Review: How should Twitter’s design shift? Seesmic gives us a “look”

When Loic Le Meur, founder of Seesmic, first started telling me about Seesmic‘s new “Look” Twitter client (released today) he said “you will probably hate it.”

Why would I hate it? Because Seesmic had done real customer research and found that lots of people who are using Twitter just don’t understand Twitter and so they set out to develop a client for these normal users, not for geeks like me. They don’t know what things like RT’s or hashtags are. They don’t know how to find interesting people to listen to. They don’t see a point of it and the display is too boring to use (most people want to sit back and be entertained and don’t know that to get the most out of Twitter you should use clients and spend some time over at Listorious to find some curated lists of users).

That pitch is all well and good, but when I finally tried Seesmic Look this morning I see a ton of things that make the old Twitter client seem boring and not nearly as fun.

What are those things?

1. Aesthetics. Twitter is looking dated when compared with the photographic-aesthetic used on Seesmic Look. This caused journalist Dwight Silverman to note that “The Seesmic Look interface is gorgeous in Win7. Really shows what you can do w/Aero.”
2. Discovery of other users. In Seesmic Look they have an “interests” link, which introduces new Twitter users in a number of different interests groups. This is like going to Listorious, searching for something like “politics” and finding a list of Twitterers. Why hasn’t Twitter gotten rid of the very lame Suggested User List yet and integrated Listorious? I don’t get that. That would dramatically improve the Twitter experience for new users.
3. Focus on Tweets. Lots of other clients, including Seesmic’s other clients, focus too much on info density. Getting as many tweets and features on the screen as absolutely possible. Seesmic Look goes the other way, by hiding quite a few features until you need them and making the size of the tweets much bigger. This goes to aesthetics too, but it dramatically changes the relationship a reader has with the Twitterer and also makes possible a new kind of display which includes previews of links and videos.
4. Complete theming/skinning, including for brands. It’s lame that after three years all we have is the ability to change our backgrounds on twitter.com. Seesmic Look shows that we can have complete control of the look and feel of our clients. Want to put a picture in the background and have a beautiful new display? It’s possible with Look, not with Twitter.com. Or, if you are CocaCola and want to have a really well themed display? Seesmic Look makes it possible. Why not on Twitter.com? RedBull, for instance, has a channel inside Seesmic Look that’s very cool looking and not possible with Twitter.com. Brands will go nuts over this kind of theming and skinning.

This said, Seesmic Look comes up short in a number of different areas.

1. My existing lists didn’t work/didn’t import into Look.
2. You can’t use multiple accounts with Look, which is becoming more and more important every day, especially given Twitter’s limitations around lists and lack of filtering.
3. No Facebook integration as with other social media clients including Seesmic’s other clients.
4. Sometimes info-density is what you need, so it would be nice to have a column view built into Look.
5. Figuring out how to navigate around Look not nearly as nice as other parts of the interface. On the navigation menu on my screen right now it says “trends; inbox; social; favorites; interests; channels; searches.” That’s way too many choices for infrequent users and they all shouldn’t be presented with equal weight. Also, Twitter searches bring back way too much noise and spam for normal users. Most users won’t know what’s different between all these choices, too. Tell me again what the difference between “interests” and “channels” are again? Don’t look. I bet you can’t define those cleanly so one needs to go away.
6. I’d love a “watch” mode that was clear so I could put this on one of my screens and just have it automatically refresh like Brizzly does. I didn’t figure out how to do that.
7. In “Interests” mode, the navigation takes up too much screen real estate. I’d like to select an interest and just “watch” it on my screen. After a few seconds it would be nice to get rid of all non-Tweet navigation elements.
8. Trends needs a rethink. Trends are, to most users, pretty lame and pretty useless even when they are interesting. The top level trends? They trend toward pablum, which is one problem. But even if they don’t (very rarely are they actually interesting) if you click through you’ll get tons of spam. We need a better trend system. I’d love to see one based on retweets and favorites of lists of people you choose (or that other people curate). I’d love to see what Mike Arrington’s friends are trending to him, for instance. That would be far more interesting than a huge crowd picking the lamest of trends. For instance, I really could care less about Conan O’Brien and his fight with NBC. It might have been interesting a week ago, but now? It’s just lame and brings new noise into my view.
9. There’s still too much “jargon” in the Look interface. Mouse over the icon for Direct Messages. Now you and I know what those are, right? But normal people don’t. And Seesmic doesn’t do a better job of explaining what they are than Twitter.com does. Demonstrates there’s still improvements that can be made.
10. Lists are not transparent. Click on “Interests.” You can then click on a variety of topics like business and tech. Unfortunately these lists are WAY too narrow (the business list, for instance, hardly has anyone on it) and aren’t easily customizable and Seesmic has way too much control of who appears on these lists. (Disclaimer: they included me on the tech list). A much better way would be to provide a seed list and at bottom include a link to Listorious. Here’s Listorious’ business list, for instance. This is a LOT more transparent and you could add your own list then (which you can on Listorious).

Anyway, my 90 minute review of Seesmic Look? It brings a much-needed new “look” to Twitter, but doesn’t go far enough. It does show Twitter’s own team how badly a redesign is needed, though, and hopefully does shove all Twitter and Facebook clients to focus on aesthetics and filtering and a focus on real users. Overall I like the direction but it needs a bit more work to make it a client I’d be able to use every day.

