Twitter has been around for a few years and up till now I’ve never really seen the appeal in using it. In fact I’m pretty sure I’ve mocked Twitter users in an earlier post. And I haven’t been posting very long.

Twitter-ers often suffer being perceived as self absorbed egomaniacs. For the last couple of months though, I’ve been playing around on Twitter to the point where I much prefer it to Facebook. Twitter has a clear identity and a beautiful simplicity about it.

Here are the four main reasons why:

1. Really a friend?

Let’s face facts – Facebook is pretty annoying when it comes to accepting friend requests. Should you accept or shouldn’t you? You haven’t even seen or spoken to this person since school and when you look at their profile and see that they’ve already got over 900 friends… hmm.

(I think you can buy these mats)

Well with Twitter, just because someone starts following you, it doesn’t mean you have to follow them. They can read your tweets but won’t pollute your feed with their stuff unless you follow them too.

With Facebook what you’d probably end up doing is adding them and then blocking them from your feed. Or denying their request and then sitting down opposite them on the tube the following Tuesday.

2. Privacy

Every now and then on Facebook, you are forced to read a mind-numbing conversation between two people that goes something like this:

Hiya hun, how r u?!!!!!1 xx Free for drinkies this Friday??!?? xx

Hi hun, haven spoke to you in aggggeees, I miss u!! Friday I cant do, Im goin pilates!!!!! Its amazing!!! U should so try it!! We shud def hook up soon though!!! I’ve got some news! Love u!! xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Why this conversation isn’t carried out over SMS, email, phone or other private means is unfathomable.

But I’ll try.

Facebook for most users is about privacy, and after you’ve carefully crafted your privacy settings to be top-secret, you’ll know that everyone that can read your status updates is someone you know.

And if you know them, why wouldn’t they want to read all your stuff, right?

Facebook gets a lot of bad press over its privacy settings because Mark Zuckerberg is trying to make Facebook more open, but this isn’t necessarily what most Facebook users want.

Twitter on the other hand is public by default. You can make Twitter private if you want but I haven’t tried. If you use Twitter with a public mindset, chances are you’ll separate what should be public from what the public should be safe guarded from.

3. A record of all your stuff

Because tweets are limited to 140 characters of text, a lot of tweets are links to other pages like blog posts or interesting articles. I can tweet about every single cool thing I see on the web and can always go back and see a record of all my tweets. You never have to ask yourself what was the name of that youtube video.

OK, it was a bad choice to use the most watched youtube video ever as an example here.

And now saving the best till last…

4. Information vastness

You can follow any other Twitter account that interests you, whether it’s another person, website, company etc. As long as they haven’t made their tweets private or decided to block you. This is great from the point of view of keeping up to date with the latest developments in your field of work for example. Or if you’re interested in a particular topic, you can search across all tweets that contain relevant words for that topic and then save these searches. So you can always find out what’s going on in #AshesCricket or #CryingAussies or #WarneAndHurley.

Ultimately when it comes down to it, Twitter and Facebook serve different purposes, which I think are nicely summarised at the end of this article.

If you think Facebook is annoying, join the birds.

On Saturday while out in London, I made two bathroom visits during the course of the day. Here’s what happened.

In the first bathroom, after faffing around trying to get the tap at the sink to work, the guy at the next sink realised there was an automatic sensor above and to the left of his tap… it was hardly obvious.

“Why do they have to make these things so annoying?” I said. He just laughed, and went to dry his hands. Then he said “you should be OK with drying your hands – they’re just paper towels, it’s easy.”

Haha… like I wouldn’t have figured out the tap eventually. Stupid evil tap.

In the second bathroom later on that day, still scarred from the first visit,  I flapped my arms around the tap for a good few seconds trying to get this second tap to work. Then I noticed that it had a handle on it :-(

Did the day get better?

No.

That evening, I went to a restaurant, and the front entrance was through double glass doors.

I tried to push the right door. Nope.

Then I tried to pull it. Nope. It wasn’t going to budge.

I then tried to push the left door hopelessly. Nope.

Pull the left door? Hallelujah! I’d figured out how to enter a restaurant! Only my fourth try!

The observant among you will note that if I’d been on the other side of the doors, I’d have been right first time :-)

Anyway, although that’s a lovely story, do I have a point?

Well. Why are simple things that we use every day so needlessly difficult and unintuitive? Is somebody playing a trick?

There’s a book that talks about this exact topic. It’s called The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman. It was written quite a while ago, but given my experience on Saturday, no one has listened.

Norman, a psychologist, talks about how users tend to blame themselves when they can’t figure out how to use a given instrument. You know what they say… anger leads to hate etc.

Wise words...

Humans make errors. It’s a sad fact of life, but true. Some errors are made after conscious thought, and these are called mistakes.

Another kind of error is a slip, which is an unconscious error. How many times have you accidentally walked out of a room to do something only to forget what it was as soon as you left the room? Or put your laundry in the bin rather than the clothes hamper? Or driven to work when you meant to drive to the gym?

Humans have been blamed for a lot of bad things that have happened… accidents, disasters, some even of the nuclear variety. But quite often, these could have been avoided if the system had been better designed to be easier to use and harder to make mistakes.

