Wed 07 Feb
For some time now, everyone’s been crazy for Twitter, a kind of hub for digitally checking-in with your friends, where everyone alerts one another of what they’re up to, sometimes as frequently as from moment to moment. If that’s a bit of an obscure description, it’s because there’s nothing else quite like it. Actually, ‘cute’ may be the best and most succinct descriptor I can come up with.
More Web service than Web site, I had a hard time remembering to post the short, punchy updates that are Twitter’s principal currency until the advent of Icon Factory’s free, desktop-based Twitterific utility for Mac OS X.
Twitterific puts a persistent kind of ‘heads up display’ right on your Mac OS X screen so that your friends’ posts are immediately available, and that you can easily add new posts yourself. No more having to load the Web site, or remembering to visit that tab in your browser where you’ve got Twitter.com running.
That Twitterific changes my interaction with the service is a good illustration of the difference between two software “postures” that Alan Cooper describes in his book, “About Face 2.0,” a must-read for any interaction designer. By virtue of its containment inside of a Web browser, Twitter — and most any Web site — is something of a sovereign posture application. Cooper defines this kind of software as…
“Programs that are best used full-screen, monopolizing the user’s attention for long periods of time… Sovereign applications offer a large set of related functions and features, and users tend to keep them up and running continuously.”
Even if your browser isn’t fully maximized, it tends to dominate most of your screen real estate, and it almost undoubtedly remains open and running most of the day. If you think of Twitter.com as a just one set of the functionality available through the browser (and admittedly, this is shading Cooper’s definition a bit), it’s plausible to argue that it demands a level of attention out of scale with what it truly requires. As cute as it is, it’s not a site that you often want to monopolize your screen, even for very brief periods of time.
Twitterific, by contrast, takes the exact same functionality, and presents it in an auxiliary posture, where it occupies much less screen real estate and only partial attention. Cooper writes…
“The auxiliary program is continuously present like a sovereign, but it performs only a supporting role. It is small and is usually superimposed on another application…”
The interface is more compact and, in its translucency, can be said to be less obtrusive. This simple but significant change in functionality presentment has a dramatic impact on the way I interact with Twitter: rather than relying on Twitter.com’s built-in reminders to “nudge” me back to the site, its persistent availability on my desktop makes it easy for me to monitor incoming posts and more effectively spurs me to add new ones. Since installing it, I’ve been using Twitter with much greater frequency than before.
There’s also an adjunct change that accompanies Twitterific, and that’s a slight alteration in the nature of my inputs to Twitter. It’s something that also happens to demonstrate another interaction principle at work: the concept that interaction is informed by language as much as by visual cues.
On Twitter.com, the main interface clearly asks “What are you doing?” That text is displayed in large type directly over the text input box, and it remains there after I’ve submitted a post, effectively prompting me for another post. Additionally, the stream of posts from my friends and me is labeled, in similarly large type, “What You and Your Friends Are Doing.”
The persistence and size of these labels are strong textual cues that always encourage me to answer the questions directly. Therefore, my early Twitter posts were straightforward but uninspired answers, e.g., “In a meeting,” or “Walking the dog,” or “Standing in line.” It got old pretty quick.
By contrast, Twitterific’s textual cues are much more subtle, and less persistent. It does ask, “What are you doing?” as a ghost label inside of the text input field, but that disappears as soon as I begin typing my answer. More importantly, it provides no label (aside from the user name) above each post.
The result is that the posts that I make — and view — through Twitterific are less inclined to be literal answers to the question “what are you doing?” and more likely to be unorthodox, even smart-alecky non-sequitirs. Their display and their language logic are less constrained, freer to take different, unexpected forms.
This has allowed me to have a lot more fun with Twitter, to feel less constrained by the mundanity of Twitter’s single, standing question, and to treat posts as opportunities to say whatever I want. Have a look at my recent track record for a sampling. To be sure, they’re no more insightful or brilliant than what I was writing before, but they’re more fun to me, at least.
All of which proves the point that interfaces are written as much as they are rendered. Outside of the alteration in software posture described above, the text is the single most significant change between Twitter.com and Twitterific. Everything else stays the same; we are, in fact, dealing with exactly the same application logic on the back-end. And yet there’s a subtle but material change in the nature of the resulting input nevertheless. At a low level — and admittedly, Twitter is a small-time application, at least for now — this is fascinating stuff, and a good reminder that more than just visual design determines good experiences.