Mike Isaac

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Twitter’s Third Act: A New Design to Court the Mainstream

twitter_discover_updateTwitter has lots of users. It wants a lot more.

That is, in part, why it is planning a massive overhaul of its mobile apps, designed to make the service more appealing to mainstream users.

You should get a first glimpse of Twitter’s new look in the not-too-distant future. Sources said the company is waiting to show off its new design until sometime after Apple releases its iOS 7 software update, scheduled for this Wednesday. (Twitter will release a small update after iOS 7 launches, with the more significant one to come later on.) It will be Twitter’s third major interface change in the company’s seven-year history.

The company declined to comment for this article.

Gone will be the four tabs at the bottom of the app’s screen, as the New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan first noted, replaced instead by swiping through different content-focused streams. There will be the main reverse-chronological stream that current users are familiar with, as well as a stream for interactions between other users and conversations they’re having. Notably new, there will also be a stream dedicated entirely to photos shared on Twitter (an idea that Facebook included with its segmented News Feed redesign months ago).

Essentially, moving through all the streams will be more of a visual experience, sources said, with a heavier emphasis on multimedia. There won’t be the need, for instance, to click inside a tweet to see a photo or a video — it will just appear in the stream. (For reference, see how Twitter’s current Discover tab treats some media content.)

The overall theme: Look pretty, feel richer, and become far more visually immersive than the text-heavy Twitter we’re all familiar with.

But perhaps the biggest change will be centered on what Twitter wants to be connected to the most — television. Sources said that Twitter is experimenting with another stream dedicated solely to TV-related tweets and conversations, one which will likely find its way into Twitter’s redesigned app.

An example of Twitter's current Discover section

An example of Twitter’s current Discover section

Twitter has set the stage for this over the past summer, experimenting with a “trending TV show” box at the top of some users’ streams.

That might be attractive to Twitter fanatics, many of whom already espouse Twitter as the go-to second-screen app for real-time online chatter around their favorite shows. And it certainly fits in with Twitter’s vision of itself as the “social soundtrack for TV.”

But its real aim to is help guide first-timers who have decided to download the app after seeing hashtags or “@” signs on TV ads.

Instead of taking days or weeks to figure out what’s so cool about Twitter, for instance, a newcomer could instantly stumble into a conversation happening about their favorite prime-time drama, during the very moment that show airs.

Much of the idea behind the overall redesign is to combat the massive user churn and retention problems the company has faced over the past year. Twitter has more than a billion registered accounts, according to sources, but only a quarter of that number remain repeat Twitter customers; Facebook has more than a billion active users.

The forthcoming changes are also a reflection of the way the rest of the social Web looks today, and of Twitter’s corporate evolution.

Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest have tapped into users’ love of visual content, an area where text-heavy Twitter isn’t as strong. And, for both Facebook and Twitter, according to sources, images see incredibly high engagement (if not the highest) compared to text-based updates.

The product team, too, is changed from what it was three years ago, with a different vision of what Twitter should look like. Jack Dorsey and former VP Satya Patel were behind Twitter 2.0; the Twitter of tomorrow is very much the product of VPs Michael Sippey and Mike Davidson.

Obviously, not everyone will love this. As we’ve seen already with Twitter’s “blue lines” conversation product update, even small changes can beget loud complaints (a little more than a week later, that hubbub seems to have died down).

But, with the looming specter of a more Twittery Facebook nearby and an eventual IPO potentially not far off, Twitter has found itself more willing to change than it has ever been before.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik