• 08.13.12

A Tufte-Inspired App That Visualizes The Twittersphere

Information clutter is a serious problem for Twitter. So why do they want to stop developers from solving it?

A Tufte-Inspired App That Visualizes The Twittersphere

You have 345 unread tweets.


As anyone who’s ever seen that dreaded tally knows, Twitter has a major problem with information overload. Keeping up with thousands of tweets, not to mention figuring out which ones are actually valuable, can feel like a life-consuming task. Twheel, an unusual new app aimed at reducing Twitter’s information clutter, solves the problem by turning your tweets into a beautifully designed map.

“At the moment, the giants of social media are trying to solve the problem of information overload by reducing the amount of information through filtering. Filtering, however, will eventually put you in a filter bubble,” write the founders of Fluid Interaction, the Finnish startup behind Twheel. “We decided to take the other route, and follow the words of Edward Tufte: ‘Information overload is not caused by the amount of information, but failures in design.’” In other words, we don’t need to reduce the amount of data–we just need to redesign it.

The team lifted a page from Tufte’s book, designing an interface based on a Coxcomb chart, which is also known as a polar area chart–originally developed by Florence Nightingale to visualize wartime fatalities. Coxcombs organize information around a radius that changes with the values, a bit like a pie chart but with slices that come in variable sizes. Open up Twheel, and you’ll find a chart that that shows you several things. The wheel organizes 30 tweets by their authors. Unread tweets appear in orange, while white bars indicate traction, or the amount of retweets generated. When you slide your thumb over a bar, the tweet appears. Things you’ve already read are left colorless. It’s a fun system, one that lessens the drudgery of scrolling.

CEO Kalle Määttä believes that UI could benefit from a strong dose of science. His team is applying neurological principles to interface design, basing functionality on evidence of how our brains consume and interpret data. “Two of our founders have an extensive background in cognitive and HCI research,” he tells Co.Design. “We’ve integrated a lot of that knowledge, including studies on visual perception, eye tracking, reading, memory, mental models, human motor performance, and human-computer interaction into the development of Twheel.”

But Twheel is raising some eyebrows over at Venture Beat, who call the app “utterly doomed.” Jolie O’Dell points out that Twitter is putting pressure developers to stop building third-party clients, warning of changes in their open API policy. When asked about the looming changes, Määttä says that Twitter is shooting itself in the foot. “The continuing threat of keeping the third party developers unaware of how Twitter is going to change their policy is not beneficial for anybody,” he says. “Can they afford it? This would just inspire the creation of the future company, like, that will eventually kill Twitter.”

For Määttä, Twheel is just the beginning. He has plans to apply his team’s dynamic Coxcomb wheel to other interfaces, too. Still, he points to Occupy Twitter, an online petition created by the CEO of Bottlenose to keep Twitter’s ecosystem open to developers. Check it out here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.