What’s the Best UI for Twitter?

The Twitter Logo

I’ve become fascinated with the new web application called Twitter. It’s a way of simply and tersely updating others on your status: This makes it kind of like a cross between a blog, instant messaging and perhaps SMS (cell phone text messaging). Twitter is like a blog, because it broadcasts your thoughts, moods, impressions, and other personal mumblings to the world at large. It’s like instant messaging because it consists of short messages, no more than 140 characters in length. It’s like SMS messaging because twitters (or is the singular a ‘tweet’?) can be recieved on a cell phone (and I believe you can update your own status via a cell phone, although this is much easier and cheaper in the US than Canada or overseas). Oh, and your twitter status updates only go to the people who choose to ‘follow’ you (and likewise, you only get updates from those people who you know and want to be updated about. Your posse is your update audience, and you get their updates as well.

To use twitter, you bring up the Twitter web site, and if you have an account and have left a cookie that logs you in automatically, you make a twitter/tweet by typing your message into the form. To help you stay under the 140 character limit, there is a countdown javascript that tells you the number of characters you have left. It’s not that inconvenient or confusing, but I keep wondering if there’s a better way.

I suppose that using an SMS cell phone to update my status would be best, but even then, typing is a problem. Perhaps there could be a special twitter application for phones and PDAs (or both, like my Treo or a Blackberry), with set phrases that you could use by pressing buttons or the option to insert your location, if it knew you were near a particular place that you are often located at, like Work, Home or a friend’s residence. The key here is that twitter has a different User Model than the web, or Instant messaging, or even perhaps SMS.

A User Model, as I define it, is everything about a given situation that a user experiences when they are accessing or operating software or hardware, including their posture, how much time they have, their level of comfort (or discomfort), what else they might be busy doing, the amount of attention they can/want to dedicate to the activity, etc.. A lot of software assumes that you are sitting in a task chair, have a keyboard, mouse or trackpad and a monitor of decent size, that you have a block of time to dedicate to the activity you are engaged in and you can devote nearly your full attention to the task at hand. Some software assumes that you are connected to the Internet, but other (non-web, of course) packages don’t. In contrast, Instant Messaging always assumes that you are connected continuously to the Internet, are a pretty fast typist, and can devote all or perhaps part of your attention to the conversation you are having. A web application called ‘Do I Need a Jacket’ (or www.doineedajacket.com) is designed to be used just as you are just leaving your home or office. You look at it for a second, perhaps from a standing position and peering over at your screen, and it remembers the last place you put in for it’s ‘setting’ (you can also change the thresholds for cold, chilly or wind speed that trigger a yes or no answer for the question of whether you need a jacket or not). One click is all it needs once this is set up. SMS assumes only that you have your phone or Blackberry with you and that it is turned on. It also assumes that you don’t have a full keyboard (although the remarkably good keyboard on the Blackberry has begun to change this a bit).

Twitter needs only a little bit of attention (like IM), but it is required sporadically, like an incoming SMS or IM. Like a blog, it requires that you think about yourself, or at least what you want to say, but unlike a blog, you don’t have to be a writer (or even be able to write a full sentence!) Twitter can serve some very useful purposes, like letting a bunch of friends know where you are if you are meeting up later, or receiving constant status reports (even from RSS feeds, like the local weather), or perhaps even some applications we haven’t thought of yet.

At any rate, this is a new kind of application, with some very interesting challenges related to the User Model as well as the role that online messaging can have in our lives. For a version 1.0 it’s crude, but then again, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was also pretty crude as well, and look what that gave rise to (AOL chats, Minitel, AIM, Gtalk, iChat AV, Meebo, and who knows what else?!)