Mike Davidson was the long-time VP of Design at Twitter until recently moving back to Seattle. He led an international team of designers and researchers building products for hundreds of millions of users.
Before joining Twitter, Mike was the founder and CEO of Newsvine, the social news site acquired by MSNBC, the first acquisition in its history. Before that, Mike led the team at ESPN, redesigning the first mainstream media site to support web standards way back in 2003.
I caught up with him a couple of months back (before his announcement to step down from Twitter) for a wide ranging interview where we discussed the design process behind Twitter’s Moments, what to look for when hiring designers, and what the future of a Tweet might look like.
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What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. Short on time? Here are seven quick takeaways from our chat.
- It’s not enough to just build a great product. You have to teach and guide users to get real value from your product.
- When designing products at Twitter, a balance has to be struck editorially – helping people discover content, but also curate it themselves.
- Designing Twitter Moments came from a Superbowl prototype at Hack Week, but very quickly, people saw that its potential was much, much more.
- When you have unequal inputs for the type of culture you want, it’s actually a design problem as much as anything.
- All designers will have their strong points, but it’s becoming more and more important that designers can understand the breadth of an entire problem themselves.
- From 140 characters of text to entirely new mediums, where could the atomic unit of a Tweet go in the future?
Emmet Connolly: Today, I’m very happy to be here with Mike Davidson. Mike is the VP of Design at Twitter. Mike, thank you very much for joining us here.
Mike Davidson: Thanks, Emmet. It’s great to be here.
Emmet: Mike, for our listeners who might not know or be familiar with your work, would you mind introducing yourself?
Mike: I run the design and research team at Twitter. I’ve been there about 3 years now. Before that, I was CEO and co-founder of Newsvine, which became part of MSNBC. I’d been at NBC News for about 5 years before I took the job at Twitter and was at ESPN.com for several years before that.
Be your users’ Sherpa
Emmet: I guess I’ll start with Twitter, with the changes it seems to be undergoing at the moment. Increasingly, Twitter isn’t just Twitter. You now have Vine and Periscope and maybe what you might think of as mini products within Twitter itself. I’m primarily thinking of Moments here. How do you guys, as a design team, decide what to keep separate versus what to integrate into the core Twitter service?
Mike: It’s a really good question. I think there are a lot of reasons to design specific experiences outside of the Twitter app. You mentioned a couple: Vine and Periscope. Those are experiences that were designed from the ground up to serve very specific purposes. Periscope was designed to allow you to view the world through someone else’s eyes, which is a really interesting concept.
It’s slightly different than Twitter; it’s all video-based. For an experience like that, you may see elements of it come into the main Twitter experience at some point, but you can see a lot of the really great touches that the Periscope team was able to put into the experience by virtue of it being its own app. It’s not just a tab within Twitter. It is a purpose-driven app that allows you to teleport yourself around the world by virtue of other people’s cell phones. It’s really, really interesting.
We feel like it’s a product that the world has never really seen before, and now is the perfect time for a product like that to exist. In fact, it wasn’t really possible for a product like Periscope to exist several years ago, for many different reasons. One of them is network speeds. Obviously, you couldn’t run something like that on dial-up or even slow broadband connections. The advent of 4G was really important to make something like Periscope and even Vine work.
Additionally, when you use Periscope, there’s very little latency between the person broadcasting the stream and you asking them questions, giving them hearts, and interacting with them. The reason for that is that Periscope makes use of iOS’s hardware video encoding which actually wasn’t available until iOS 8.
It’s one of those great things where it’s the perfect product at the right time, and we love it. We love it as its own experience, and we love seeing Periscopes broadcast within Twitter in the form of Twitter Cards.
It’s very easy to say, “Why don’t we take DMs and split them out into their own experience. And why don’t we take feature A, B and C and split them out into their own experiences.” But the reality is, it’s very, very hard to gather critical mass for an application no matter who you are — whether you’re Twitter, Facebook, or an individual developer.
If you’re going to do that, you better make sure you’ve got something that is 100 times better than anything out there. Or at the very least, that you’ve got the power to drive a lot of people to it from your flagship app. You see Facebook doing this with their app constellation strategy. They did it with Messenger and have had great success because Messenger is a core feature of Facebook.
They have developed other apps such as Paper — a beautiful app, very well designed — but you don’t see nearly the amount of usage because it’s not really a core function of that experience. We are very focused on improving the core Twitter experience, not just for people like me and you who have been using the product for 9 years, but especially for people who haven’t really gotten the product yet.
