Twitter Postings: Iterative Design

by Jakob Nielsen on August 24, 2009

Summary: We made a timeline message more punchy, credible, and viral through 5 rounds of redesign.


A few days ago, I posted the announcement of our next usability conferences to Nielsen Norman Group's timeline on Twitter (@NNgroup).

I don't have all the guidelines for stream-based postings yet, because we're still conducting usability studies (update: the study is now done.). But, based on the user sessions I've observed already, I put this posting through 5 rounds of iterative design.

1st Design

Announcing LAS VEGAS and BERLIN as the venues for our biggest usability conference of the year http://bit.ly/UsabilityWeek

Good: City names are highlighted, drawing the eye.

Bad: Starts with the non-information-carrying word "announcing." Of course it's an announcement — otherwise I wouldn't be posting it...

Remember that users tend to read only the first few characters as they scan down a list. Make them count.

2nd Design

LAS VEGAS and BERLIN are the venues for our biggest usability conference of the year http://bit.ly/UsabilityWeek

Good: Frontloading attractive keywords makes this version more scannable.

Bad: We lost the sense of news that "announcing" implied in the previous version.

Because many companies molest their poor followers with repeat postings about the same event, users have become somewhat hardened against event promotions.

3rd Design

LAS VEGAS (October) and BERLIN (November) are the venues for our biggest usability conference of the year http://bit.ly/UsabilityWeek

Good: Adding the months highlights that the conferences are coming up soon, regaining us some of that sense of news. Also, specificity is always a plus: it makes users feel like they're getting concrete and useful info, instead of the blather that characterizes so many B2B websites.

Bad: This draft Tweet is 133 characters, leaving only 7 characters for users who want to retweet . This isn't enough to add the customary 11-character attribution (RT @NNgroup), which is a must if we're going to benefit from the viral effect of our followers' followers being made aware of our feed.

(Keeping tweets below 130 characters won't be a long-term guideline because Twitter is redesigning to remove the source attributions from the main message content for repostings. Until this redesign goes live, however, it's best to leave slack in your original postings if you expect followers to share them.)

4th Design

LAS VEGAS (October) and BERLIN (November): venues for our biggest usability conference of the year http://bit.ly/UsabilityWeek

Good: Saved 6 characters by replacing "are the" with a colon. Full sentences aren't necessary for such short content, which users are scanning anyway. We're not trying to be the next Hemingway in a tweet.

Also: Fragments fine here. MS Word's squiggles frowning at you? Ignore them.

(Alternatively, I could have used a shorter URL shortcut, but there are benefits to giving people an idea of where the link will lead.)

5th Design

LAS VEGAS (October) and BERLIN (November): venues for our biggest usability conference ever http://bit.ly/UsabilityWeek

Good: Changed the awkward "biggest of the year" to the punchier "biggest ever." In addition to being shorter, "biggest ever" provides two additional benefits:

  • It's a more compelling argument for why readers should care and click through to see the full program
  • Growing during a bad recession is evidence of our strength and promises a positive experience, which is appealing to audiences who are tired of doom and gloom

This year, I'm producing 33 full-day seminars in Vegas compared with 31 in 2008, so I could have tried to squeeze in a reference to "6.5% growth since last year." But even though exact numbers have higher credibility  than broader assertions, a tweet should be highly focused and not try to make multiple points .

Expanding by 6.5% during a recession is what evolutionary scientists call a "costly signal." That is, it's a way of communicating both the healthy status of usability in general and the high interest in our conference, which can't be faked: it costs real money to book more lecture rooms and fly in more speakers. Only a healthy peacock can grow a big tail.

Costly signals are more credible than unsupported boasts — whether you want to attract peahens or Web users.

When to Tweet

My last design decision was when to post the message to the Twitter timeline. My preferred tweeting time is 9:01 a.m. because it encompasses working hours from California to the U.K. and thus reaches a majority of our customers. (It's best to post a minute after the hour so you'll be listed on top of anybody who naively sets their software to release postings at exactly 9:00.)

In this case, however, German readers and others in continental Europe were particularly important, because we're going to Berlin for the first time. Thus, I pulled the posting time forward to 7:51 a.m. Pacific time, which is 4:51 p.m. in Germany and will still reach Californians who check Twitter during breakfast.

One of the big downsides of stream-based communication compared to email newsletters is the highly ephemeral nature of the postings: Once they scroll off the first screen, they're essentially 6 feet under.

A look at clickthrough statistics for links posted to Twitter vs. those circulated in email newsletters shows a drastically steeper decay function: lots of clicks the first few minutes, and then almost none. In contrast, email continues to generate clicks for days as people work their way through their inboxes. (Exhibiting the slow tail we often see in purchase intent.)

  • Clickthrough decay: Twitter time passes 10 times faster than email time.

This makes it hard to reach an international customer base on Twitter, and makes it important to tweak the posting time relative to each topic's main target. (It's also one of the many reasons I continue to believe that email is a more powerful medium.)

Text is a UI

It's a common mistake to think that only full-fledged graphical user interfaces count as interaction design and deserve usability attention. As our earlier research has shown, URLs  and email  both contribute strongly to the Internet user experience and thus require close attention to usability to enhance the profitability of a company's Internet efforts.

In fact, the shorter it is, the more important it is to design text for usability.

Full Research Report

See also the full report on writing for social media (incuding Twitter).


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