Yesterday, Buzzfeed broke news of Twitter’s so-called Project Lightning, a long-running attempt to recast the service with a simpler, more engaging UX. Instead of the noise of a typical Twitter feed, the next version of Twitter’s app will feature, front-and-center, a carefully curated collection of thematically grouped tweets. That’s a surprising announcement for a couple reasons.
For years, Twitter has battled itself over how much to evolve its product. Designers I’ve spoken to have talked about dozens of discarded ideas for filtering the news feed, such as scrubbers that might only show the most popular tweets in your feed, or timelines that could recreate the real-time response to a breaking-news event. For years, product managers and executives discarded all of those ideas in favor of keeping the product exactly the same for Twitter’s core power users, who create most of the content on the platform and who wail every time even the tiniest change arrives on the platform.
With Project Lightning, Twitter is at least acknowledging that the experience for new users or light users has been overlooked. Indeed, you could argue that since hundreds of millions of people have tried and then abandoned Twitter–presumably due to its inscrutability–courting light users should be Twitter’s first priority. Getting it right boils down to some dead-simple UX that won’t piss off power users, but will give everyone else an easy place to drop in on the service.
Project Lightning would work pretty simply: On the mobile app’s home row, you’ll get a button, which will call up various news events that people are tweeting about. Tap on any of those–say, something about the Charleston shootings, or the NBA Finals–and you’ll get not a firehose of information, but rather a filtered stack of tweets, each occupying a full-screen, visually driven card, a la Tinder. (Hello advertising opportunities!) You’ll then be able to swipe through those cards. Crucially, they’ll all be filtered not by machines, but by a newsroom full of living, breathing, burrito-eating journalists.
We’ll see if the product is any good when it debuts in the coming months, but Twitter does have talented designers in its organization, despite a historically dysfunctional approach to product development.
More importantly, it’s a sign that Twitter might be realizing that its myopic dedication to a subset of users can’t continue if the service is to grow. For so many years, Twitter has been only about the speed and immediacy of the dialogue on it. You couldn’t hope to catch up, any more than you could hope to catch up to a flash flood of information.
Now, with Project Lightning, Twitter seems to be trying to slow the service down into something easily digested and satisfying, whether you’ve been away for weeks, hours, or minutes. Twitter’s continued growth might depend upon just that insight. But is it too late to bring back all those users who tried it out, got lost in their feeds, and never came back?