We feel like Twitter, more than almost any product in the world, is something that, once you get it, you love it. You don’t want anything to change about it, and you don’t understand why other people don’t get it. But before you reach that “aha moment”, it’s really hard to get over the mountain. I think our biggest opportunity as a company is taking the billions of people in the world who haven’t gotten over that mountain yet and act as their Sherpa — teaching them what Twitter is great for, and how it fits into their lives.
Giving users the building blocks to succeed
Emmet: That’s really interesting. When you talked about the time being right, and a lot of factors hardware-wise coming together to enable something like Periscope, it reminded me of Twitter originally. It wasn’t innately tied to the emergence of smart phones, but it seemed like the timing was perfect. It was just the right medium and interaction. It’s interesting to consider it in that way.
There is an element of what you were talking about there that relates to Twitter as a platform. There’s Twitter, what you call the core product, and then the platform, which are these other things on top of that. How do you guys think about that from a design point of view? Do you consciously try and design the platform, or is that just something that evolves organically?
Mike: It’s a great question. We look at all of Twitter as a platform, really. We feel like it is the world’s best platform for freedom of speech and expression. We look at the Tweet as the essential unit of expression. We quite purposefully do not have an editorial voice, even with something like Moments which is curated by our staff. We really try not to take a point of view editorially on what’s most important in the world, whether you’re leaning left or leaning right, or into sports or into politics.
We don’t want to tell you, as an editorial team or as a company, what you should be interested in. We want to provide a platform such that you can find that all the great stuff yourself, and you can rely on your friends and the people who are very influential to you. Perhaps great writers who you’ve always wanted to get close to, or athletes or any number of industry luminaries who you may be interested in. We want to allow the world to speak to you in a way that makes sense for you.
As a designer, it’s an interesting problem, because we want to be opinionated about how to design products. We don’t want to just say, “Hey, here’s a box of Legos. Go make whatever you want with it.” To some extent, that’s what we’ve done for part of our history. We’ve said, “Go follow a bunch of people, figure it out and good luck.”
The percentage of the population who’s great with Legos has done a great job with that. The several hundred million people who use Twitter every month are great at taking a box of Legos and making something amazing out of it. But there’s a great percentage of the world’s population who could benefit from some instruction, and who need a bit of a starter set.
It is something that we wrestle with a lot; having an opinion about the product and where the product should go, but not having an opinion about the content itself. That’s something that you’ll see us evolve further with Moments for example. Right now, we are the only curators of it. We are the ones deciding what goes in the Moments tab.
— Twitter (@twitter) October 6, 2015
We currently have a beta group of publishers who are curating their own Moments. We are featuring those within the Moments tab. You’ll see this, if all goes well, expand to the point where anybody can curate a Moment much as you curate embedded tweets and embed them in your own web properties.
Emmet: Interesting. In some sense then, those Lego builders become the Sherpas that guide everyone else over the mountain. Is that the idea there?
Mike: That’s definitely part of it. I think one of the really, really difficult things about loving Twitter is it’s very hard to explain succinctly to your friends, to your family, to anybody you meet on the street what it is and how to use it. Everybody has their own definitions. They’re beautiful definitions. I’ve heard a thousand of them. Every time you hear a new one, you say, “Oh! I’ve never really thought about Twitter that way before!”. We feel like with Moments we’ve provided a very, very simple set of instructions to start using the product. Download the app and tap the lightning bolt.
Mike: That’s really all it is. Download the app. Tap the lightning bolt. Within that experience, we will show you what’s trending, what’s important, and what’s entertaining in the world at any given time. It’s entirely possible that the default Moments experience may be a better Twitter experience for a lot of people than their own timeline. For somebody like me or you, that’s hard to imagine because we have such a great experience within our own timeline; because we’ve spent so much time curating it and making it this amazing news feed that tells us everything we need to know. But the whole world hasn’t curated their timelines as well as you or I have. We don’t have an opinion as to whether you should be using Moments as your flagship Twitter experience or the home timeline as your flagship Twitter experience. We think that each provides a different set of things for people as they travel on the path towards mastery.
Designing Twitter Moments
Emmet: It’s something I’ve found in a lot of the design projects that I have engaged in. Giving someone that really aerial initial insight into why this is special and why they may want to invest further time is key, but then over time, you have to allow more more value and engagement to unfold. It must be difficult to take…Is Twitter almost 10 years old now?