One thing that Seesmic has going for it, too, is that it has clients on almost every platform except for iPhone (which Loic tells me is coming “within weeks”) but so far I don’t see good common themes between all of their clients. It will be interesting to see how Seesmic evolves its family of clients and makes them useful with each other. Right now it doesn’t seem like these are developed by the same company with a common vision and that may prove troubling for Seesmic over the long term. If Seesmic Look is the training wheels to get new users into Twitter, I don’t see a good upgrade path to their more “professional” clients like Seesmic Web or Seesmic Desktop, not to mention any commonality between their Android client and their other clients.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

26 thoughts on “Review: How should Twitter’s design shift? Seesmic gives us a “look”

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  2. somehow the new look feels like joost…I bet seesmic investors had some input here. thanks anyhow, Robert, for the great review.

  3. From another point of view, it’s good that something like Look appeared to try to make Twitter accessible to casual users, however I see 2 major problems here:

    -Language. Twitter is growing fast in non-english countries. Adding support to other languages to this kind of clients would greatly help gaining new users in other countries. Just portuguese for Brazil, who according to Sysomos stats is a great Twitter user, and spanish to reach an entire continent (America) and parts of Europe would be a good start.

    -The content is very U.S. centric and cannot be customized. I understand the reasons for this but at least the option to select a country/language for interests and trends would be helpful in the future.

    It is interesting to note the effort to create something of a “VolksTwitter” client that allows an easier and more satisfying first-time user experience. I’ve always joked that the first meeting with Twitter is always the worst part of the relationship with it. No love at first sight here. If you can go past that you’re bound to stay ;)

    Regards

    Written from Mexico City

  4. No one will use this even if it was a web app. Credit is due for innovating but they need to move away from a twitter pimple.

  5. Why should Twitter spend the cashola when others are willing to do all the heavy lifting (and dev) for them?

    Once a third party has figured something out that works like a charm, Twitter can replicate it and knock the geniuses out of the loop. Isn't that what the brave new model of online capitalism is all about?! :P

    @hannibal666

    Follow @hannibal666 to #enlightenment!
    http://twitter.com/hannibal666

  6. I can't type as fast as I think, but no one but Loc knows who is behind Seesmic and it's not an advertising business model it's a pump and dump acquisition model

  7. Hey, Robert. I'd like to follow up with you on why your twitter lists didn't load. They should have. Send me an email at yama [at] seesmic [dot] com and I'll try to help you through this. Thanks.

  8. I think that Twitter.com, TweetDeck, Seesmic and Brizzly will be an awesome Harvard Business School case study in a few years when the dust settles. Seesmic gets some bonus points for their passion and exploring lots of different approaches. But if I was an investor, I would be worried by their multiple code bases and technology choices: AIR, WPF, Google WT, etc., etc. This is going to be very painful to maintain on the long run and does not offer any competitive advantage given how much can be done these days in HTML, CSS and Javascript. Looking forward to seeing what the next Brizzly step is going to be.

  9. I think that Seesmic is on the right track. The Twitter design is kind of primitive but the new Seesmic is really cool. Arrington will be happy;-)

  10. I enjoyed the different way of digesting the info stream. Unfortunately it crashed 5 minutes in so I'm not likely to jump in again until it's more stable.

  11. Great review. I like the Playback mode, but it also would be nice to have the option of just having the existing Timeline scroll as new tweets arrive. Not sure why this wouldn't be the default behavior. It's quite tedious attempting to actually read a feed in Playback mode.

  12. Robert, There is a button on the top right of the LOOK screen that looks like a TV. If you click that it'll display tweets as they come in, sorta like a screensaver mode. Check it out.

  13. Thanks for including my comment, Robert. The interface really is something of a breakthrough, though I think veteran Twitter users may fear the eye candy will get in the way of real interaction.

    It would be interesting to see what this might look like designed for OS X.

    I agree with you about the lack of transparency and the limited number of people on the Interests lists. In fact, this implementation is little more than an expansion of the Suggested Users List. Seesmic has just incorporated that concept into the client and called it something else. Listorious might indeed make a good substitute for this. Hey, Seesmic has been on an acquisition roll, maybe Loic can snatch up Listorious.

  14. All valid points and interesting review by Robert.

    The one real thing that is in the back of my mind concerns the separation in the channel and personal streams. One thing that I think Twitters downfall will come from is targeted ads in your personal timeline. You can foresee them through the channels – no problem but if this bleeds into the other streams or is pushed on you, say through the UI notifications being pervasive, then this will kill what Twitter currently has – personal choice.

    Seesmic already said that they have control over the channels and I expect this is where targeted ads will rain in from. They are already expecting all users to become brand evangelists as mentioned in their presentation of SIM from the first speaker.

    Great looking UI though but I just don't see how they are going to get this into the “Wii” users demographic. Expect a major email campaign through Hotmail any day!

  15. I second manielse opinion, me neither I don't see how this would become mainstream, or as Loic put it, a “Twitter client for my Mom”.

    I don't know about Loic's Mom, but my Mom doesn't know how to download and how to install an application.

    Somehow I have the feeling that all these Twitter clients that mushroomed recently, are not improving the user experience for the everyday users. They might present some advantages to power user (like I can be signed in with more than one account, etc), but for the big masses Twitter.com is still the easiest and less confusing tool to use. That said, I do think that Twitter should catch up on many areas, to make it even more friendly, Scoble pointed out a good number of things that should be changed.

  16. Like almost always, a great first read by the Scobleizer. I think Seesmic Look illustrates an interesting look into UIs. I'm still not convinced that this will become some a mainstream consumer uses but it gives us a completely new view on Twitter/Social apps. Like many, I'm interested in seeing how this gets used, who uses it and what it evolves to be. Also as I tweeted to you, I believe that this could look great on a Media Center!

  17. I have also observed some flaws, and while I believe that Seesmic Look isn't totally for me, I'm really glad it arrived to the market and hope that it will have a positive impact on other clients (TweetDeck, especially) as well.
    It's version 0.9.x.x only yet, I'm sure many of those bugs will fade.
    Nice interview Mr. Scoble :D

    Zoli

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