Why New Users Find Twitter Incomprehensible

5 min readDec 24, 2017


I signed up for Twitter early enough to have a 7-character handle. And I tried to learn all about it… admittedly by reading, not ‘doing’ (because I had no interest in tweeting or reading others’ tweets). And this is a know mistake in software, where the intricacies are too numerous and the paradigms too shifty for anyone to explain. But I’ve heard that one of the reasons Twitter is not reaching stock-market-venture-capitalist-silicon-valley nirvana is because people don’t understand it. There are two parts to this: the aforementioned paradigm shift, and its horrible usability. This article will explain the usability problem, as a running log.

[December 24, 2017] This will be a perpetually incomplete log, so I’ll publish it with just what I have at the moment, today, based on one brief session with Twitter.

I click on Notifications at the top of the page and see a long list of things from people I don’t recognize.

The list seems long. Then I realize it’s not just long, it’s endless.

I look at the top of the page to try to understand it; I see two ‘buckets,’ All and Mentions. I can’t infer the difference between what they show by looking at them separately. And they offer me no clues as to what they mean, such as a tooltip or little question-mark icon to click on.

I click on Messages at the top of the page. I see a popup window with Direct Messages.

I understand what these things are because the first time I tried to understand Twitter years ago I read about it intently. They’re messages between only people who mutually follow one another. (And they can also be directed to text messages, or so I recall.) So in other words, you can’t direct message someone like a celebrity who you don’t know. But why do I see about 10 messages from people I don’t know??? Oh, they’re all from a year ago, 2016; I guess that was when dozens of scammers seemed to hack my twitter account and forced my account to follow them, unbeknownst to me. Well, if every one of the biggest financial companies in the country has gotten hacked, I guess I shouldn’t hold a company that trades in meaningless jabber to a higher standard.

Oh, there’s a button “Mark All as Read” right above the messages. I’ll just click that and all those old scamograms will disappear, right? Wrong. They stay in the dialog. But I’m a computer expert, so I know that sometimes it’s necessary to ‘kickstart’ (restart them) software functions to get a screen to clean up. I close and reopen the dialog and they’re still there. Let’s move on. As I used to say, “There are only so many Windows hours in the day.” Today’s it’s Twitter hours. Yesterday it was Equifax hours. This computer stuff is such a timesaver. If it saves me any more time, I’ll be living in antimatter!

Added December 30, 2017
Direct Message Popup

I saw a tweet that I want to respond to. So I start experimenting with the tools at the bottom of the tweet.

Twitter’s tools below a tweet.
  • The first icon is the one that the vast majority of other sites and apps use for “comments,” the ‘speech bubble’ seen in comic strips. But Twitter uses it for “Reply.” To their credit, at least they explain that it’s ‘reply’ in a rollover/tooltip.
  • The second icon is retweet, which I’m familiar with and am pretty sure is what I want to do. But I’m more interested in learning, so I press on.
  • The third icon is just to add one’s vote of approval to the tweet. No surprises there.
  • The fourth one sure looks like I’d be forwarding the tweet into an email. But the tooltip tells me it’s Twitter’s direct message function. OK, I understand; if I click that, I’ll be trying to send a direct message to… um… the original tweeter or retweeter, Sam or Julie (in the image). I click the icon. And up pops this dialog, where I’ve erased a lot of the info intentionally:
Direct Message dialog, with info erased for privacy
  • Here’s where Twitter’s broad theme of usability problems really show. I can’t tell why these names are showing. It says Recent, but I don’t know these people. Are they scammers who infiltrated my account and defrauded (hacked) Twitter to send me direct messages? Or worse, defrauded (hacked) Twitter to act as if I (!) direct messaged someone? Or are they “recently” dm-ed by someone completely unrelated to me? To try to figure out what’s going on, I type characters into the box at the top. I deliberately put in characters that I see in the names on the screen… to see if the box is what’s called a ‘filter.’ The dialog responds by showing names completely different from those in the list below.

At that point, I re-open this Medium.com story and start documenting the continuing usability disaster that explains why Twitter, which should be a success in all ways, is critically undervalued because of its usability flaws.

  • (Just a bit more of the details before I diagnose.) I try typing in the name of a person who follows me, so I can see if they show up in the list. It isn’t until I type their entire (!) handle that they show up. This is not the behavior that one expects of a box that responds on the fly with each character you enter. If people are applicable for me to direct message, I expect their names to show as soon as I type enough characters to retrieve them from my list of followers.

So Twitter has little, nit-picking usability problems at every turn in the road. -

  • Its screens don’t provide little blurbs that explain the novel functions that are unique in the tweeting world.
  • It uses icons alone — that mistakenly use other notions — for novel functions when it should use icons and text.
  • I uses existing constructs but doesn’t implement the expected functionality.
  • I uses labels like “Recent” but doesn’t add “from or to whom.”