Emmet: To take a very mature product in some sense, and impose an even greater degree of first run simplicity on it. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the design process behind Moments? It seems clear what you guys wanted to achieve with it, but how did you actually go about designing it?
Mike: I want to get into the first part of your question first, though, which is how do you create a product that is simple on first run and reveals itself as your skills with it grow. One of our design principles at Twitter is that Twitter should grow with you. We feel like the Twitter experience from several years ago was neither simple enough for new users, nor powerful enough for power users. It’s hard to remember but 2 years ago, we didn’t even have images on Twitter. It actually has evolved quite a bit over the last several years, but with each thing we add to the product, it’s another bit of cognitive overhead for new users to figure out. “Okay, images are part of this. How do I upload an image?”. “Oh, there are these social actions. What does the arrow mean? What does the double arrow mean? What do all these things mean?”
Trying to create a product that grows with you — that reveals itself gracefully as you start to use it more — is one of our top priorities in the next year or two. With regard to Moments, we have many features around Twitter that are under active development. Moments is one of them. I wouldn’t say that we follow the same playbook with each part of our product. Some products are run by very small teams. One PM, 1 designer, 5 engineers. Some parts are 2 PMs, 4 designers, 30 engineers. There is no one way to bake a cake at Twitter, but I think the way we baked Moments was pretty interesting.
A few years ago, we set out to create a kind of channel guide for Twitter. We were calling it Explore. It was basically a way for people. especially new users, to say, “You know what? I don’t know anything about this product, but I’m into sports, so I’ll tap on sports. Okay, here are a bunch of sports that I might be interested in. Okay, I’ll tap on Seahawks. Then, I’ll get an experience that is Seahawks-oriented.” We went down that road several times. While it was interesting, we found it resembled the Yahoo directory model a little bit too much, and required a bit too much hunting and pecking. People started talking about doing deep dives into a subject like Seahawks, or iOS, or beer. The concept of doing deep dives in a mobile app never sounded right to us. We wanted people to do “shallow dives” where everything was 1 or 2 taps away. That project simmered for a little while.
Then, this past January, a couple designers on our team had an idea during Hack Week to create an experience designed to help you follow football games, because the Super Bowl was coming up. The idea was to allow you to easily follow something like the Super Bowl without having to manually go in and follow each commentator, each athlete and each team. And the idea to automatically remove those follows after the game was a really, really interesting one. They created a product that we called Game Time.
It was a panel that allowed you to say, “I like the Patriots,” or, “I like the Seahawks.” While the game was going on, we would insert Tweets into your timeline from Patriots beat-writers, Seahawks beat-writers, athletes, and people that had interesting things to say about the game. But when the game was over, all that stuff was gone. The metaphor that one of our designers used was great. She likened it to “drinking a potion”. Imagine drinking a potion for 3 hours, and your Twitter experience gets a little crazy, and then the potion just wears off. I really, really like that way of thinking about the opportunity of temporary follows. They got together with a PM, hacked it together, and they won Hack Week. It was really great. We were actually able to test it during the Super Bowl, and everybody who watched the game thought it was something we should pursue. I happened to be at the game and was using it throughout. It really, for the first time, made a real life event more meaningful and more special to me, despite the awfulness of the Super Bowl and how it ended.
Building a healthy, diverse design culture
Emmet: You hinted at how you do different team sizes, and how your design team in particular is organized across different locations. Can you just describe a little bit more in detail how design at Twitter actually works, how your teams are structured, what your own rule is?
Mike: Yeah. One of the things that I’ve thought really hard about for the last few years is really making sure that engineering, product management, design, and research are all at the table from day one and they all have — more or less — equal decision-making power. I don’t think that designers should be the sole arbiters of good taste. I don’t think that PMs should be “mini CEOs” who get to decide whatever they want to do with the product without talking to designers and engineers. I don’t think that engineers should go home over the weekend and rewrite an entire product or service and say, “Hey, this is how it works now,” either.
— Mike Davidson (@mikeindustries) December 9, 2015
Research is the other piece of that as well. Research often gets overlooked in these sort of conversations. But at a company like Twitter, our success does not depend on how well people in San Francisco enjoy our product. It depends on how much people around the world enjoy our product. Research is really the only way to get a good view into how people around the world — who are nothing like you — use the product. By having those 4 seats at the table, it really encourages us to make decisions holistically that don’t just satisfy our own self-interest.
