When Twitter wanted to create a better user experience, they asked in-house designer David Bellona (MFA 2012 Interaction Design) to lead the charge. The resulting new interface has been a matter of much discussion across the Twittersphere and beyond. SVA Close Up asked Bellona about his role in the high-profile project.
First, tell us a little bit about the overhaul process and the thinking behind it.
We started nearly a year ago, in late spring of last year. Profiles on the web, along with permalinks for Tweets on the web, are indexed by Google and are accessible without having to log in to Twitter. They’re open, public and really the front door to Twitter. They have a high volume of traffic and sometimes can be a person’s first introduction to our communication network. Therein lies the opportunity.
The problem was our older profile page simply looked outdated and not up to the task deserving of a first impression. The elements on the page—grid system, background image, content containers—were restrictive and prevented us from making any functional or visual improvements.
Our process started from an audit of what we had. We then researched other products in the market, brainstormed as many ideas as possible based on our product goals and iterated on those ideas to whittle them down into features. We prototyped those features and designs with users (both externally with the public and internally with employees for both quantitative and qualitative feedback), iterated again, polished and then launched.
In designing an interface on which people communicate with one another, we’re really building a functional shell for content and communication. We must account for different types of content—media, text, actions—as well as different languages, user types, screen resolutions and connection speeds. In my role as designer on the project, I needed to shape the profile page into a platform not only for communication, but a scaffolding Twitter can build on in the coming years.
As a designer, were you mainly involved with the user experience or with what’s under the hood?
User experience. However, the terms “user experience” or “UX” can be conflated in the tech industry and beyond. My job was to think about the role of profiles as part of a larger system—both on and outside of twitter.com—as well as the pixel details of the various features of the profile page. Much of what we designed on the profile page involved dependent teams (engineering, product, design) working together. For instance, if we wanted to display more accounts that followed a particular profile, we would have to make more requests to our databases to display that content. Those requests place a greater load on our servers, requiring me and the profiles team to coordinate with the respective engineering teams at Twitter.
While the feedback has been quite positive overall, some people are uneasy with the change. How constructive is their criticism?
It’s been exciting to see how people use the new features and framework we’ve built for them, there’s been some fantastic feedback from our users. Because Twitter is an open communications network, anyone can send me a Tweet with their complaint or praise. I’ve received feedback that covers the full spectrum. I believe all criticism is constructive while any cynicism is destructive; it simply does not move the conversation forward. One of my teachers at SVA, Paul Ford, wrote a great post called “The Web is a Customer Service Medium” outlining the web as being the great facilitator of questions—questions for publishers, for brands, and yes, even for designers at Twitter. His writing rings true; users give me, the designer, direct feedback on what our team has built.
Specifically, I’ve had some great back-and-forth conversations with users who have contacted me directly, asking me questions on why we no longer have background images or how to unpin a Tweet. I actually received so many questions on how to format the new header image that I pinned a Tweet on my profile with a link to our new header template.
How did your MFA Interaction Design education prepare you for life at the epicenter of social media?
I would not be able to do my job without the education I received from SVA. Liz Danzico has created something special—a program that covers nearly every aspect of the industry: system design, research methods, coding, business management, cybernetics, entrepreneurship, prototyping, content strategy. The SVA IxD program feels like a liberal arts angle to a specific industry; it covers so much ground over two years that coming out of SVA, I had a powerful set of tools and high level of understanding. More to the point, the program did not hand out answers to us, but rather taught us a framework to proactively ask the right questions.
Anything else you’d like to bring up?
Going to SVA was the best decision of my life.