Fix This App: Twitter

[We spend a lot of time with mobile apps. We know what we like and what we don’t—sometimes within the very same app. Each week in Fix This App, we’ll take a mobile offering that’s not without its share of flaws and try to nudge it a little closer to perfection.]

If anyone would know how to build a mobile Twitter app, it should be Twitter, right? After all, it’s operating the service. The company should have the insight to build an app that really optimizes the experience for your mobile device.

Spend some time with Twitter’s mobile offering, though, and you’ll find that really isn’t the case. It’s not that the Twitter app is bad, necessarily. It’s a perfectly acceptable app that does a few standard things right, but that hardly seems like a ringing endorsement given the pedigree and expertise of the company behind the app. To use the Twitter app on your iPhone, iPad, or Android device is to wish that it could do so much more.

What it works on: Twitter’s in-house client is available on the iOS platform, where it got its start as an iPhone app called Tweetie. An iPad version of the rebranded Twitter app arrived a few months after Twitter’s Tweetie purchase. The hybrid iPhone-iPad requires iOS 4 to run. There’s also an Android version of the App available to devices running Android 2.1 and later. (I confess that I’m more familiar with the highs and lows of the iOS version, so I’m indebted to my Android device-toting colleagues for filling me in on how the client performs on their smartphones.)

What it does: Twitter’s app tackles the same basic functions as the multitude of other mobile Twitter clients: You can post tweets on everything from what you had for lunch to complaints about people tweeting about what they had for lunch. You can tweet photos or videos, find new people to follow, and see who’s been retweeting and favoriting your pearls of wisdom.

What it gets right: To be fair to the mobile Twitter app, it’s still quiet useable, even if it long ago ceded the considerable advantages Tweetie had built up to other Twitter clients. When it comes to the basics of sending tweets and interacting with other users, the mobile Twitter app remains appealing.

Twitter’s swipe shortcut is back in the iPhone version of its mobile app, though still missing from the iPad incarnation.

Much of that appeal comes from features dating back to the Tweetie days. Scrolling remains smooth in the Twitter mobile client; it’s quite easy to get from one end of your timeline to the next without inadvertently tapping something you had no intention of tapping. The app handles multiple accounts well and (at least in its iOS incarnation) lets you manage notifications account by account. The swipe shortcut—smartly restored earlier this year after Twitter foolish dropped it—remains a handy way of quickly replying to, favoriting, or retweeting someone. At least, it’s a handy tool on the iPhone and Android phones, as we’ll discuss in a moment.

When I first started using Twitter, the company’s own mobile app is what I installed on my iPhone and iPad. And, as a new user, Twitter’s mobile app helped me learn the ins and outs of the microblogging service. That easy-to-get-started approach has a definite appeal for newcomers, I think.

What it gets wrong: Power users, on the other hand, may find more fault with what Twitter’s mobile client doesn’t do than with what it does. The app simply lacks some of the capabilities you’ll find in other clients.

The iPhone iteration of Twitter shows you all sorts of activity in the Mentions tab...

Take Favstar, a third-party service that shows the number of times one of your tweets has either been retweeted or favorited and by whom. Yes, it’s a vanity service, but for people with a professional presence on Twitter—businesses, reporters, and yes, even humble tech writers—it’s a decent way of measuring your reach. You’ll find Favstar support in clients like Tweetbot; you won’t find it in Twitter’s mobile app.

List management can also be a problem on Twitter’s mobile app. I’m not talking about lists you’ve created—those appear just fine. But there’s no way to really see the lists that other Twitter users have placed you in. Again, that’s likely not to be a major issue for your basic Twitter user, but if you use the microblogging service to promote yourself or your business, it’s a handy feature that’s MIA in Twitter’s app.

Twitter’s mobile app also lacks support for displaying location-aware tweets from users in your vicinity, a capability found in other apps. That can be a helpful feature if there’s something going on in your neighborhood: a traffic jam, a police standoff, a food truck selling that taco platter you enjoy. It’s something I wish the mobile version of Twitter would offer.

...but the iPad Mentions tab only displays tweets that mention you directly, and not retweets or favorites.

Finally, the app offers an inconsistent experience from device to device and platform to platform. That swipe shortcut I find so valuable on the iPhone version of the app? I can’t use it on the iPad. The Mentions tab on the iPad version doesn’t show when people retweet or favorite one of my tweets, nor does it inform me that I have new followers; Twitter on the iPhone does all of those things. If someone sends me a direct message, I have to tap on the Me tab and then a Direct Messages button on the iPhone version of the app, while Messages gets its own tab on the iPad.

The inconsistencies and interface issues are worse on Android, my colleague Armando Rodriguez tells me, where you get notifications for everything that happens on Twitter—follows, mentions, and if anyone you follow tweets. To turn those notifications off, you’ve got to dig through multiple menus and turn off each type of notification individually.

How to fix it: If Twitter were to build on its basics and iron out some its inconsistencies, it would be a much better tool for sharing your tweets with the world.

  1. Iron Out the Inconsistencies: I realize that different-sized devices can lead to completely different layouts. But there’s no reason why the Mentions tab on the iPhone and iPad versions of Twitter should present different information. Settle on one approach and implement it across your different versions.
  2. Direct Messages, please: Twitter’s developers need to sit down and think about what people are really using their app for and make the most important features more immediately accessible. To that end, which am I more likely to want quick access to: Direct Messages from people trying to contact me, or the Discover tab in which Twitter is trying to push content at me whether I want it or not? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not the Discover Tab. A Direct Messages tab should go in its place.
  3. Increase the power: I can understand the advantage of having a Twitter client aimed at entry-level users; still, I think expanding mobile Twitter’s feature set would go along way toward keeping users from fleeing to third-party clients. Adding support for local tweets, for example, seems like a natural fit for Twitter.
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