We have a rule at Twitter, which I think is a really good one, that no person can have more than 10 direct reports. The downside of that is it can create a little bit more hierarchy because you have to have managers on top of managers, but the upside of it is each manager has the time to do weekly 1-on-1s with their employees, and to do the team building and career building that we want our leaders to do.
We evaluate designers and researchers across 4 different strata. The first is getting things done. Do you do what you say you’re going to do? Are you able to fight through conflicts, politics, bad timing, and all of the obstacles that come up during the product development process? Are you able to fight through all that to get a great product out the door? The second is building strong relationships. If you’re a designer or a researcher on our team, do PMs and engineers fight to work with you again? Do they come up to me and say, “Don’t you dare take this person away. I love them so much.” The third is improving the team. What sort of things do you do to improve the larger Design and Research team, whether that’s helping recruit great people into the company or teaching skills like prototyping to the rest of the team. What things do you do away from your individual job that improve the rest of the team? The fourth is technical skills, empathy and vision, which are the typical individual skills that most designers think they need to excel at in order to get promoted.
We believe that by rewarding the rights sorts of behaviors in our teammates, we’re really creating not just great designers and researchers but great teammates. That’s what we put at the top of our list. When you get into incentive systems where you reward people based on how many things they ship or how many lines of code they write or how they moved a certain metric, you put people in a position where they may do the wrong things in hopes of achieving those sorts of results. You also potentially put them in a situation where one person on your team has a greater chance of succeeding than another person.
For instance, let’s say Moments turns out great. What if you got put on that team? If you were rewarded based on results, things might turn out pretty well. What if you had the misfortune to be put on another team that wasn’t so stable, the product hadn’t shipped yet, or it’s going to take a lot longer to get out the door, or some things go wrong that were outside your control. I don’t want to put my designers or researchers in situations where I have not given them an equal chance to succeed.
I think by really rewarding the right sorts of behaviors — behaviors that create a healthy design team, a healthy research team, and a healthy product development culture — we create the right sorts of incentives for people to do the right things.
Emmet: Yeah. I think that’s a really wise approach. It’s perhaps surprising that some other companies tend to put very direct “We will reward you for launching,” structures in place. The second order things that come out of that are totally unsurprising, teams squabbling between each other or sabotaging each other or whatever. It’s one of the interesting things that I’ve come to realize recently; that there’s designing a product and then there’s one level outside of that – designing a team that can create good products.
Maybe in some sense, this is akin to designing a platform again — what we were talking about earlier. With Twitter you’re almost designing the environment, the scaffolding within which the real experience can happen, which can’t be too rigid and can’t be too loose either. I think team-building is also a really interesting design problem.
Mike: It is. It is. That’s exactly the right way to put it. It is a design problem, for sure. It’s something every startup goes through. It’s one of the reasons why startups are able to move so fast early on. They have handpicked the 3 or 4 people who are going to sit in a room together and develop a product or service. Often, it’s people who have known each other for several years, but you each know exactly what the other brings to the table.
In the beginning days of a startup when you’re 4 or 5 people in a room, nobody’s looking around at anybody else saying, “What do you do? Why are you here?”. We really want to maintain that care and consideration for our design culture, no matter how big we get.
Diversity’s another really important thing to us. The Design & Research team is 50% male, 50% female. We put a lot of effort into not just making sure we’re as diverse as possible as a team, but really spreading the message of diversity throughout our industry. We hear a lot of other companies, not just in the Bay Area, but throughout the world complaining about things like pipelines, and the number of graduates that come out of Stanford or computer science schools being predominantly male. Ok, they are, but that’s a design problem. You have unequal inputs for the output that you want. Solve that.
I think not enough companies put that high enough on their list. I think Twitter, at least from what I’ve seen, puts it pretty high. We see the results in just our daily work. We feel like having a diverse team is like having more built-in research. I’ll give you a concrete example of that. We were going over some illustrations that we were going to use for this permission gating thing we were doing on iOS. When we ask you for permission like “Hey, can we share your location?”, you’ve got to get permission at the iOS level to do that.
The smart way to do that these days is to do a pre-permission first, where you put up a friendly screen, and say, “Hey. Will you give us this permission?”. If they say no, you don’t pass them onto the real permission gate. If they say yes, you pass them onto the real permission gate.
