Why 2012 Will Change Everything For Us

We’re not even a week into the new year, but already I can tell you this: 2012 is going to change everything for us. Who’s “us”? Designers, developers, engineers, mobile and native app developers; basically, the people who make the web and the software platforms—native and web—come alive and be valuable for millions of consumers worldwide.

Our world is going to change because their world is going to change. In fact, for consumers the world has already been changing for a while. It’s our industry that has yet to catch on, but enough smart people working at truly game-changing companies have figured this out by now to know where to lead things going forward. The rest of us will either catch on to keep up, or get left behind in stubbornness.

What’s going to be so dramatic about 2012, you say? Allow me to elaborate by use of an example. In this case, the example will be an analysis of the new design that Twitter launched about a month ago, as it illustrates what I’m about to explain perfectly.

New Twitter: As Easy As 1, 2, 3

New Twitter: 1, 2, 3

(hat-tip to Henry Birdseye who initially observed the above)

A lot of things got shuffled around and changed when Twitter launched their latest major UI overhaul. The previous version, which I’ll refer to as PreviousTwitter, was a dramatic change from what Twitter had been up to that time. PreviousTwitter had taken a simple, single view of tweets that compose your Timeline and turned it into a full-fledged web app that brought new features to life and combined many existing ones into one cohesive whole.

However, PreviousTwitter was mired in complexity and suffered in some ways from the way web browsers behave. While it was very much an improvement for some people—of which I am one—others complained for a long time to get “OldTwitter” back. Twitter allowed users to switch back to OldTwitter for some time, but their new direction had sent a clear signal: Twitter was growing up, and we’d all best get used to that at some point.

NewTwitter brings back a lot of the simplicity of OldTwitter, while retaining the powerful features and interface enhancements of PreviousTwitter. In that sense, it is a fantastic achievement by the team of designers and engineers at Twitter.

The image above shows how Twitter.com’s new menu bar features iconography that matches the shift-key meanings of a typical U.S. keyboard layout’s 1, 2, and 3 keys: !, @ and #. (The birdhouse-icon for Home could well be one of my favorite icons in a while, but I digress) Whether this design was deliberate or not isn’t very relevant; either they were immensely clever or they stumbled upon a fantastic coincidence. The result is a hidden—intentional or otherwise—message that recurs all throughout Twitter’s new interface: Twitter is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Let me explain how. First up:

Home: Your New Timeline Awaits

Two big, obvious changes separate PreviousTwitter from NewTwitter:

  1. The timeline is now on the right instead of the left
  2. There is no secondary pane that holds secondary or selected content

People think both singularly and linearly, which affects interface design in myriad ways. PreviousTwitter had a singular, linear view of the timeline up until the point you selected something. When you selected a tweet, a pane would slide out and show you whatever conversation took place around the selected tweet, or embed content from linked external sources. The latter was so much one of my favorite features that I was delighted when Embed.ly released their Parrotfish browser extension, which took this third-party content embedding to a massive new level. All things considered, PreviousTwitter with that extension was probably my favorite way to use Twitter ever.

But I’m a power user, and even though users like me play a more significant role in creating Twitter than users that primarily read and consume, Twitter has grown well outside the bounds of being a cool, cutting-edge tool for tech-savvy nerds like myself. It’s not just that Twitter has gone mainstream; it now is the mainstream. Radio, TV shows, and movies feature Twitter and sometimes even change their own nature to fit in with how things happen on Twitter.

The hierarchies that give shape to content on the web, as part of the practice of Information Architecture, often conflict when it comes to catering to avid/power users and casual consumers. While I loved the multi-paned nature of PreviousTwitter and the functionality it provided, it suffered from various design– and usability problems which created a disjointed experience for many more people. The simpler timeline view of NewTwitter solves most of these problems, but no longer works very well for extending Twitter with third-party content. I hope Twitter bring this back somehow. Third-party content embedding was a major benefit twitter.com held over native apps, and I’d hate to see it go.

Even though I’m personally not a fan at all of mixing hierarchies of content (ads in the middle of an article are a similar example of this), I have to concede that my mental model of what Twitter is and how it works is more complex and specific than it is for most people. I love to drill down as a separate effort from “reading the stream”, returning to “the flow” once done. To me, Twitter works and behaves like a tree structure, and PreviousTwitter resembled that mental model quite closely.

But while that model may work well on mobile devices with a smaller screen, where drilling down overtakes the interface in its entirety, it requires far more cognitive self-awareness on a desktop-sized screen where you have both sets of content next to each other in two panes. Most people don’t want to think that hard about how they use Twitter; they just want to use it. By now, I’m probably in a minority so small it isn’t even a single-digit percentage of Twitter’s user-base anymore.

Connect: Human Bonds

Some of you reading this may not even know that Twitter originally didn’t use “@” for usernames. @-replies, later dubbed Mentions, were a feature invented by Twitter’s users that became an integral part of how Twitter works.

