Last week, a respected and popular company released a new Twitter client. Unfortunate timing, given recent developments, but it’s safe to assume that they started work on this project before Twitter decided to become a bunch of assholes.
Immediately, my own timeline started filling up with tweets proclaiming that this new client was the best thing since sliced bread. Particularly, that it was well-designed, thoughtful, and amazing. The very traits of great software that inspired me to become a designer in the first place. Naturally, I took a look.
Three dollars and a short download later, I was enjoying a beautiful, carefully-considered… tutorial. Maybe “enjoying” is the wrong word. I may have used some expletives. It’s not important.
I examined the tutorial and took a few mental notes, then moved on. How did this app feel? How did it prompt me to use it? Twitter apps are the new “hello world”, so it’s always fun to see a fresh approach to a very familiar problem.
While my friends were all heaping praise on the interface and interaction design of this new app, I couldn’t help but cock my head a little at some of the decisions. Tap and hold for popup tab-bar things? Triple-tap? Non-standard table cell behavior? This felt like something alien. Like an Android app.
Given what I do for a living, friends have naturally been asking what I think of the app in question. If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know I’m not shy, especially when offering design opinions. Why start making exceptions now?
I proudly declared this app to be the Lady Gaga of Twitter clients. With Lady Gaga, it doesn’t matter if her music is any good. Nobody talks about her music. The discussion is always about her: her clothes, her hair, her antics, whether or not she’s really a dude. Music is the excuse to show up. This fancy new Twitter client felt like a whole lot of design built upon a very thin excuse.
I also mentioned something about tarted-up pigs.
Secure in how clever I was in my analysis of someone else’s work, I wrote an entire blog post decrying it. Your opinion is wrong, mine is right. I’m a designer. I know better than you. I opined that everyone thinks they understand design. Everyone wants to look like they have good taste, and this app was merely successful in that it was a safe thing to be opinionated about.
…On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be a complete dick about an app that some very talented people put a lot of time and effort into. Nobody understands having your design shat upon like a designer. And none of us are enthusiastic about having it done publicly. So I didn’t post it.
Instead, I gave some thought to why this app bothered me so much. It was a safe thing to be opinionated about, but if I’m being honest, that door swings both ways. My opinion was far from unique, but most of the people agreeing with me (or joining in my complaints) were designers. That’s interesting. Is it possible that we’re just being catty? That this team’s work is very good, and really we’re just upset that the attention is going to them and not us?
Great design is tricky. It’s easy to pick apart decisions after an app ships and second-guess its creators. What’s harder — as anyone who has ever created something knows — is being the guy in the room who has to fashion those decisions from whole cloth. Sure, everyone likes to think they have good taste. But the smart ones still hire a designer.
In their ads and product announcements, Apple likes to use the word “magic”. There’s an entire cottage industry of bad Internet comedians who poke fun at them for it. But it’s part of the Apple brand, and the truth is that there is something magical about the iPhone and the iPad. These devices are doing incredible things in bold new ways. They’re changing the world by changing the way people interact with technology. If you’re making software for iOS and you aren’t inspired by that, you should switch to another platform.
We do what we do because we want to be magicians.
And that, I think, is where the problem comes in. This beautiful and amazing new Twitter client is full of flashy graphics and tricks. As magicians, we’re not just observing their moves and misdirections, we’re studying them. And while I can’t speak for anyone else, it seems to me that the irritation is not that the tricks aren’t well-executed, it’s that they’re very by-the-book. We’ve seen these tricks before. We see them as being cheap because instead of being pulled into the experience, we see how the trick works.
But what matters is that the audience doesn’t.
That’s the whole point, right? We create things because we want to delight, entertain, and empower our users. While the specifics of how they did it may be interesting from an academic point of view, the important part is that they did. People really seem to like this app. I can be a jerk about it and point out the trap doors, but then I’m just that guy who awkwardly ruins the show for his increasingly disinterested date.
In design, opinion is currency. But being negative is a cheap trick, too. And if I can get past that, maybe humility isn’t the only lesson this app has to offer me.