About four years ago, I saw @ev speak at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco (that's co-founder Evan Williams to the untwitterized out there). Evan was astoundingly candid about the technical problems and downtime that led made the Fail Whale part of our cultural lexicon.
"It's amazing we've been so successful," he shared.
He went on to say that Twitter had finally come up with a solution to their scaling issues, but then went on to fill in the crowd on the secret to Twitter's success. It started when Evan sold Blogger.com to Google a few years earllier.
"When I was at Google, the one thing I learned was focus."
That's why Twitter hadn't added features. That's why they were sticking to simplicity. That's why Twitter equaled "what's happening?" in 140 characters or less. No more. No less.
I logged onto the Twitter account I had started two years earlier but never used the moment I left that talk and haven't stopped tweeting since.
This morning, the New York Times reported that Twitter had lost Evan Williams and co-founder Jack Dorsey would be returning to run product.
It wasn't no surprise to me that Twitter lost the guy who sat their preaching to us about focus. The mounting pressure of inertia and creating a "successful" business model had taken its toll on Twitter. They had lost their focus. They had lost their soul.
140 characters and more.
In the mind of the consumer, every brand can be "One Thing." This is why James Carville became famous for saying "It's the economy, stupid," when Bill Clinton was running for president. No matter what reporters asked, the Clinton team turned the conversation back to their One Thing: the economy. And Clinton won.
Twitter's "One Thing" was 140 characters. You could consume that one thing any way you wanted: On any of a zillion websites, widgets, desktop apps, by text, in chat, in Facebook, by smoke signal. Hell, you could even consume it on Twitter.com. It didn't matter. Twitter wasn't an interface, it was 140 characters.
Today, Twitter's 140 characters is like Celine Dion in Vegas. Definitely a big attraction, but hardly the whole show.
The website is a cluttered mess. 140 characters feels almost like an afterthought. Meanwhile, the core usability issues still haven't been cleaned up.
At South by SouthWest a few weeks ago, I went to a Twitter meet-up and met a guy named Matt Harris whose card said "Developer Advocate." When I told him what I thought, he was sincerely interested and asked me if I had blogged about what I thought Twitter needed to do. Matt told me, "we often do things wrong on our apps on purpose, so we can tell other developers how to do things right."
That might have been a sound strategy before Twitter invested in updating their website, buying Tweetie and launching an iPad app. But Twitter has grown and a lot of people are actually using those things to consume tweets these days. And their user experience sucks.
That's admittedly a bit harsh. There's lots of good things going on as well, especially in the iPhone app. But the overall impression I'm left with is that Twitter gave up on that focus Evan promised at that event in San Francisco.
Matt the Advocate encouraged me to write a post about the specific problems I had with the service. The timing couldn't be better, so here goes.
Advice for Jack Dorsey
Jack, pal, the Twitter experience used to be a form field and a feed. That was the essence. It still is. If I wanted to dress it up with features, I could do find a zillion ways to do that. There were plenty of tools out there, so I could add the features I wanted.
The operable words here are "I WANTED."
Today, when I log into Twitter.com, I am assaulted by your agenda. Here's a snap shot of my right hand-side of the screen. "Favorites" are not a significant part of my Twitter experience. I don't follow "Trends." How many people want to be reminded of how rarely they are "Listed?" And, who the hell cares what a Twestival is?
Why is all this crap taking up all this real estate?
Sure, some people like this stuff. That's wonderful. Makes the solution simple. Make this page customizable. Here, I even made a mock-up for you.
After the form and the feed, the next core parts of the Twitter experience are my Followers and who I'm following. You've introduced Lists, but implemented it in a half-assed manner and then moved on to fry bigger fish.
Step back. Make things work. Then move forward. I have 3,172 followers on Twitter. I follow 1,707 of them back. I can look at them in chronological order. I can't sort them. I can't search them. I can't add them to lists because I can't find them. So my feed is a waterfall of content I ignore. If you want to help me, help me sort. If I can sort, I can use lists effectively. If I can use lists effectively, I can see the tweets I want to see when I want to see them.
You get the picture, Jack. Focus on me. The Times says that you acknowledge "... that Twitter has made some mistakes in designing the simplest product and not listening enough to what its users wanted."
Me, me, me. You know it's the right thing to do.
Evan, sorry you couldn't keep it clean. You had the vision and you impressed the hell out of me. Look forward to seeing you focus on your new venture.