Why Twitter Just Rewrote the Rules

 

twitter viewing a link

Twitter just dropped a bomb.

After months of waiting, they’ve quietly released their iPad app, featuring the most brilliant and radical new interface design in years. It single-handedly changes the course of information design for a touchscreen– maybe forever. And it may be the most innovative touch-based interface since the original iPhone.

So, what’s so special?

Twitter for iPad’s new interface is made up of moving, sliding “panels” that slip above and below each other like a deck of cards. Each one can be scrolled separately, and clicking on links in one panel will display them in the next panel. You can move forward and backward at any time, as well as moving vertically (which scrolls through time). In a way, it’s a little like Column View in Mac OS X (and iTunes)– which is also one of those things that proves insanely useful after about two minutes:

column view in OS X

What makes this different is the freeform nature of a touchscreen: you can fling, push, pull and slide the panels all over the place, and they respond immediately. When they move across each other, relevant pieces of the lower sections stay visible. It’s almost like having overlapping windows, but it’s actually better: you can move layers around without disturbing their order, and without losing track of where you came from. Your entire “history” is literally within reach.

horizontal

This interface is also great for learning: I’ve been able to quickly read something of interest, find out who responded to it, and find something cool THEY had to say– totally unrelated to the original topic– even though I don’t know them, and don’t yet “follow” them on Twitter. It’s almost like being able to peek not only at conversations, but at entire chains of thought from people you’d otherwise be ignoring. And it goes a step further in making Twitter a useful way to find out what’s up.

 

Aesthetics

Other awesome touches make this app feel far more mature than (essentially) a 1.0 release. Scrolling a previous panel makes the current (present) one shift slightly out of the way; creating a new tweet brings up a ruled index card that slides out from under all the other panels and stays put while you continue to browse. There is a level of polish, both in the animations and design and the user experience, that it’s almost impossible to believe this app came, essentially, out of nowhere.

There are two main gestures, which are not explained in any great detail. One can use two fingers to “expand” a tweet containing @replies and see the thread of a conversation (brilliant!). One can also “pinch” a tweet to see the author’s bio, see who they follow, etc. in a floating box that stays onscreen until you flick it away.

twitter-compose

Type and iconography are superb throughout the app: smart quotation marks when you type, a beautiful black-and-light-gray color scheme to separate links from text, and small icons to help indicate where tweets are coming from (whether they are a reply, a retweet, have a geolocation, etc.) Of special mention is the yellow “page curl” at the top corner of a tweet you have Starred. Because the main interface is composed in such quiet, tasteful grays, the yellow stands out brightly without being obnoxious. It’s beautiful stuff. Clicking on links opens a web browser in the next panel, with its address bar on the bottom (a fantastic choice, since one tends not to accidentally hit it that way).

So, what has Twitter done right?

Twitter for iPad’s interface is miles ahead of anything else available for the platform. It showcases a new paradigm (overlapping cards) that is both space-efficient and highly-approachable. It is sensible and clear without narrowing its usefulness in any way. Virtually every function imaginable to be used with Twitter is present and easily understood.

“Twitter just killed something else: their own website,” writes TechCrunch. Not only is that the case (though I despise the Twitter website to begin with), but it single-handedly “kills” all other modes of browsing Twitter– even the other excellent iOS apps that are available.


Where can it be improved? (Or, nowhere to go but up)

An interesting criticism of the interface comes from Engadget: they noted that the method used for writing new tweets (the notecard that appears at the top) is too small, requiring someone to scroll even to finish a 140-character message. This is a valid criticism, though I wasn’t put off by it. Just like we’re used to doing with text messages on “dumbphones”, I make the explicit assumption that people are OK with text scrolling if they themselves have written it. Obviously this should be tested in more detail, but with the amount of fit and finish thrown into the new Twitter interface, it seems apparent that some serious usability testing was already done. I can’t help but think that this was a very intentional choice, and one that I don’t particularly mind.

One (medium-sized) improvement I would suggest is having the panels be able to be moved vertically and “docked” to the screen in some way. This would allow you to detach pieces of the interface and keep them floating around as needed. I have a feeling this violates one of the App Store guidelines, however.

So, how does it rate?

Ease of use/simplicity: 4/5

the only issue I have is that the gestures, which are not required or essential, are difficult to discover on one’s own.

 

Interface design 5/5

new high water mark for touchscreen design. As flawless as any 1.0 release I’ve ever seen.


 

Thoughtfulness 5/5

Fantastic ideas, executed properly and without unnecessary confusion. Interface stays the same regardless of orientation. Explanatory text when required, no text when possible. Learning curve is slightly higher than a typical app, but extremely sensible and intuitive within a few minutes.

Value 5/5

It’s free. What?

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