Twitter Redesign Thoughts: Great for Celebrities, But What About the Rest of Us?

posted by: Kimra McPherson

cowritten by: Kimra McPherson and Joanne Wong

Not that we follow him or anything, but have you seen Channing Tatum’s new Twitter profile?

We wouldn’t normally have been scoping it out. But Tatum — along with First Lady Michelle Obama, Weezer, and a handful of other famous folks — was privy to an early rollout of the new Twitter profile page, which was officially announced on Tuesday after months of speculation (thank you Mashable).

The new layout enlarges your most popular tweets based on engagement: number of retweets, replies, likes, etc. The more popular a tweet, the more real estate it gets on your profile page. Twitter also rolled out a couple of new features, such as the ability to pin a tweet to the top of your page or filter tweets with images and videos. Many people compared the redesign to Facebook because of the expanded timeline photo you can customize.

What Does this Mean for Users?

As Twitter #addicts, our first reaction was fear. Twitter has become an indispensable source of news and communication for us, even replacing Google Reader as the easiest way to scan hundreds and hundreds of headlines in search of something interesting. Collectively, we (@_jwong and @kimretta) have tweeted nearly 17,000 times since Twitter began in March 2006 — averaging 6x a day! — and follow nearly 1,200 people in our streams (meaning we read A LOT of content). We were worried the new profile would mean big changes for the way Twitter looks and feels when we check it every day (or, OK, every hour … minute … whatever).

But as we looked more carefully at the changes, our fear turned to relief and curiosity. So far, none of the changes will actually affect how we experience Twitter, since neither of us really looks at our own profile pages — or, really, at other people’s profiles. (We might now, just to see what it’s like.)

Everything about the changes would indicate Twitter has hit a home run with brands and celebrities — those who are inherently more self-promotional. But we, and the majority of “active” Twitter users we talked to informally after this announcement, rarely look at someone’s profile and instead follow their 140-character musings in our timeline stream (or via an app that keeps us from visiting twitter.com anyway).

Why change the profile page experience at all? With this, Twitter is suddenly prioritizing a different part of the user experience — and maybe even a different user — than what we previously perceived as primary. They are making the experience more about YOU vs. more about the people you follow. They’re also enhancing the experience for someone who might go to Twitter only occasionally to see what a particular person or company has to say, versus those of us who use Twitter to follow many people’s bite-sized thoughts simultaneously.

This is quite a big difference. However, the Facebook-like personalization capabilities might invite a more “mainstream” crowd. After all, it worked for Facebook, right?

Let’s explore deeper.

Twitter’s Heritage

Change always ruffles some feathers, but Twitter’s announcement on Tuesday was met with more anger than usual. To understand why, it’s important to understand how Twitter grew and why none of these changes should really surprise us. For this we dug out an “old” Wired article from 2009: Mob Rule! How Users Took Over Twitter.

As the article describes, Twitter really just began as a Yammer-like service where people could post short status updates. Its most salient features, the retweets and hashtags and ‘@’ mentions, were actually “invented” not by product managers but by Twitter’s earliest users, who needed a way to communicate better while still staying  within the 140-character box. It’s probably safe to say that its founders weren’t sure how their product would be used. Or as the article puts it:

“Essentially, Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and lurked on the sidelines as its users invented baseball.”

But even back then, it’s clear the founders wanted to get more users. By 2013, according to internal documents cited in the article, Twitter hoped to have one billion users. It’s 2014, and Twitter has just over 241 million users. In comparison, Facebook reached one billion users in 2012.

So, Now What?

All of this makes us wonder: Who is Twitter really designing for?

As Twitter tries to keep growing, is the company’s priority the users like the two of us, who use Twitter as a “front door” to links, jokes, conversations, and, yes, lunch pictures from our friends and favorite Internet personalities? Or will it be focusing more on the experience of folks who want to curate their own image or check in on celebrity profiles every now and then? And will the future of Twitter be designed from within, or can passionate users still dictate the company’s direction? We don’t know any of these answers yet.

Prioritizing the profile could be a relatively small design tweak — or, it could be a big signal of change at the heart of Twitter.

Let us know your thoughts on the new Twitter re-design in the comments below or on Twitter, @EchoUser.

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Beta-Testing the Olympics

posted by: Kimra McPherson

I spent much of February watching dozens hours of figure skating coverage NBC’s networks broadcast from the Sochi Olympics. I’m a die-hard skating fan, so this was the culmination of a whole season’s worth of figure skating events I’d been following. Starting in the fall, I’d been eagerly setting my DVR for the early competitions that serve as tune-ups for the Olympics.

But it turns out those early events aren’t just chances for the skaters to perfect their programs. As I watched these events, I slowly started to realize: Hey, NBC is beta-testing its broadcast!

For one thing, NBC and its sister networks were trying out different commentators in different combinations (it’s where Sochi’s star duo of Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski first started calling performances, though not necessarily together). But NBC was also playing around with what to show on the screen during a performance.

Here’s one example: During the Olympics, NBC would show a clock on the screen at the halfway mark of a figure skating performance, indicating that the skater would get a bonus for any jump completed from then on. The “bonus clock” showed up at some of the earlier events, too.

But a number of other events had this instead:


In the upper left-hand corner of the screen, there was a running tally of the technical scores each skater was receiving. It was updating “live-ish” — since humans still do the scoring, there was a bit of a delay — and it would often show the total a few seconds after the skater was done.