We were looking at illustrations of a campsite to convey location. One came up, and I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s a nice, quaint little illustration. That seems like it will work.” Then we went around the table.
There was one woman on our team who is of Indian descent. She said, “Actually, that’s not really going to resonate with people from where I’m from.” That’s all she had to say. We knew we had a problem and had to go back to the drawing board to figure out a better way to get that concept across. We could have gotten that insight through rounds and rounds of user testing. We could have flown somebody into India and found that out right away. But it was so convenient having somebody at the table who could say, “Actually, this makes sense to San Francisco residents. This doesn’t make sense to people on the other side of the world.” There are countless examples like that where just having diversity within our own team has helped us create a more global product.
Generalism over specialism
Emmet: It’s interesting to hear some of this stuff that you’re saying about how it’s very different being 4 people in a room at the very early stages of a startup and scaling to however many thousand people. In your experience, does that also mean going back to that idea of designing a team, that you have to iterate on your design, and iterate on how your team is put together over that time? Are there stages that every design team goes through?
Mike: Yeah. That’s a good question. We have iterated our model several times in the last few years. We used to be a lot more centralized. When I got here, I think we were about 20 or 25 people, all sitting in our design studio. It was great because it’s a lot easier to build a design culture within the design team if you’re all sitting in the same room together. It allowed us to always know exactly what everybody else was working on but the downside is it tended to slow down development. If an engineer needs an asset cut, instead of just tapping the designer on the shoulder, an email gets fired off.
Maybe the designer doesn’t see the email for a day. Instead of something that could have taken an hour, it ends up taking a week. That can really build up. By having designers and researchers embedded on each product development team, we’ve been able to get speed of development up to where we wanted it to be.
However, that change was met with quite a bit of trepidation; not just me but amongst everybody on the team because we didn’t want to lose what we had. We didn’t want to lose this family atmosphere that we had created amongst designers and researchers. What we did is, we kept the design studio where it was. In fact, we remodeled it and made it even more amazing. Whiteboards all over the place, very comfortable couches, standing tables, taxi desks for temporary seating. It’s just a very flexible space that we can do a bunch of different things with.
We kept that together. I still sit there. Our Head of Research, Grace Kim, still sits there. Some of our Leads sit there. More importantly, it’s a space that almost all of the Design and Research team comes to several times a week for different things. Every Monday morning, we kick off the week with an all-team meeting where we celebrate launches and birthdays and talk about department business. It lasts about 10 minutes or so. It’s a good way to start the week and remind ourselves that we’re part of the same team. Then, we have design crits which happen every day, sometimes several a day. You have designers and researchers from all pockets of the company coming together into this one space. We feel like we’ve been able to have our cake and eat it too.
In terms of what types of people we hire, that has actually remained fairly constant since I’ve gotten here. We really believe in a hybrid model of designers and researchers. The more skills that you have, the greater the problem that we can throw at you for you to solve. I don’t like these workflows where one person does the conceptual work and says, “Okay. I’m done with the concept,”, and then passes it off. Another person does the wire framing and says, “Okay. I’m done with the wireframing.” And so on.
Some people really believe in that model, and it can work. It can definitely work. The people that believe in that model will never give it up and probably for good reason. I guess if you figured out how to work that way, it can make a lot of sense. But for a company that moves as quickly as we do, and often in different directions, we really need to be able to pivot very quickly within projects.
I like being able to put one designer and one researcher on a product and know that they can handle the breadth of that entire problem themselves. Do we have designers who are 70/30 visual to interaction? Or 50/50? Yeah. Not everybody’s skills are evenly spread throughout the spectrum. We have some people who can code and some people who can’t code.
But with few exceptions, we try to stay away from that specialist who can only really make an impact in one tiny slice of the design process. I think that’s true with startups, too. I think it’s even more true with startups because there are a lot of startups out there who don’t even think about design until several years in.
Dropbox is a great example of that. I don’t think Dropbox had a designer for the first 4 years of their existence. They’re a pretty well designed product but they didn’t really need a large design team when they started because if you remember, it was a folder sitting on your desktop. There wasn’t a whole lot of actual visual design to be done. Certainly, there was interaction design but generally in a startup, you need everybody to wear multiple hats. If we’re going to run our department and our company at startup speed, we need people to wear multiple hats.
Emmet: It’s interesting. I’ve worked in a bunch of those different ways of organizing a team; centralized design team or embedded in smaller product teams, and there are certainly pros and cons to each. But I guess the key thing is to make sure to do what you guys are doing. It sounds like your studio compensates for whatever the deficiencies of your default approach is.