Norman explains that when we look at an object, we immediately start getting a sense of what we can do with it. Users develop what is called a user model, and covers aspects like:

  • affordances: if it has a handle or buttons, we know it can probably be picked up or pressed
  • constraints: these might be physical constraints preventing certain actions, or we might discover other types of constraints such as logical (we wouldn’t want to do that… that would break it) or even cultural (we were taught never to do that!)
  • our own personal knowledge of how it’s likely to work based on our past experiences.

Now humans are pretty smart compared with other animals like dogs or chimps. We’ve got hands, which means we can grasp objects and do things with them like twisting, bending, shaping etc with varying force. So objects can have a lot more affordances for man, than merely being something to lick or bark at or pee on. Chimps have hands too, but aren’t as smart as us so struggle when it comes to building models of how objects can be used.

As smart as we are, we’re still only human. So a key goal when designing something well is to design it in such a way so that the user is able to build a good user model, and use it to predict the effects of actions. There should be a natural map between actions and expected results. This can even remove the need for lengthy instructions for how something works.

Examples:

  • The design of a steering wheel is such that turning it left or right by varying amounts causes the car to turn in the same direction by a proportional amount. A steering wheel has a natural mapping between action and result. It’s very easy to learn how to steer a car, even some dumb kid could do it.
  • A typical office phone might only have about 15 buttons, but these can combine to give hundreds of non-obvious commands. How are you supposed to know that the command for putting someone on hold is e.g. #97**? It’s not obvious. It has to be learned and memorised. It requires knowledge in the brain rather than knowledge in the world.
Scary Evil Phone

Having figured out how to carry out an action, what happens when that action is actually carried out? Well some feedback would be nice. It would be nice to know that the action had the intended effect. With a car steering wheel, it’d be obvious from the car actually turning in that direction. But the Scary Evil Phone is potentially even more annoying than Sheila. It doesn’t even have a screen to display feedback – you have to try and make sense of any sounds it sends down the earpiece.

Design for ease of use, and make it harder to make mistakes and do the wrong things. Nobody needs to feel stupid.

This is especially true for computer software. Because even though computers are our most complex and powerful tools, meaning that there’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong, we have the power to program a computer to follow any behaviour that we specify. So we can choose to make systems that are easy to use and provide excellent feedback. And we can do this with good design.

Look at those teeth!

Scary Evil Computer
That's pretty scary.

At least it’s not moving… Doesn’t look like it’s going to cause us any trouble… it’s just watching… quietly.

Those damn computers are everywhere aren’t they? Firmly a part of our society. One thing’s for sure – we love them and we hate them.

It’s obvious that computers are invading our lives. I’ve just finished reading Alan Cooper’s book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (which I thoroughly recommend) and it talks about how computers are invading simple everyday objects like cameras and cars and even submarines.

Why? Because often it’s easier to give a machine a microchip and write the behaviour into software than wiring the behaviour mechanically. But this isn’t always a good thing. From a camera taking a full seven long seconds to load before it’s ready to take a photo, to a car that switches the engine off whenever it goes round a corner too fast, to a submarine that loses all power because of a “divide by zero” error in the software!

It used to be easy to set an alarm clock to ring at a certain time whereas now, although you get more “functionality” from alarm clocks (like a billion ringtones), they can be so much trickier to use that there’s a good chance of screwing it up and sleeping in. Do we really need all these features?

And when Scary Evil Computers don’t work or do what they’re supposed to do, it enrages us. Alan Cooper describes how studies have shown that as computers get smarter, we treat them more like we treat humans. In that case, we’d better give this Scary Evil Computer a name… Sheila.

If Sheila was a fellow human being instead of a Scary Evil Computer, and you asked her for something and she didn’t reply, or she gave you some unhelpful response, or told you that you were banned from carrying out that action, or that your internet doesn’t appear to be connected when it bloody well is, I reckon you’d get annoyed with Sheila… Why can’t Sheila be more helpful? We’re much more likely to enjoy working with Sheila if she showed some cooperation and politeness, rather than ignoring or blaming us.

And what about the future? Think of the children! Recently, my friend put an ultrasound scan of her unborn baby on facebook. I can guess already that every picture she ever takes of that poor defenceless child is going to end up on that site. What about when that baby grows into a 50 year old man, with 20 million photo taggings? I’m just saying.

But there’s no denying that technology can also be good. I’ve just got myself one of those iPhone gadgets and it’s pretty smart. Email, the web, live TV, music, banking, games… you name it. And yep, even facebook. All in the palm of my hand. That’s a lot of functionality, and accessible to me “anywhere”. Life can never be boring again right? How many iPhones do you suppose have been accidentally dropped down the potty?

As good as those smart phones are, letting computers rule our lives to this extent is worrying. About a year ago, when I was feeling especially worried, I googled the phrase “evil computer” and found the above image of Sheila (gracious thanks to the owner of this image, probably http://batman.no/ hope it brings you lots of hits, I couldn’t find a way to get in touch with you to ask permission to use the image, sorry). Then I set it as my browser home page. That way, every time I logged on, I was reminded that I should be outside enjoying the great outdoors, rather than being cooped up in a stale room with a computer.

UK Snow
The Great British Outdoors (Feb 2010)

That’s the end of this pilot post. In case you’re wondering about the irony associated with reading a blog someone writes to moan about technology, I should mention that the general theme for this blog is going to be User Experience Design and Human Computer Interaction. It’s going to be about making computers less annoying. But anything rantworthy might appear here. Until next time.