I always found the tally distracting — mostly because it was so specific but also too late to tell me how much a particular thing I’d just seen was worth. It wasn’t actually giving me information I wanted to know in real-time, and because of that, I would have rather waited till the final scores were revealed at the end of a performance rather than get annoyed by a widget that was trying to tell me something and failing.

Lo and behold, when the Olympics broadcast showed up, there was no score tally! So I suppose someone somewhere agreed and decided to go in a different direction.

This made me wonder: How many other sports did NBC “beta-broadcast” before the Olympics? For some sports, like hockey, NBC already has a standard way of filming and commentating. But what about the fringier sports that most of us only see every four years, like ski jumping or luge? How many iterations did NBC try before deciding that the bobsled clock should turn green when a team was ahead of the current leader and go back to white when they fell behind? How long did it take to figure out when to show the average miles per hour on the screen during long-track speed skating races?

In browsing through videos as I wrote this, I found a ton of videos from Universal Sports, one of NBC’s networks, of World Cups and other pre-Olympic races in a whole bunch of sports. I bet if I flipped through them, I’d find plenty of rejected ideas that NBC decided weren’t ready for prime time. I’d love to be inside that decision-making process and understand how NBC chose which features to keep on screen. Did they use research? Technical feasibility? Aesthetic preferences? Or something else entirely?

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Participating in Research: It’s Not (Just) About the Money

posted by: Kimra McPherson

Before I was on the professional side of the user experience “glass,” I offered my expertise to the field in a different way: as a participant in a fairly large number of usability and market research studies.

It started when I was a college student, looking for a quick way to make some extra pocket change. Friends told me about various survey bureaus and testing companies where I could submit a profile and get contacted about research opportunities. If I qualified for a study, I could earn cash or other perks — and sometimes even get to keep the products (a pair of socks here, a bottled milkshake there). I happened to fall into a demographic researchers wanted to tap, so I had my pick of studies for a while. I never made any significant cash, but it was nice to get a check for $10 or $20 every month or so — or convert a pile of fake-money “points” into Target gift cards or magazine subscriptions. And given my current career, I suppose those hours spent clicking “strongly agree” bubbles or returning taste-test notes paid off in other ways, too.

Now that I’m on the other side, I think there’s a tendency to be skeptical of research participants. “People will do anything for the money” — right? Don’t get me wrong: Usability and user experience researchers are deeply appreciative of the people who take a bit of time out of their day to try out a new website, test a router set-up, or talk candidly about their personal experiences. But as a researcher, there’s a fear of being taken advantage of: Is this person really an IT specialist? Does this other one really bank online three or more times a week? Or are they just trying to slip through the screener, fool me, do the minimum required, mess up all my data, and walk out with a nice, fat check?

I’m not going to claim money wasn’t my prime motivation, especially when I started participating in research. And as the paydays for studies get bigger — beyond just a $5 check or a couple of free lattes — I’m sure the temptation to twist key facts just enough to squeak into a study intensifies.

But there are lots of reasons to participate in research beyond just the money at the end. In fact, the longer I spent as a research panel member, the more I saw the rewards shrink (from $10 to $5 to $2 to some points I could maybe redeem for something down the line) — and yet, I still kept clicking on the link that said “Take me to the Survey!”

So why do it, if not for (or at least in addition to) the money?

The major reasons I kept participating:

I like seeing new products first. Always have, always will. I got a weird little thrill from seeing a particular body wash scent that I (and certainly hundreds of others) had recommended show up on drugstore shelves. I got to taste snacks that never went to market — some for good reason! And I got to see previews of what some of my favorite websites would look like after a redesign. Just knowing something that not everyone knew was a huge motivator for me.

I like making things better. As a participant, you never really know how seriously your feedback will be taken or how much of a difference you’ll make — but I always wanted to try. If I really thought a product should be priced at $3 rather than $2 or $4, I had the chance to say so. If I thought a login screen was confusing or couldn’t find the right option for shipping an online purchase, maybe someone would fix it. And since most of my research opportunities were about products or services I actually used or would want to if they existed, there was a good chance those changes would directly benefit me.

I was curious about the research process. This grew as I got more and more sucked into participating. Where did my feedback go? How did it mesh with what others thought? Why did some people just get an online survey link while others got invited in for a focus group? Could something I said actually make a product end up on (or not on) the shelves? What did the researchers do with all this data? (Fast-forward a few years, and I’d be in grad school, finding out.)

I asked around the EchoUser research department, and my colleagues mentioned a few other reasons they’d seen participants come to studies:

  • A feeling of importance: “Someone’s listening to my opinion!”
  • An opportunity to air complaints.
  • The desire to know what’s coming up in a given industry.
  • An interest in “giving back” or doing something productive with free time.
  • A chance to try something before committing to a purchase.
  • An interest in learning something new.
  • A curiosity about getting a job in research. (Hey, worked for me!)

Yeah, the money’s great. It probably is what gets people in the door, most of the time. But there are other motivations for the people who might walk into your lab or click on your survey. And that’s something I try to keep in mind every time I catch myself rolling my eyes and saying, “Eh, they’re just here for the $100.”

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October 21st, 2013 at 6:39 pm

[...] are the backbone of our industry — and, although we do compensate them for their time, it’s not (just) about the money. Participants who give great feedback are usually very passionate about the products we are testing [...]

September 25th, 2013 at 8:35 am

It’s funny, because I have the same motivations. My friend and I have a secret (not-so-secret anymore) love of answering surveys and participating in market research. And it’s definitely not for the money — we just love making things better (maybe that’s why I’m in UX!)