I thought I would share my results from a quick experiment written up in A-level style science experiment. I did in my own home with the help of a normal Dell computer, a regular mother and some internet.

Note: This is a long post ~2k words and is intended for anyone who is involved with designing webapps and or is interested about how badly they are designed for normal people. In this case it’s about Twitter which is unique in that there are some conceptual barriers that people must first grasp before they are able to properly make use of the service.

Why did I do it?

-I was asked to design the user flow for a web-app for normal people, i.e. anyone off the street who has some digital experience. Maybe even an iphone (more on this point later).
This article on user flows which explains how a hotel pre-empted all of the actions a guest might take before, during and after a shower
-Listening to this interview about a twitter consultant who has and still does spend a long time explaining Twitter to people and also founded oneforty.com
-I wrote out all of the steps involved (below) in joining twitter and found that I had some questions as to a users expectations of what would happen next and wanted to understand if they had all of the context required to take the decisions necessary to use twitter.
-Discovery of a new twitter client mixero and the realisation that Tweetdeck and most clients are great for people who know but not for those who don’t
-A common knowledge that people who are not in tech land or over the age of 18 find it hard or that it takes time for them to ‘get’ twitter and similar services like Dailybooth

My hypothesis

That my user would not have sufficient context, explanation or experience in order to take the right decisions to get themselves up and running properly.

My Candidate

-Primary school teacher
-Educates children weekly on how to use computers, i.e. login, browse and access learning materials
-User and evangelist of interactive whiteboards at school of 3k+ students
-Uses Google, Gmail, Facebook, Outlook, MsOffice, Chrome (tabbed browsing) and apps she buys online or on a CD
-Has heard of Twitter through the Radio (Terry Wogan) the TV and my sister (@kirstymalcolm)


I asked the user to sign-up to Twitter, my goal was to prompt as little as possible and only intervene when the user is at a dead end and close to giving up. The user without prompting also spoke what they were thinking almost as if it were subconscious which helped enormously with the results

The Twitter sign up process & some questions

  • User visits site
  • Context: User is interested in the service/value in the site and clicks register/sign-up
  • User clicks register
  • Question: Does user now expect to have to fill in some details?
  • User fills in fname, sname, displayname, email, password
  • Question 1: What does user expect when they click register?
  • User gets directed to an initiation process with three clearly laid out steps
  • Step 1: User gets directed to suggested user list & selects people to follow
  • Step 2: User is prompted/offered to find friends through uploading contact lists & selects people to follow
  • Step 3: User is prompted/offered to find friends through search & selects people to follow & clicks finish
  • Context: What does user expect when they click finish?
  • User is presented with feed and main page


First visit to the site

  • User arrives on site, reads information and realises that they are being prompted to search something, sees the suggested terms in the bottom row and asks ‘What do I want to know about?’
  • -At this stage the user does not realise twitter is something they join or how they might contribute to it

  • User types in a google style question
  • -The user has had no instructions on how to search on twitter or how it is different to a regular contextual search engine

  • Gets search results
  • Clicks on a user icon
  • Expects an article not updates
  • -User is still in search engine mode

  • ‘Don’t want updates’ – Question: What did you expect: ‘Not what I expected to see’
  • User doesn’t understand, goes back to the beginning and decides the question was too complex
  • User searches ‘Andy Murray’
  • Clicks a bit.ly link, gets taken offsite to a spamy page, now offsite & confused
  • -User does not realise that they are off page or that they have accidentally taken a dead-end route

  • I prompt user to close the offsite tab and return to original search results tab
  • -User expected ‘chatter’ and still doesn’t understand that the search results are the chatter

  • Searches my name & doesn’t find anything
  • -User is beginning to give up

The signup process
After this initial experience I prompted the user not to give up hope but they should sign up for an account. They hadn’t thought to do this in the first instance but went on to the sign-up process by clicking the Sign-up link in the header.

Signup form

  • Enter name, easy
  • -User is unaware of privacy issues and as they are a teach I suggest that they just use their first name rather than putting a full name

  • Username, very hard ~3 minutes
  • -The user was completely stuck as to what they should name themselves. They understood that this would be a public name and wanted something that related to them/they could relate to, that wasn’t silly and that was sufficiently anonymous. After a few minutes I suggested firstname followed by an initial would be both them but also anonymous. This was taken, after a quick thought and no suggestion from twitter, they then added two initials in reverse order.

