Mike Isaac

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Twitter, Discovery and the Problem of Simplicity

michael_sippey2Here’s a wonderful tale of tech irony: Twitter’s greatest strength — its simplicity — is at the same time its greatest weakness.

Imagine being Michael Sippey, Twitter’s VP of product, who spoke at our D: Dive Into Mobile conference on Tuesday. You’re charged with taking a product as stripped-down as Twitter, which started out as a short messaging service, and gradually adding features and enhancements over time without alienating the very user base that grew to enjoy it in the first place.

Tough problem, for sure. And I’d doubt Sippey would want to change the core Twitter experience, a reverse-chronological, never-ending flow of tweets moving through your stream. So what do you do?

I sure can’t tell you the answer, and I’m not even sure Twitter can quite yet. But it’s certainly trying to figure it out.

Take search, for one. “We’ve made a big investment over the past few years in real-time search and archive search,” Sippey said, improving Twitter’s once poor experience of sifting through the billions of tweets that regularly flow through the service. So instead of missing out on all the conversation floating around in the ether, one could search for specific words, phrases or hashtags. (And yes, I can say it has grown better over time.)

More important, I’d argue, is Discover.

“The Discover tab and product on mobile,” as Sippey put it, are “essentially experiments that we’re trying out there.” It’s a way for Twitter to serve up user-suggested content, based on the accounts they follow, their histories of interaction with others — basically the stuff they care about. And ideally, if Discover worked perfectly, it’d be the best place for users to, well, discover all that stuff they’ve missed, the stuff they haven’t searched for — the stuff you didn’t even know you wanted to see.

Problem is, Discover is far from perfect. It launched essentially as a beta product a few years ago; suggested content wasn’t great, the design was lacking, and people just didn’t use it.

Now, Sippey said, people are using Discover (sadly, he wouldn’t disclose just how many). And, to be fair, I’d say Discover certainly has grown better over time. But I’d argue that it’s still not compelling enough to take users out of their main streams and into the Discover tab on a regular basis. (TBD if Sippey and pals ever figure that problem out.)

But! There’s a curious light at the end of this tunnel. Twitter’s answer to simplicity seems to be less in worrying specifically about major changes to its core product, but rather focusing on building separate standalone apps built entirely for different purposes.

Put another way: “There are times when you need a single purpose-driven knife when you’re in the kitchen, and there are times when you need a Swiss Army knife,” Sippey said. “We want to build the best Twitter we can build. But we also know that we want to build other things that can use the Twitter infrastructure to basically serve different purposes and different needs.”

Hence, the Vine acquisition last year, and the forthcoming Twitter Music app to drop soon (which Sippey was pretty mum about). Create these sort of satellite apps, and perhaps you don’t freak out your core base of users. In the meantime, perhaps you’ve also found a new on-boarding mechanism to capture and convert non-Twitter users into living, breathing tweeting machines; neither Vine nor Twitter Music (from what we’ve heard) require you to have a Twitter account in order to use the service, but sure make it easy to sign up for Twitter if you want to!

So, in Twitter’s perfect world, we’re able to find stuff — video, music, whatever — using these other services without screwing up Twitter’s proper app. Great, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. People actually have to download and continue using all the apps to make it a successful strategy, and Twitter isn’t exactly keen to break out its engagement stats for us. Guess we’ll see if Vine can maintain its download success, and if Twitter Music is a hit when it launches.

If not — good luck with that whole simplicity thing, tweeps.

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