Back then, any @-reply you would send to someone else would be seen like a normal tweet, i.e. by all of the people that followed you. Twitter eventually changed that, displaying your @-reply tweet only to your followers who also followed the addressee (in the Timeline view that is); this freed people up to talk more frequently to one another without necessarily annoying all of their respective followers, but it came at the cost of you not being able to see potentially interesting conversations take place that could lead to new connections and friends.

With “Connect”—the vapidity of its name aside—Twitter appears to try and bring some of that people-discovering back. It is much welcomed, as I still sometimes miss how I would randomly make new friends just from seeing some other friends talk with a stranger on Twitter.

But Connect is clearly an unfinished aspect of NewTwitter. It is sub-grouped in Interactions and Mentions, except the former is nothing more than “Mentions Plus”: it shows you your Mentions and an ongoing detailing of which people have started following you, favorited your tweets and/or “retweeted” them.

As they are today, Interactions and Mentions share a lot of overlap, and neither really works well to help you connect with new people you might enjoy. Twitter’s “Who to follow” feature, separate from all this, is something that I have personally never used because it seems based on predictive algorithms (“twelve of your friends also follow this person, you might know them!”), whereas I used to discover new people to follow in a far more chaotic pattern, e.g. overseeing a random conversation one of my friends would have with a stranger.

That natural, organic way of discovering people is still missing from Twitter. I don’t know if they plan to bring it back via Connect somehow, or whether we should expect that to become part of…

Discover: A Whole New Side To Twitter

“Discover” is a brand new top-level menu item for Twitter which hosts a wealth of things for you to, er, discover. Sure, it reeks of marketing speak, but set that aside for a moment and give the new area a proper look. It has remarkable potential as a venue for expanding Twitter’s experience; whether that’s what they have planned for it or not is something we’ll find out over time. In the off chance that they’re listening to suggestions, I have some.

Discover would be great if it were to offer me a curated view of everything “popular” in my Timeline throughout the day. Which articles are my friends linking to? What sports game are some people talking about? What cat photo has everyone giggling, and which tweets received the most favorites or RTs today?

These are the kind of things that I would find interesting and valuable to explore through this new Discover page. The current Activity tab makes some great first strides towards some of this functionality, but the main feature, Stories, seems to be an altogether uninspired blend of sponsor-like news and long-text renditions of Trending Topics. Befitting its marketing-heavy feel, I look at Stories and I can’t tell whether I’m on the front page of IMDB, ESPN, Reuters or Youtube. If you’ve ever wanted to see an interface with an identity crisis, Stories is for you.

But I feel Discover is interesting despite all that. It shows that Twitter is going somewhere new and fascinating; “Discover” just needs to figure out what it’s supposed to be. Perhaps a good example is Flickr’s “Interestingness” feature. Whatever the algorithm exactly is, it works to provide a steady stream of photos I find interesting, even if it’s not what I’d seek out on my own.

Frustrations

There are small frustrations I have with some of the new behaviors in Twitter on the website. For instance, mis-clicking on the Reply link in a tweet ends up as a click to select the tweet, which consequently isolates the tweet from the stream and—somewhat inexplicably—moves the Reply link to a different location. You are now forced to move the mouse to a brand new place or click again to re-collapse the tweet only to try again. This is but one of many examples where clickable areas feel too small and precise to me, and where a mis-click ends up costing time that turns into frustration.

The new Messages experience benefits from being accessible on any page as a Lightbox on top, but sacrifices screen real estate and keyboard– and gesture-based navigability in the process. Issues I hope will be improved upon soon.

What’s Really Going On Here

All this analysis of Twitter may seem tangential, but it is strongly emblematic of a larger shift going on; not just for Twitter, but for our industry as a whole.

Our industry is becoming really big, and the market of people we cater to is growing from the millions into the billions. This kind of growth creates new problems (and conflicts), and a noticeable increase in complexity for the kind of work that we do. The smart folks at Twitter, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple… they all know this. But many in our industry don’t, or maybe they do but they don’t get what the implications of this are.

Twitter and Facebook are no longer social networks for people with computers, iPads and landline and 3G connections. They’re also for people in rural areas of countries where broadband doesn’t exist and banking exclusively takes place on the kind of cellphones you and I gleefully tossed to the side when the iPhone came out. Twitter in particular is paving the road to become the undercurrent of the human race; a collective manifestation of our species’ thoughts, interests and emotions. That’s a big deal.

Businesses are growing to a size previously unimaginable for most of us; this demands a dramatic rethinking of everything we do: from designing and developing products and websites to marketing to the entire human race, but also, how our products are going to make a difference to people’s lives.

Our industry has become big, and as individuals we will need to grow our thinking with it. Those of us who don’t will get left behind.

2012 is going to be the year most of us will face that fact.

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