  • Email, password & catchpa easy and without prompting they would have left the newsletter radiobox ticked
  • -At this stage just before they clicked the submit button I asked question 1: ‘What do you expect to see next’. Their response was a screen that says ‘Welcome to Twitter’ and that they would be in the application. From the next stage I think that they were in form filling and instruction following mode.
    -The user acually got a fail whale here, when they re-logged in they didn’t get the usual process users get to find people and also more importantly didn’t know that they had missed it. I had to kill their account and re-create it to get them to the next step.

  • User starts to browse categories and understands that they are there to find people and follow them without prompting
  • -Later on I discovered that they wondered if the people minded if they were being followed, clearly here there was no context for them to understand that everyone knows that their data is public (perhaps they don’t know either?).

  • ‘Where do I search for people?’ – User expects to have to scroll through all of the results to find who they want and knows that this could take some time, also ‘They’re all American’
  • -At no point is it explained to the user that they will go through a 3 stage discovery process nor is it indicated in the guidance above that they will have the opportunity to search for people. They also wanted localised context for the users they wanted to follow and didn’t want to follow any of the us tennis stars, comedians or politicians. I prompt them to try clicking next as they are running out of steam they want some results.

  • User gets the find people you know window and says ‘I don’t want to find people I know’
  • -As there is no ‘I don’t want to do this’ button the user assumes that they have to. Again prompt to try next button

  • User misses the search box and clicks next and lands on their Twitter page
  • -At this stage I thought back to when they were looking at the categories and were trying to find Terry Wogan but couldn’t. I suggested that they click back and try to find him.

  • User sees the search box (was too small and they missed it first time) searches for Terry, finds him and clicks on their profile image rather than on follow
  • -The profile image and links shouldn’t really be active here as it adds confusion to the whole thing, they want to follow so why have all the rest active, there is an argument that they might want to go and see if it’s the right person but that’s countered by the fact that they will be greated by a screen/view they don’t understand anyway.

  • User follows Terry and clicks next. They remark that they can only see Stephen Fry posts
  • -There’s no guide as to what an ideal minimum of people someone should follow in the sign-up process. Currently if there was they probably wouldn’t be able to find enough relevant tweeps anyway. I suggested that the user search for me and my sister.

  • User searches for my name in the twitter search box on the right and doesn’t gets some non-relevant tweets
    -The user assumes that they can find people by searching in a search box which is normal, perhaps having a button which says Find People next to it would clear up the confusion or this might be isolated.

    The user went on to find my sisters profile and follow them. Overall they now seem to understand that a user page has all of the things a user has said and that their page shows people they are following.
    -They are not aware of how best to discover people
    -They don’t know what a @reply is or a RT
    -They are not aware that there are apps that they can use on twitter


    There are an alarming number of things that my user found hard to use in this sign-up process. The service is not dis-similar to alot of others out on the web but they seemed to lack guidance and context at a couple of main junctions and on occasion were given too many or not enough options to choose from.

    Contexts/Missing links/User assumptions/Problems
    Searching – They didn’t understand that they were searching for keywords in what people were saying
    Tweets – They didn’t know that the tweets were tweets or that they are limited to 140 characters
    Post Signup User discover – The process was not spelt out to them and that lead to confusion on the first page when looking for people
    First user discovery page – The users first conclusion was that it was poorly designed and that they would have to browse through lots of results to find the one people that they had thought of which they started to do.
    Not enough options – Some parts the user wanted to skip and may have pulled out there is obviously a balance between driving behaviour and dropout and I don’t know enough about Twitters to know which is the most beneficial to them
    Too many options – The user got confused when they thought they were following people and ended up opening peoples twitter pages.
    Layout once signed up/first sign-in – Little or no guidance as to what to click on, or what steps to take next.


    This has been a very interesting experiment and experience and will definitely shape how I define user sign up, flows and first touch experiences. I will be looking to make them so that no only the technically savy can use apps but also those who are new or who never will be pin-sharp. I hope you find it useful and will pass it on to other people who might also find it useful.

