Looking After Number One-forty

Solving a number of design challenges

One defining aspect of Twitter, starting way back when we were still Twttr, is 140-character Tweets. For some, the character constraint has been a fun challenge. It motivates people to be briefer and more creative with their words. We’ve even heard people say that it’s helped them improve their writing. For many people, though, the limitation can be an incredibly frustrating part of using Twitter. It forces them to hack their sentences, severely limits their ability to express their thoughts, and often leads people to abandon their Tweets. We love the brevity of Twitter, but we also want people to be able to easily share their thoughts.

When we looked into the data on Tweet length, we discovered an interesting pattern: depending on language, people have a very different experience with the 140-character limit. For example, in information dense languages, like Japanese or Korean, 140 characters isn’t very limiting. People in Japan are able to express a lot in 140 characters and don’t have any complaints about the limit. In languages like English, Spanish, French, and especially German, the character limit is a consistent complaint we’ve seen in our research over the years. A great example of this disparity can be seen below: The same basic idea expressed in three languages, English, Spanish, and Japanese.

With this in mind, we designed a system that defines two types of written languages, dense and non-dense, and expands the character limit for non-dense languages. By grouping languages this way, we can give people writing in non-dense languages like English and Spanish the same space to express themselves as people writing in information-dense languages like Japanese. This will make sharing thoughts and ideas on Twitter a lot less frustrating for many more people, while maintaining brevity on Twitter overall.

This is where the design challenge comes in: How can we make a UI that communicates these different character constraints that is still easily understood globally? Simply replacing the number doesn’t work because we can’t be certain which language you’re going to be Tweeting in. We could guess which language you’ll use, based on your location or system language, but that falls apart quickly, as many people live in foreign countries or travel regularly. Additionally, many people Tweet in multiple languages, sometimes within a single Tweet. Because we count dense alphabets differently than non-dense, mixed language Tweets can result in some intricate math that we want to be able to abstract away. The challenge here was to create a design that adapts to different character limits without relying on a number, works with the many ways people compose Tweets, and is intuitive enough that people don’t have to spend time thinking about it.

During the initial design brainstorms, it became quickly apparent that there are lots of questions we needed research to help with. We knew we needed to understand all the different circumstances around how people compose Tweets, but we also had to answer some other key unknowns:

  • Do people look at the number while composing a Tweet now?
  • When does the number become important?
  • Is just a warning sufficient enough?
  • What happens when they go over the limit?
  • When they’re getting close to the end, how soon do they worry about it?
  • How important is UI progress indicator for people to understand how much space they have left as they compose?

Based on these questions, I went through quite a few design explorations. This included 27 different, animated prototypes (Principle is my jam, in case you were interested), more than a couple design brainstorms, internal crit sessions, and a lot of revisions. At the end of all these explorations, we conducted in-person testing across two countries (Japan and the US) with a handful of functional prototypes.

Snacks are essential to a productive crit.

In-person testing was very valuable in helping us identify what was working and what wasn’t. A great example of this is how one of my favorite designs totally failed. For this prototype in particular, I had decided to remove the counter completely until they got close to the limit (20 characters left). At that point they would see a small tracking number following their cursor.

This design didn’t work 🙁

Despite what I initially thought, it actually ended up being quite confusing to people in our testing session. One of the research participants in Tokyo said, “I like the one with both circle and the number at the end. With the circle, I can intuitively know how much left to go. Also, without the number counting down from the beginning, I don’t have to feel pressured as I type in the Tweet.” This reasoning for liking the a combination of abstract + granular design was shared by our Japanese research participants. While I thought removing the UI until it was relevant would help alleviate the stress of the character limit, it ended up having the opposite effect; people were unable to properly plan their Tweet since they had no feel for how far along they actually were.

Through our research, we were able to define some clear design constraints, including answering a lot of the unknowns. In the end, the research refocused our design needs:

  • Be an abstract counter to support multiple counting methods
  • Show progress throughout
  • Have a granular counter appear as people got close to the end
  • Use color or another visual indicator as a warning
  • Lean less on subtlety or people won’t notice it
  • Support all our composers

Ultimately, we landed on a design that solves those needs and still felt “Twittery.” We wanted something lightweight and clear with some small elements of delight. Of course, just feeling something isn’t enough, so we’ve been tracking whether it’s working or not. Not only do we want people to understand the experience when composing Tweets, but we need to understand the impact of this change overall on brand perceptions — 140 was so core to who we were for more than a decade. In addition to researching people’s expression experience on the platform, we also worked to understand the impact of the character limit change on the overall perception. We wanted to make sure we maintained our identity as a brief way to consume information. Our brand research found that people in the experiment continued to think of Twitter as a concise way to consume information. We also discovered a measurable drop in these same people citing the character limit as a reason for dissatisfaction.

One advantage of working on a digital product like Twitter is that our jobs are never done. Another advantage is that people can tell us what they think of our changes simply with a Tweet. We’ll be watching how people use their newfound 280 characters, and seeing if there are areas we can improve. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing how everyone is using this update.

There were lots of people involved in this project, but I want to give a huge thanks to Kiyotoshi Yamauchi and Dandan Zhang for helping with the research on this project. Photo help from Aastha Bhargava and Josh Silverman. Also, for more details on some of the more technical aspects of this project check out our great engineering blog posts.