Mike: Yeah. There are always going to be deficiencies. There’s no perfect way to set up a design or research team, or a technology company for that matter. You just need to be able to learn very quickly from the mistakes that you make. I think the ability to learn quickly is one of the most important skills you can have as a founder or as a leader in a company, because you’re going to make mistakes every day. The only way you’re going to get better is to learn from them.
What the future might hold for Twitter
Emmet: Based on what you’re saying, and based on some of what we can perceive from the outside, it’s an exciting time at the moment for Twitter. With Jack Dorsey coming back and new products, things like Moments and so on coming out. How do you maintain some sense of constancy amid all of that change, but at the same time, balance out the type of innovation you’re talking about trying to achieve?
Mike: If I’ve learned one thing at Twitter, it’s always to expect the unexpected. It’s a company that has moved very, very quickly in several different directions over the last several years. Each year has ended either slightly or radically differently than I would have thought at the beginning of the year. Whether that’s new products altogether, like Periscope and Vine, or whether that’s taking our product in a different direction like Moments. Change is always in the air.
One of the great things about having Jack back at the company is he is the inventor of this product. When he talks, he talks with a certain sense of purpose that you can’t manufacture. This is probably the first wildly successful product he has invented. He has great instincts about what’s wrong with it, what’s right with it, and where it needs to go. There’s just a certain calmness that he brings when he’s at the table in some of these product discussions that we have. Some people say he’s quiet. I think he’s quiet by default. When he’s in a meeting, he doesn’t feel like he needs to command the room or to speak for 99% of the air time, but when he speaks, it’s very well considered. It makes you think about problems in a different way than you have been thinking about them in the past.
— Twitter Design (@design) October 20, 2015
It’s only been a few months, but I can already tell he is an extremely design-friendly CEO. Dick was great as well, by the way. He was fantastic to work with as well but totally, totally different in how he approached running the company and running the product. It’s just interesting to see how quickly the flavor of meetings, the flavor of product development cycles, and the flavor of how we think about things change when your leader changes.
It’s a really interesting time to be at the company. It’s a really interesting time to be a designer at Twitter as well. I like to tell people that we are just one big family within the company. We hang out with each other on weekends, we go camping with each other. It’s a really fun place to work. It’s a really fun place to be a design leader, but it’s also not easy. If you’re looking for an easy job, something you can just sit back and come in at 9 and leave at 5 and never have any stress about your life at all, it’s probably not the place for you. You have to be willing to wade in the chaos a little bit. I say, chaos, but I mean that in a good way. I think people say a company mirrors the product that it makes, or the product mirrors the company that makes it. A lot of that is true.
Emmet: It’s fascinating to me to a certain extent at least to deconstruct a Tweet in itself, and just analyze it as an object. I think Twitter became famous for being just 140 characters of text, very plain and simple. But in reality, you guys have now morphed what a Tweet is over time into a very rich multimedia thing – containing links, pictures, video, location, being part of a conversation thread. With Moments now, even something that looks and feels very unlike the traditional Tweet. Do you think this is true? How do you see the Tweet itself evolving over time or in the future?
Mike: Yeah. I think it’s definitely true. I talked a little earlier about a Tweet being a unit of expression. Look at all the ways you can express yourself to the world. It could be something you say. It could be a picture that you take. It could even be a smile. There are a million ways to express yourself, and you should be able to do most of them if not all of them on Twitter. What we want to do as a design team, and as a company, is to really remove all the abstractions we can from those subunits of expression.
A few years ago, the only way to get a photo on Twitter was to use a third party service, via a URL to that photo. When you saw it in your timeline, all you saw was a URL. That’s an abstraction. It’s not an actual photo. It’s just a URL. If you remove that abstraction, you just replace the URL with the photo itself. The best representation of a photo is a photo. The same is true for video. The same is true for links.
Now, instead of seeing just an inscrutable URL at the end of your Tweet, we’re expanding those and showing you a card with a preview of the content. We really want to remove as many abstractions as we can from the Tweet, and make it about what you’re trying to say and what you’re trying to express. You have already seen us stretch the boundaries of that with photo tagging, which doesn’t take up any of your character count. You’ll see several more things like that in the future but certainly the goal is to help people around the world express themselves in as free of a manner as possible.