    I leave you with this: Having been to a recent meetup in Belgium about Facebook a new iphone user asked ‘Can I get the facebook app on my iphone’. They didn’t realise despite having bought (and here you have to buy @ €430/piece) that they could download apps and didn’t know how to. So just because someone is an ‘iphone user’ does not mean they know how to use their iphone.

    Additional notes/Update:

    Since I published this last night I’ve had a few additional thoughts around the usability and priming users with enough context to follow the intended behaviour pattern. The information below is less structured but is focussed on the solution rather than the conclusion.

    A key overlooked point from the first post
    -When my user followed her daughter she did not realise that the user would probably get an email saying that she was following her, this led them to feeling as if they were stalking and made them feel uncomfortable as they perceive this as spying. At no point were they primed to know that this would happen
    -Another user who I was talking to who was using the service only realised a month after they had signed up that if they follow people legitimately that there was an increased chance that the person they followed would follow them back
    -My user thought that they were using/on twitter when they were searching and it was not indicated that they should use keywords vs keyphrases/questions

    Typical questions that from social network users considering twitter
    Q: What are the benefits to me?
    A: Twitter is different things to different people. Having read the post from Both sides of the Table this morning we can safely say that the geeks and techies know how to use it for what they need which is sharing information and contacting people within their social circles. Normal people associate online publishing with celebrities and people they want to hear more about probably on a National (Country based celebrities e.g. Terry Wogan), Local celebrities i.e. Boris Johnson and super local i.e. local councillor, PTA rep and so on.

    Q: Why would I want to have random people hear what I say?
    A: You probably don’t but once you realise that you can add to the conversation by replying to people you may want to contribute and join the conversation.

    Q: Why would I want to listen to random people?
    A: This is a question I asked myself while writing this, my user actually had an idea. They wanted to follow celebrities. People know about twitter from others who are on it talking about it.

    Q: Who would I listen to and follow?
    A: People I know but don’t have access to i.e. celebrities

    There are also some considerations for Twitter
    -They want users to publish as this increases content and drives interaction/growth
    -They want users to follow and discover people as this also drives interaction/growth

    The reality
    -Twitter is an easy to maintain personal blogging space that as a result of its limit on characters requires very little effort to maintain and thus doesn’t have the expectation which people associate with writing a normal blog.
    -Most people are now beginning to understand the idea that they can have blogs and if they have a good enough reason such as sharing their world travelling that a blog would be a good way to share this information.
    -Microblogging: Most people don’t understand this term.
    -People are curious about twitter

    Before throwing a user into a twitter feed they need some additional priming and context that is currently not being achieved. Web design is trying to override the needed guidance through design and ‘usability’. This clearly works with things like door handles which we are taught to use and interact with from a very young age, email which is similar to sending a letter and even Facebook which mimics real life relationships and bonds.

    While twitter does mimic real life relationships the relationship behaviour is not shown or understood by all and the benefits are certainly not communicated. I would liken it most to relationships between children; easily made, broken and repaired. Users might find it easier if they were simply told:

    -When you post a tweet it is public like newspapers
    -People you follow are notified by email & might follow you back
    -You can reply to someone by adding an @ before their display name and it will appear in their feed
    -Follow people who you know or want to know about
    -You can use other applications to access twitter

    Further points that are not essential at entry but useful to know
    -People don’t get an email when you unfollow and won’t care (much)
    -You can protect your tweets

    While these final points of information are not conclusive and require the user to do further research they are breadcrumbs which are needed to get tweeting. The same principles apply to any applications which are introducing new concepts to a normal audience.

  1. This is great. Thanks for writing all this up.

  2. Being a new Tweeter myself, I can relate to this experiment rather well and I am a web designer! The premise behind Twitter is that it is simple and uncomplicated, but in fact that is truly not the case. I have never known an application, that has had other applications created to make it easier to use.

  3. Duncan,

    Have you shown this to the folks at Twitter?

    You did a great job with this experiment and write up. I would say that your results mirror what I have heard people of all generations say about Twitter. In fact, I still haven’t figured out how to search for people.

  4. have you seen Seesmic Look?

