Where Twitter iPhone Apps Go Wrong

I love Twitter and I love my iPhone, yet I don’t really love a single one of the available Twitter iPhone applications. I do love (and still use most) m.twitter.com, which is not even an iPhone-optimized site; it’s simply Twitter’s mobile site from pre-iPhone days. Where do all these Twitter iPhone apps go wrong?

I sat down for coffee with @Piemonte last night and had to explain why I still preferred m.twitter.com over any of the available iPhone apps. I realized then and there, thanks to having to explain my reasons to someone other than myself, just what exactly it is I want out of a Twitter app or (web) client when I’m using my iPhone. It’s three things: speed, features and tweet density. The last one is most important, but let’s start with the first two.

By speed, I mean that the client needs to be extremely responsive; flicking my finger must result in an immediate scrolling of the screen. If it’s a client that has multiple views, for instance a Replies tab, Direct Messages and so forth, then switching from one to the other has to be quick. If it’s slow enough that I start looking away from my iPhone while I’m holding it and using your client, your client is too slow.

Features are also important. Access to your Direct Messages is almost a no-brainer when it comes to features your app or client should have, but it’s something I find remarkably easy to live without. Perhaps it’s because I have Direct Messages sent to my phone as text messages, which essentially shifts that feature into the iPhone’s SMS app no matter what client I may prefer. Still, when it comes to features, other things like Replies, Twitter Trends, support for multiple accounts, Location-based enhancements and the like are all valuable additions to any Twitter client or app, but they are not necessarily deal-breakers.

For instance, Tweetsville is one of the more popular clients of the moment and its threaded view of Direct Messages (essentially splitting up who you get direct messages from much like how the SMS app does it with different numbers) is definitely a better implementation than Tweetie‘s, but I still prefer the latter app.

The point is, features on an application are great but unless they’re absolutely critical for the main purpose of the app itself, they merely add value at the cost of interface simplicity. Those features are exchangeable when it comes to comparing different apps of the same kind, but none of them will make yours the killer app.

Lastly, there’s tweet density. This is where we find out why I will instinctively reach for mobileSafari and m.twitter.com on my iPhone when I want to check my Twitter stream, rather than any of the Twitter apps I have installed.

Typically, if I’m using my iPhone to check Twitter it’s because I’m waiting in line somewhere, in a dull moment at a meeting while people fiddle with cables getting the projector to work, something like that. It means I have just a matter of seconds, maybe as much as a minute or two, to check Twitter on my phone without it being a problem. In those precious few seconds, I need to be able to process as much info as I can possibly muster. In other words, my small iPhone screen needs to show as many tweets as possible with as little as possible clutter. Let’s look at how some of these apps match up against one another.

Twitter clients compared: m.twitter.com, Tweetie and Twitterrific

From left to right: m.twitter.com, Tweetie, Twitterrific.[1]

Here we see the tweet density of m.twitter.com, Tweetie (my personal favorite) and Craig Hockenberry‘s venerable and oft-compared-to Twitterrific. This is after scrolling each of them to show as many tweets as possible on the screen; just for comparison’s sake I’ve also uploaded a picture showing the three in starting position, although Twitterrific’s is the same (the only difference it has is the Deck ad, but that’s only in the Lite version).

The results:

  • m.twitter.com shows 7,5 tweets, but one of which is a massive 5-liner
  • Tweetie shows 3 tweets, and the 5-liner has become a 7-line tweet here, filling almost 50% of the screen
  • Twitterrific shows 5 tweets

Quite clearly, when it comes to scanning through tweets as fast as possible to see that one particularly interesting tweet, m.twitter.com has no equal: the density of its tweets vastly surpasses that of other apps, allowing me to process batches of tweets easily twice as fast using m.twitter.com than I can with anything else.

There are, however, two distinct differences between m.twitter.com and the Twitter apps that are worth mentioning: first, m.twitter.com only shows the usernames and not whatever they have entered as their display name. This can be a downside if you have a hard time remembering everyone’s usernames as opposed to their real names.

The second difference is the lack of avatars on m.twitter.com; I actually really like this, but I can understand that many people may not. To me, avatars are a prettification but since I have a lot of people I follow and many of them change their avatars fairly frequently, memory muscle is more or less made useless in relying on avatars to quickly identify people’s tweets. Usernames change only very rarely (if at all), and I don’t often misread or mis-identify one username as another. That’s not the case with avatars, where many of my friends have an avatar that looks and feels very similar to someone else’s, especially when scanning quickly.

Another issue with showing avatars is that they slow down rendering and scrolling, which leads back to the first point I made about the app having to be ultra-responsive. If I flick the screen down and your app is still loading up the avatars, they’ve lost their purpose entirely as now I’m just seeing placeholders for everyone. Still, not a single app I know of has offered me to disable avatars, sadly.

Now, you may say that you prefer a more beautifully designed or aesthetically pleasing interface, and that’s fine. To me, it’s like this: I’m holding one of the most inspired pieces of electronics in human history in my hand, so my need for aesthetics and beauty has been met already. What I care about at this stage is the efficiency with which I can do what I need or want to do, and only m.twitter.com meets the primary requirement to my level of satisfaction.

So here we are. iPhone Twitter apps are becoming better and better and we’re seeing some great ideas being implemented in this space.[2] Nonetheless, I’m desperately hoping for one to offer me a completely bare-bones view or theme that is similar to m.twitter.com’s display: no avatars, just usernames; everything as compact as possible. That’ll let me scan through tweets at the same speed I do on m.twitter.com and thus the app would become of tremendous value to me; if you then add extra features like the ones Tweetie has, it’ll be the killer app for using Twitter on my iPhone.

So far, all I know is that Tweetie is working on a minimalist theme so I’m already looking forward to its next update. Anyone else out there?

Closing note: for those who are interested, you can of course follow me on Twitter if you don’t already.

  1. I’d have included Twinkle, were it not for the fact that it refused to let me use the app without granting it access to my Location, and it forced me to have a Tapulous account just to see my own Twitter stream. I tried creating one but it told me that username was already in use. It helpfully offered me to “Add this device” to that account, but that, too, just made the modal dialog pop up endlessly. Suffice to say, Twinkle is now uninstalled and on my Strongly Discourage list.
  2. Speaking of, when will any of these Twitter clients offer a Filter & Highlight feature, allowing you to filter out or highlight tweets based on keywords you can add and remove within the client? Why wait for Twitter to implement groups when a lot of the benefits thereof can be done client-side with something like Filter & Highlight?

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