) I have numerous friends that have an associated photo and a few that don’t. I find the ones that have photos more interesting to read, even though what they type may not support this tendency. People like that human connection. They gravitate towards it.

3. Low cost of action
Twitter lets you collect friends easily. Simply by clicking on their icon or name you can “follow” them simply by clicking a follow button. There is no long process. It is very easy; making is easy to collect lots of friends or pseudo-friends. These friends can reciprocate just as easily and follow you.

Once the two-way communication is going, you can easily post back and forth in an ongoing dialog, like a party line that nobody hangs up on.

4. My Network, not your network
While you can surf the public timeline, the power of twitter is in the local network that appears as all your and your friends’ latest entries with the icons of people you specifically follow. This is the important “web 2.0” part, where the user is looking a collection of posts they assemble, not one based on groups like a mailing list. Each person’s twitter is unique to himself or herself, only containing the people you choose to follow – or “listen to”. If someone posts too much or turns out not to your liking, you can simply stop following them.

5. Context is king
Along with your specific view is the idea of context of the text. It is not enough to know a friend has posted, but it helps to know when, and sometimes how. Twitter has both, showing the messages with how long ago they posted and what type of device (web, txt message, applet) delivered the message.

From a systems perspective, the time requirement is satisfied by simply time stamping each entry. But from the user’s perspective it is much more important to know how long ago from this point in time a message was posted.

Approximate times are even better, because they are concepts easily assimilated. Knowing that a message was posted “about 3 hours ago” is infinitely more usable than knowing a message was posted at 4:34pm on January 8th. In the first instance the user must do a mental calculation for not only the date and time posted, but also the current time as well, to get to the same place as “about 3 hours ago”. If the cognitive load is greater than the information gained, the user generally disregards the mental calculation.


There are a couple of instances where Twitter falls down however as they try and balance the ease of use and information overload. The below presented information is not as much cut-and-dried criticism, as problems or opportunities for further refinement.

1. If a tree falls in the forest...
One of the largest holes in twitter is the inability to point messages to people who do not follow you. There are many instances where you follow someone, and read a post where the poster has asked a specific question to the group and you respond to that post – but the original poster never sees it because the don’t follow you.

Understandably there are good reasons to not allow just anyone to post to anywhere. You need only look in your email box’s spam filter for hundreds of reasons. The problem I see however is the lack of feedback that the message will never be seen. While I have no hard data to confirm this, the anecdotal data I have is based on peoples various posts, when they realize that they are missing out on posts and begin following people who have responded to them.

Additionally, the system does not have an in system way to “poke” a user, letting them know you are responding to them.

2. My message is bigger!
Twitter is designed for short bursts of message content. This message content may be a bit on the small side for many users. Many a time you get posts broken into 2 or 3 messages to get the whole thought out. This may be the extreme example, but I personally would love about 20 more characters most of the time.

To Twitter’s credit however they dynamically show you how many characters you have left in your message, and even visually change the display when you are about to run out of space. This is a tremendous step up from instant messenger’s “your post is too big so you are out of luck” message.

As you can see, overall twitter is a great assemblage of micro-blogging and social networking that allows people to easily stay in touch with others, and isn’t maintaining the human connection with computers what it’s all about?

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