  5. Did you show this to the folks at Twitter?

    This is a great experiment and write up. It mirrors problems I have heard tell from people of different generations who have attempted, but failed with Twitter.

  6. Wow, this is very valuable to my cofounder and myself who are both technical and very familiar with Twitter. Part of our tool identifies topics of interest to a user, with a little tweaking this could help a new user identify other folks who share their interests.

    We could use a user interface person like yourself Duncan at VictusMedia.com.

  7. Very interesting reading. I have been an Internet user almost since the BBS days (I'm in my late 30s) but Twitter was the first real 'social media' site I joined (i.e. no Facebook etc. prior to my first try with Twitter). I had a very similar experience to your mother's. I joined, had no idea what to do, had no idea how to 'join a conversation', no idea how to find people (or topics) to follow. I gave up after about 15-20 mins of trying to figure it out & stayed away for several months. Once I came back to try it again, it took me a few weeks to really understand it all (incl. hash tags, RTs, putting a dot before a reply etc. etc.) & to get Tweetdeck and become a regular user.

  8. Great analysis. We're working on the sign up/first touches part of our product now so it's helpful to get another dose of reality.

  9. Do you think that's because of a design problem or just a lack of explanation of what Twitter is? I was stumped when I first joined and their strapline was 'Say what you're doing now' only after talking to a bunch of other people did I go back and give it a go..

  10. I think it's a usability/design problem to be honest, but I guess there is some natural lingo that not everyone will grab hold of at first. But it would be nice if they sort of had an intuitive help area, where you type something in and it comes back with a breakdown.

    It really breaks a lot of rules in usability and yet it is one of the most popular applications available…so what do I know 😉

  11. I had the exact same experience..

  12. I don't know anyone at Twitter but if you do point them in the right directions..

  13. Interesting article that highlights the ambiguities in the resulting user experience of Twitter. Was wondering if a screen-cast demo or a video like this http://tr.im/LUkA on the home page/sign-up page would help the first timer?

  14. I think it could although I'm not sure if I agree 100% with that particular video as it seems to be heavily weighted towards people following people they know whereas interestingly the people I know who have started using twitter outside of tech land are using it to follow celebs and people they don't know..

    If you do have a video unless you're a music site I think it also makes sense to subtitle it as there are still plenty (most) office pc's which don't have sound.

    http://www.soundcloud.com is a good example of a site with video on the front..

  15. random thoughts
    – your user needed a conceptual model of social networking; if someone's used facebook they'll understand twitter much easier
    – i'm old enough to remember when we had to teach people how to use a mouse
    – twitter can also be used to follow news feeds and notices, so its not just social networking
    – hashtags and lists are a mystery even to “regular” twitter users

  16. Hey I thought I'd add some thoughts becuase you've made some good points.

    -User uses Facebook
    -Definately think that Mice and cd-rom drives (cup holders) could have had a better explination to the user as to their use. They still could. There's an assumption that a user knows what a trackpad on a laptop is. Take your $100 laptop and send it into a remote community where they've never seen computers (I'm assuming they have power) and when they turn it on for the first time it would be nice for them to get an explination of how they might go about using it. So far most and I'm pretty sure all versions of Windows assume the user has this knowledge.
    The user is also a primary school teacher and so has to educate her classes on how to logon to computers for the first time and how to use mice, start menus and so on. If Microsoft designed first time users into the UI say perhaps a button for I'm a first time user then these users would have a better chance.

    I think the best way to think about it would be to imagine an alien family have just arrived. Lets assume they have hands and ressemble one of the regular startrek charactersm, strange they all seem to be around 5-6ft :). What do they need to know in order to get to Google and find out more about the human race. Does the system recognise that they are a first time user and what could it do to make their experience easier for them. Essentially a child who has never used a computer is this person and needs to learn how to use a mouse, cd-drive.. There are obviously plenty of warmers these days tv being one of them but I think it pays to think about it, at least a little.

  17. At some point (if not very first) you have to say, “who is my target market?”

  18. Definitely and some people build stuff specifically so that novices can't use it and don't bother to reduce support or because it's just not needed.. But if your goal is fast growth then you want to be thinking about how you can make it as easily adoptable for all.

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