Product Basics – Some Learn Your Product, Others Don’t (or: a Twitter #Fail story)

Conan Pale Whale by Yiying Lu

Products should be self explanatory. Some products are naturally more complex than others (e.g. trucks vs. beer-cans), but every product should aspire to be usable out-of-the-box without requiring the user to read any manual. For complex products it’s a real challenge (sometimes unrealistic), and for trivial products it’s, well, trivial.

When your product is in its very early stages, especially if you’re doing something truly novel, your users invest time in learning your product. This “learning” process may include reading texts, watching a short clip, or better yet staring at your UI for 15 seconds, and then getting it.

This learning curve happens in real life because of the following reasons:

  1. You created something new, so people need a bit of time to get adjusted to it.
  2. The type of people who use early-stage products are innovators wishing to feel they understand the new stuff, and feel their time would be best utilized by deeply understanding your product. This knowledge is what differentiates them (in their own minds) from the rest of the population. They know, they understand, they get it.

What a great alignment, your users will help you adjust to real life.

But as you advance from the early users to the larger majority, the attention span for learning your product decreases, and as you become more and more popular your new users just don’t spend time learning – they start using.

I’m usually a late-adopter, such was the case for me with Twitter, iPhone and many other products/services. I want to show you that even a company such as Twitter, with great product management in my opinion, can suffer from this syndrome. And I’m talking about Twitter’s “reply” feature.

In the early days of Twitter, long before I became a user, I remember seeing Conan joking that in order to use Twitter you need to learn a whole new cryptic language (showing a bunch of tweets with @s and #s). This wasn’t far from the truth – for example, you had to understand that in order address someone you need a “@” before their username. Also, as an early user, you probably learned that if you start a tweet with “@somename”, then no one will see this tweet in their feed unless they follow both you and @somename. This type of tweet (one that starts with @somename) was called a “reply” (here’s Twitter’s description of this feature).

By the time I joined Twitter, I had no capacity to “learn it” and just started using it. After watching a bunch of tweets, it was clear that to address a twitter user I had to use “@” and then his Twitter username. But I didn’t know about this “reply” feature, and indeed made the mistake of trying to joke on the expense of someone with a tweet like “@herschel is such a moron, like, seriously!”. Since most of my friends weren’t following @herschel, almost no one saw that tweet but @herschel. This type of problem is extremely severe, because I myself had no idea that no one saw it, nor did I have any reasonable method of finding it out. From my perspective, such a “reply” looks the same as any other tweet.

About a year (!) after I started using Twitter, a friend of mine who was an early adopter of Twitter told me about a certain tweet that he thinks I shouldn’t have made a “reply” but a public message, because it was funny (“add a dot” he said, I had no idea what he was talking about). It took the both of us a couple of minutes to figure out that it was obvious to him that I know what a “reply” is, whereas I had no idea that there’s anything special with a tweet starting with “@somename”.

Now you may think I’m a complete idiot, so did I. So I started asking people around me if they knew about this feature, and almost no one did. One extreme example was a certain blog that covered Soluto, and tweeted their story in the following way “@Soluto is a great application for X and Y”. So it wasn’t just me.. I wrote the blogger and told him about Twitter’s “reply” feature and he replaced the tweet with one not starting with “@Soluto”. By the way, “adding a dot” means adding a “.” character before “@somename”, so the tweet does not start with “@” and hence is not considered a reply. For example, say you wish to tell the world that “@Soluto is great!”, what you should tweet is “.@Soluto is great!”.

After I understood the “reply” feature on Twitter, I thought it makes a lot of sense, and I see why it’s needed. But nevertheless there’s a problem among users: for some of them, some of their tweets go out with no one there to see them, and they have no clue about it.

This is a classic case of a product expecting people to learn how to use it.

I consider myself a non-whiner, that’s why when I pass judgment I always try to put myself in the shoes of the one I’m judging. In the “reply” case, I really don’t know how I would solve it cleanly if I was in charge of Twitter’s product (and I will say this again: I think they have a superb product from a product-management perspective). There are a bunch of options, but neither is clean. One of the most important things in product management is to “throw ideas out there”, even if they suck, just to generate (or even inflame) a discussion. So here are a couple of ideas:

  1. If the person I’m replying to has significant followship, e.g. > 10k followers, treat the reply as a public tweet.
  2. If over a certain percentage of my followers also follow the person I’m “replying” to, treat the reply as a public tweet.
  3. In my first few tweets, when I start a tweet with “@”, a message will appear explaining to me in very few words that this tweet will not be easily visible to my followers who do not follow this guy (it won’t be a blocking message requiring me to press “Ok”, but rather a levitating “hint” that does not required interaction).
  4. Do YOU have any ideas?

So to summarize, it’s ok to expect your early adopters to spend a bit of time learning your product, but the days of telling users to RTFM are gone. When designing for the masses, assume people won’t spend a second learning, and will just start using. Design accordingly.

