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Twitter's Follow Button & User Expectations
Twitter inverted the visual language of its follow button, causing confusion and consternation. But is it a sound long-term choice?
Twitter recently tweaked its design in several ways, most of which are fairly minor, but one that has caused copious consternation is the inversion of how the “Follow” button works. Previously, when you were already following a user, it would be filled in, but the background to the button matched the background behind it if you were not. Now, a filled-in button means you are not following someone. Good user experience requires user expectations to be reliably met, but these expectations do not exist in a vacuum.
In many ways, the philosophy of this design decision does make sense. One typically needs to follow others more often than they unfollow. At most, one can only unfollow as many times as they first follow, and only if no one blocks them. If a button toggles between two states, and it is used in one state more than the other, it makes sense to draw visual attention to it when it is in the more used state. The theory of this decision is sound.
However, like with so much theory about the behavior of fickle humans, this runs into problems in the real world. In the case of Twitter, the user’s historical knowledge of how the interface works is relevant. That does not mean that diverting from user expectations is never warranted. In this case, perhaps, over the long term, it is. However, it is no surprise it is a controversial change.
Often, in interface design, people use the term “design language.” This is not a metaphor. Though we often process what it says in subconscious ways, the interface should communicate information about how it works based on how it looks. The dissonance Twitter users feel is because it is as if this language suddenly swapped the words for “yes” and “no.”
In this case, the justification for it may make it worth it, but the adjustment period will be rough. It did not take long for me to unfollow someone thinking I was actually doing the opposite. However, after that one mistake, even if the app continued to look wrong to me, I did not make the mistake again. And it feels less wrong over time.
The important thing with changes like this is to commit to them. Twitter has a history of making changes only to revert them later. While there may be occasions where it seems warranted to break from past consistency, the goal with user interface design should be a new, lasting consistency going forward. If “yes” and “no” kept getting swapped, they would tend to blur in people’s heads into a “maybe.” But sticking by this change leaves room for a new — even if jarring — normal.
In some ways, it reminds me of when Apple decided to switch the directionality of the scroll direction on Macs. For instance, by default on MacBooks, one now swipes up with two fingers to scroll down. This felt deeply jarring at first, but it brought the design language “vocabulary” in line with tablets and phones. Before, the scroll action was about controlling the scroll bar. Now, in all cases, it represents dragging content upward, whether on a touchscreen where the content is visible or a trackpad where it is not.
Ultimately, Twitter’s long-term success depends very little on this one UX decision. They dominate their particular niche of short-form social media content. But that is all the more reason it is important that their design decisions be strong. For better or worse, it will probably remain an important communication medium for quite some time. It is critical that their apps and website be accessible and easy to use. My initial reaction to this change was revulsion, which has since mostly passed. But we are all effectively having to learn that visual “words” have opposite meanings.