Lessons from TileStack: What Does '#Discover' Mean?

So, last week Twitter debuted a new interface with the stated intent of simplifying the experience. This new interface has drawn criticism from many bloggers. Most of the discussion centered around Twitter organizing their user interface under two categories: Connect and Discover.

Their PR explains it this way (emphasis mine):

We've simplified the design to make it easier than ever to follow what you care about, connect with others and discover something new.

The problem with Connect and Discover is that they are not words people use to describe routine actions. Instead they are vague words that convey a range of meanings instead of describing specific activities1.

I actually get where they’re coming from. There is a perceived problem that people don’t really know how to use Twitter. In the old days of boxed software, this would be a documentation issue. In the post-manual world that we live in today, the user interface is to blame.

The answer is to simplify, which means we need less options. Before there were @replies, #hashtags, lists, search, followers and people you follow. I can imagine the meeting where someone asks:

What if we could reduce all those features to two sections. Two is less than six, so that makes it simpler which makes it better. We just need to name the two options in a way that conveys the full power behind them.

That’s how you come up with Connect and Discover. These are abstract concepts, not product features. To someone who already knows what Twitter is capable of, Connect and Discover are great words that succinctly distill the full potential of Twitter. To someone that doesn’t know anything about Twitter, these words mean nothing. They need to be explained in the context of Twitter.

The reason I know this is because Josh Gertzen and I made the same mistake with TileStack.

We needed a name for the button that brought up the stack editor.2 We wanted to convey to the user that launching the editor was a safe operation, that any changes they made would not be applied to the stack they were viewing.3 For that reason, we didn’t want to use ‘Edit’, because ‘Edit’ made it sound like you could modify something that someone else had made. We had many long conversations and debates about what to call the button. The thesaurus was consulted. Finally we chose a word4: ‘Customize this stack’.

The idea was that ‘Customize’ implied that you were creating a custom version of the stack you were modifying instead of modifying the original. This was the exact behavior we wanted to encourage: see a cool stack, make some changes and save a new copy with your changes. We really wanted to grow a community of re-mixers.

There was just one problem: people didn’t click the button. We knew this not by using fancy analytics tools, but by the questions we were asked by email or in our forums. One of the top questions we got was a feature request for a stack editor. We were completely befuddled. The stack editor was the core of what we had built, and most people didn’t even know it existed!

Back to the drawing board. The problem with ‘Customize’ was that it always implied that the intent was to make a new creation. Early on, there was no community. People just wanted to upload their HyperCard stacks and edit them in the browser. We needed something that would convey this ability as well as the fact that it is still a safe operation on someone else’s public stack.

After another long round, we finally settled on ‘Inspect’. The word sounds pretty harmless. You’re just looking around to see how something worked. There’s also the notion of an Inspector Window which was essentially what our editor was.5

Do you care to guess what the impact of that change was? How about nothing? We ended up making a series of videos showing how to use the site, which did help a lot, but we still got questions about where to find the stack editor.

To be fair, both Customize and Inspect are actually pretty concrete words, but they were the wrong words. How do I know they were the wrong words? I didn’t use them myself. I would always say Edit. In fact, the tool palette that appeared was called the Editor (not Customizer or Inspector). Those words were forced because the natural word wasn’t deemed to be good enough. This just exposes that we weren’t as smart as we thought we were. Eventually we broke down and just called the button ‘Edit'6

  1. When was the last time you went to Twitter to Connect
  2. By default, stacks were loaded in play mode. If a user wanted to modify the stack (or see how it was built), they needed to launch the editor. 
  3. You could launch the editor on any public stack on the site, so that you could see how they worked. 
  4. Err... phrase. 
  5. Without the window. 
  6. If you edited someone else's stack, we indicated that it was a safe operation by changing the Save button to a Save As button. 
Ted C. Howard @ted