The Twitter blackout and User Interfaces

Really good user interfaces are effortless. You understand what’s happening and what to do without thinking about it all. This means that the best, most essential bits of good user interfaces are often, by definition, the things you don’t notice at all.


This has really been brought home to me over the last couple of days by the Twitter blackout. This is a really nice idea for a protest — it’s really caught on and has no doubt brought the New Zealand government’s three-strikes shenanigans to the attention of lots more people than would otherwise have noticed.

It’s also made me realise how essential the avatars are to the UI. Without them, Twitter (or more accurately, TweetDeck) is quite a different place: I can no longer effortlessly tell who is speaking. Sometimes, when there are a few blacked out tweets in a row, it’s positively confusing. The username of the person speaking is there, but it’s quite small — and reasonably so, because it’s normally rarely needed.

What’s also interesting is that some people have obviously cottoned on to this already. One of the tweets in that screenshot is only partially blacked out — so it still gives you a bit of a hint as to the tweeter’s identity. Useful.

In any case, I expect Twitter will return to normal soon — hopefully as a result of the New Zealand government doing an about-turn on its crazy kick-people-off-the-just-internet-because-we-said-so legislation…

PS: that screenshot’s a fantastic example of Twitter at work, too. We start with Cory Doctorow croudsourcing ideas, presumably for a book. Next comes a funny meme, with which people are doing fun things. Finally, a product recommendation — the natural, honest, my-buddy-liked-this kind of recommendation, which is really the only kind that counts.