Twitter turns UI thinking on its head

Posted by Mark Everett Hall

Adobe, Apple. IBM, Microsoft, and other "platform companies" go to great lengths to assure that application developers adhere to stringent user interface guidelines so that their disparate programs conform with a certain consistency. The theory is users don't get confused if basic tasks are always performed the same way. Everyday functions, such as quitting an app, copying and pasting text, saving files, and so many other functions work with the same key sequence or menu choice on a given platform. Following rigorous user interface design is elemental in app/dev for everything from Macs to mainframes.

That's why I'm so fascinated by the Twitter client market right now. It's unlike anything I've seen before. Instead of bland, identical user interface standards for Twitter's basic functions and features, the microblogging service's UI world of clients is like the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in Star Wars. It's crazy, man.

First, you have the Web interface to Twitter, which, depending on the survey you believe, gets half or less than half of the Twitter traffic. Everyone else is using one or more of the dozens of Twitter clients. None are the same. None are perfect. And there's no single approach that satisfies all needs.

TweetDeck has some very elegant design features. But it has some drawbacks. For example, when you reach the end of your feed or timeline, it just ends. While in Tweetie when you reach the end it automatically reaches further into the past and updates your feed with older tweets. But Tweetie can be a little slow and drops some avatars. Twirl is more responsive and handles all avatars among those I follow, but, while it shortens urls flawlessly, its multistep process is a pain. On the iPhone Echofon is straightforward, if limited, so I'm beginning to think Twitterific is better. I could go on.

But it really doesn't matter because there will be many more clients to choose from soon enough. With the recent arrival of Windows 7 and the Verizon/Google Droid phone this week, there are bound to be another dozen Twitter clients vying for our attention. I'll bet none of the new editions handle the platform Twitter functions--write a tweet, reply to a tweet, retweet, send a direct message, create a list, among the other basic tasks--in a similar fashion.

Traditional application designers are probably scratching their heads and wondering if they've had it all wrong. That is, maybe users crave the chaos of innovative user interface design. Maybe the scientific, rational, and standardized approach to user interface design was mere theory. Or worse, fashion smashing developer creativity.

The iPhone is another place where app design is not constrained by imposed standards. Yes, Apple forces some consistency, but not within the app itself. Maybe that's why it was able to publish a catalog of 100,000 apps so quickly. Unlike with the Mac, where user interface conformity is imposed with an iron fist, Apple let iPhone developers be creative with the way people interact with their software.

With the success of both the iPhone and the Twitter, other "platform companies" need to rethink their user interface standards. In fact, maybe they shouldn't think about them at all. Just the developers be creative and see what happens.