Emmet: Does that mean we can expect Tweets to look maybe less like a traditional Tweet or the Tweet of 10 odd years ago and more like something else?
Mike: You can definitely expect things to continue evolving. I think there’s a lot to be said for context as well. We forget, there are still people around the world who use flip phones with very limited data plans. I don’t think those people even want images in their feed for a variety of reasons.
In a context where you’re that constrained for bandwidth, and that constrained for real estate, maybe a Tweet should be as compact as humanly possible. But for something much larger like an iPad, like an iPhone 6 Plus, like a giant Android phone, like a television screen, there’s so much more that we can do within the canvas than we’re doing right now.
I think it’s our job to create a system that can flex all the way from the smallest devices and the smallest screens in the world to the biggest devices and to even environments that live outside of Twitter itself. You see embedded Tweets all over the place, not just on the web but also in mobile applications now. You see Tweets on billboards. You see Tweets on news tickers, on television stations, on any number of things. Tweets are everywhere. When something happens in the world, it happens on Twitter. We need to make sure that our system is able to gracefully flex to the environment that it’s in.
Emmet: I guess one of the other aspects is that so many of these Tweets are part of the conversation. Obviously a lot of that conversation happens among regular users of the service, but customer service is another one. If you look at any business on Twitter, any broadband provider, any airline, they’re typically businesses responding to customer’s questions in real time. In some ways, that’s amazing, that sense of immediacy but there is often a lot of repetitiveness to that. Do you think about this much and do you guys see a future perhaps where these responses could be automated based on customer intents or based on the question or something else?
Mike: Yeah. Customer service is a very important thing to us on Twitter. It’s something that, much like a lot of things on Twitter, evolved organically. As companies began to get more comfortable with their Twitter presence, they began answering support inquiries from their customers. It’s really amazing to read a conversation between a person and a company who are able to resolve their problem quickly and publicly by virtue of Twitter. It turns into almost an advertisement for that company when it’s done well.
If somebody’s having problems, maybe they’re having problems changing a flight. They send a message to whatever airline they’re flying on. The airline gets back to them and says, “Hey, we can help you.” Within a few minutes, their flight has changed. Then, the customer will Tweet out, “Oh, this is amazing. Airline X just was able to change my flight. Thanks so much.”
That’s really the holy grail of customer service, isn’t it? To solve a problem one of your customers is having, and to have that customer tell the entire world how great the service was. This is something that we need to make a lot easier for people to do on Twitter. Not just people but companies as well. It’s certainly something we’re thinking about, moving into 2016.
Emmet: In some ways, it’s a high wire act for the business. Because if they provide poor customer service, the inverse happens, right? We’ve all seen those, “Oh, my god! I hate this airline. They left me waiting on the tarmac,” or whatever. Do you guys think about that as part of the problem or is it just creating greater incentive for the business to provide better customer service?
Mike: I think it provides great incentives to provide great customer service. But I also think there’s a delicate dance in there, where some of this you want to happen publicly and some if it you want to happen privately. There’s a good deal of customer service that should probably happen over DM instead of publicly.
Now, if you think about the process today to make that happen, it’s fairly complex. I don’t follow Airline X. Airline X doesn’t follow me. I Tweet something out publicly to Airline X. Airline X replies and says, “Hey. We’d love to help you. Please follow us so we can DM you.” Maybe you decide to do that. Maybe you decide not to do it. If you decide not to do it, then none of it can happen privately. If you decide to do it, then do you keep following this airline? Do you not follow this airline? There are just a bunch of steps that you have to go through right now that we can probably eliminate fairly gracefully.
It’s our job to make the experience — for both the user and the company providing support — as easy and frictionless as possible. Certainly, we know we have a lot of opportunity ahead of us.
Emmet: Right. Nobody wants to have a conversation with their bank manager in the middle of the lobby of the bank, right?
Mike: Right. There are other instances where companies take a great amount of pride in the copywriting aspect of their Twitter presence, when they turn a fairly bland customer service session into something that’s humorous, and entertaining.
Done right, this can provide you with all the right incentives for the right behaviors to occur. Like I said earlier, we just need to make it as easy as possible.
Emmet: As one of the many, many people who has loved the product you make for many years now, it’s exciting to get to see the passion that’s clearly behind it. I guess on all of our behalf, thank you very much for putting so much of yourselves into it.
It’s probably as good a time as any to call it a day. Mike, thank you very much for joining us.