Twitter Clients Are a UI Design Playground

Twitter’s elevation into the mainstream has, predictably, spawned a backlash against the service. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, “Nobody uses Twitter anymore; it’s too popular.”

The most interesting product of Twitter’s popularity, to me, has been the explosion of Twitter API client software. There are a slew of cross-platform Adobe Air-based clients, including Twhirl and TweetDeck. TweetDeck in particular appears to be the most popular interface for Twitter other than the web site. (One could be forgiven for assuming the entire point of Air is to serve as a runtime for cross-platform Twitter clients.) There are dozens of native iPhone Twitter clients in the App Store. And in just the past two months, a number of new native Mac clients have appeared, including Nambu, Canary, Bluebird, and of course, Tweetie. And on both the iPhone and Mac, there’s Twitterrific.

There are several factors that make Twitter a nearly ideal playground for UI design. The obvious ones are the growing popularity of the service itself and the relatively small scope of a Twitter client. Twitter is such a simple service overall, but look at a few screenshots of these apps, especially the recent ones, and you will see some very different UI designs, not only in terms of visual style but in terms of layout, structure, and flow. I’m not saying it’s easy to write a good Twitter client. In fact, that’s the point — that it is not easy to write a good client for something as small in scope as Twitter hints at just how hard it is to write a good app for anything, let alone something truly complex.

Less obvious is the fact that different people seek very different things from a Twitter client. TweetDeck, for example, is clearly about showing more at once. Tweetie is about showing less. That I prefer apps like Tweetie and Twitterrific doesn’t mean I think they’re better. There is so much variety because various clients are trying to do very different things. Asking for the “best Twitter client” is like asking for the “best shirt”.

Also, Twitter is a nearly ideal service for the iPhone. Yes, yes, Twitter was originally conceived with “mobile phones” in mind, hence the SMS gateway. But on a phone without a good web browser you’re missing half the fun (at least for the sort of thing I enjoy about Twitter) because you don’t have a way to follow the links people tweet. I read web sites and email and RSS feeds on my iPhone, but Twitter is the one service where reading on my iPhone doesn’t feel constrained compared to reading on my Mac. Put another way, MobileSafari is a good web browser for the iPhone, MobileMail is a good email client for the iPhone, but my favorite few iPhone Twitter clients are just plain good Twitter clients, with no need for a “for the iPhone” qualification. It doesn’t feel limiting to only use Twitter from my iPhone.

But perhaps the most important factor that has made Twitter such a rich category for client software is that there is so little friction to switch between apps. There’s nothing to import or export, and zero commitment. As Tweetie author Loren Brichter said in an interview with Macworld Indonesia executive editor Aulia Masna, “One of the fantastic things about Twitter clients is how easy it is for users to jump from one to another. Just type in a username and password and off you go.”