Connecting & Discovering on Twitter

09 December 2011

Twitter sure stirred things up yesterday with their release of new versions of the iPhone, Android, and web apps. For every marked improvement there’s an opposing opinion — or two, or three — about how the change is actually a step backward. I’d like to focus on one thing respected Mac and iOS developer Brent Simmons posted about the chosen nomenclature of the new app(s):

Nobody wants to connect or discover. People want to talk, send email, chat, share, post to Facebook, tweet, and so on.

His main point is with regard to the labels used on the tabs of the mobile app. He doesn’t like them. Here’s what Twitter chose:

Simmons says he would have labeled them:

I see the logic, and used to subscribe to his same premise. Which is, I assume, that words like “connect” and “discover” are ambiguous (at best) — requiring some amount of additional cognitive investment over more conventional terms — and therefore shouldn’t be used.

We faced a similar design problem with the main navigation of The City Church website recently. It was suggested that we use some internal nomenclature (“the 5 Gs”) for the site structure and navigation labels. I argued for conventional labels and site architecture, asserting that premise — the “don’t make me think” methodology.

In Steve Krug’s excellent book, he uses the analogy of a retail store for a website. Imagine walking into a grocery store that was organized with the check-out stands in the rear, the ice cream on one side but the frozen pizza on the other, the fruit in the center along with the canned goods, and the bakery all the way around the perimeter. How frustrating would that be?

Krug explains how conventional navigation and nomenclature reduce cognitive overhead and help get people to where they want to go. Makes sense. And, moreover, it’s proven.

That’s the reason I usually argue in favor of clearer, more conventional labels and navigation. Usually.

In the case of The City Church’s website, what I came to realize was that, for our purposes, the goal of “getting people where they wanted to go” was actually a red herring. I started to think of our goal less like a typical retail store and more like an IKEA — a guided experience.

Labels like connect and discover cause users to ask themselves, “what the heck does that mean?” For a professional user experience designer, those questions normally signal a problem with the design. But what if that question is actually a positive? What if the goals of the project actually call for those questions to be asked by the user?

The Twitter mobile app isn’t a retail store (or even e-commerce website). It’s an immersive experience. (Ugh, sorry.) Are the connect and discover labels really going to stop people from tapping on them? If anything, I’d argue that they do the opposite. If “Find” were used (along with the traditional magnifying glass icon), it’s likely some users would just skip that tab on their first experience of the app. They would assume they knew what the tab includes.

Going back to Simmons’ quote saying that, “nobody wants to connect or discover”, I’d like to humbly suggest that he’s wrong. That’s exactly what people want to do. That’s why they use Twitter. They don’t use Twitter to tweet.