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  • Gal

    Great post, I’m not a tweeter user but I’ve seen tweets in the past and had the same questions… I’d go with either option 3 or 4, preferably 4 because option 3 is the we-don’t-have-a-good-idea-so-we’ll-just-say-it option…
    Perhaps show which followers can see the tweet after every tweet you make as a general feature…

    • Roee Adler

      When you say that you prefer option 4 you mean…? :)

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  • Uri Gilad

    Great post.

    If, as you suggest, people don’t understand this feature (I am one of those) twitter should have made it much, much more self explanatory. Since they already have a “reply” button, the next step would be to make it self explanatory, at least on their web interface: whenever starting a tweet with “@ugilad”, dynamically change the box to say “replying to…”. It seems they do this, but instead indicate this is a “mention”

    Their help does some work in confusing these further, where the problem is only mentioned (ha!) at the second footnote:

    I was inspired to write a post on how to “solve” this.

  • Hi, I’m Natalie.

    I HAD NO IDEA! Thank you – and great article!

  • SixTen Ministries

    Yes this is a very good article which attempts to educate ‘newbies’ to Twitter as well as some longtime users like myself. Where you place the @ sign is also IMPORTANT in that if the @ sign is the 1st character (followed by user name) on the Tweet then that is a REPLY whereas IF the @ sign & user name is ANYWHERE else on the Tweet it is NOT a reply BUT a mention which will show on their REPLIES timeline BUT also is seen by everyone FOLLOWING you on their main TIMELINE.
    This REPLY & MENTION feature alone has been MOST valuable in getting out the WARNING message of the Rapture of the ‘ELECT’ on May 21st, 2011 followed by 5 months of hell on planet Earth before the total & complete annihilation of the entire Universe on October 21, A.D. 2011 ~ God bless us ALL~! Amen~!

  • David Ogletree

    There is an error in your article. “Also, as an early user, you probably learned that if you start a tweet with “@somename”, then no one will see this tweet in their feed”.

    This is not true. An early user would expect the opposite. Twitter did not start hiding tweets until 2009.

    • Roee Adler

      Thanks for this clarification, I wasn’t aware of this. Always glad to find out I was wrong :)

  • Helen

    great article and a thousand thanks for the info!! always wondered what this “@” was about… ^^

  • Hanzrobin

    Thank you. I had no idea. Learned a few things reading this…thank you again. Hopefully I’ll make fewer errors in the future.

  • Bill

    Technically, there’s another nuance you’re missing in your post which may further clarify (or confuse!) things. A reply is a very specific kind of tweet that is initiated by clicking the reply icon (left-facing arrow) on another tweet. Doing this not only starts the reply automatically with the @username of the tweet author you’re replying to. It also “connects” your reply tweet with the original tweet. This makes tracking conversation possible by opening that tweet over on the right on (Other Twitter clients enable viewing the conversation in other ways.)

    If you DON’T initiate your reply by clicking on the reply icon, technically, your tweet isn’t a reply, and won’t be connected to any previous tweet. A tweet that starts with the @username, but wasn’t initiated by clicking the reply icon, is a mention, not a reply.

    On top of this, you’ll still encounter the rule you discussed in the post. A tweet that starts with the @username (regardless of whether the tweet is a mention or a reply) will only be seen by users who follow both you and the person to which the tweet is addressed.

    • Alex Danvy

      Bill said: “On top of this, you’ll still encounter the rule you discussed in the post. A tweet that starts with the @username (regardless of whether the tweet is a mention or a reply) will only be seen by users who follow both you and the person to which the tweet is addressed.”
      Well, those tweets are still public. Everybody, following you or not, can see them reading your timeline.

  • Irene Koehler

    Very well written and you raise valid points. I’ve been using twitter for years and many times have come across features and options that many users don’t know about. While I agree that Twitter itself can do a much better job in making the platform easier for new users to understand, it might be helpful to know that much of the peculiar language and symbols used on twitter came from users and developed organically, rather than coming from twitter itself. It used to be the case that all replies were visible in the main twitter stream, but quite a while back Twitter changed that. Many people were unhappy with the change because they wanted their replies to be seen by all of their followers, so adding a dot to the front was a workaround.

  • Raargh Wunderkzin


    I like this article. I’m an old IT techie that has had a Twitter account from the beginning.  I quickly grew to hate Twitter and don’t use it much. I even go so far as to not let anyone follow me expect for a couple of people.

    However,  am wondering if something is possible. For various reasons too complicated to list here, I still use a circa 2007 Samsung R500 dumbPhone (one reason is the killer reception and 4-day battery life) . So, I am limited to tweeting via texts to 40404. I often want to send a tweet to someone, i.e. to  @somename. I will never actually subscribe to that person’s Twitter feed, and of course they don’t subscribe to me. Is there a way I can send them a tweet that they will see?
    I understand that my request smells of ” can I spam someone on Twitter?” but seriously, I often just want to send a single message, usually a friendly one.



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