In January, on the heels of @realDonaldTrump’s second year in office, shortly after Elon Musk had been fined $20 million and Kevin Hart’s Oscar-hosting gig had been canceled because of controversial tweets, and weeks following Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s return from a 10-day silent meditation trip to Myanmar, about which he praised the food and the beauty of the monasteries but neglected to mention the ongoing regional genocide, Twitter made it clear that some things were about to change.
Just not the tweets. Though the company had spent the better part of the year promoting “healthy conversations,” it wasn’t much interested in putting the screws on its users. Debates, disagreements, the occasional blow-out controversy—that was all stuff that made Twitter Twitter. No, instead, Twitter decided to change itself from the outside in. It was time to give the experience of using Twitter a makeover.
A redesign of Twitter’s website was long overdue. The desktop interface hadn’t been refreshed in seven years, and the technology stack was so old that it was hard for the engineering team to issue any improvements. The team had begun fiddling with a web redesign back in 2017, and opened it up to beta testing in September 2018. By January, it was time to show more users how the new Twitter would look.
But as soon as Twitter invited people to opt into a prototype of the new design—a new twitter.com was coming!—the peanut gallery began to weigh in, and not altogether kindly. What could Twitter do to improve its web design? “Delete it.” “Edit button.” “ALL WE WANT IS AN EDIT BUTTON.” “Did you get rid of the Nazis?” “Eh, looks ugly,” one user offered, perhaps charitably, “but I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
For Twitter’s design team, none of this was surprising. “We used to launch a feature and then search for it and put up a projector of the tweets coming in,” says Biz Stone, Twitter’s cofounder, who rejoined the company two years ago. “We’d be like, ‘Champagne?’ And then it would be like, ‘Oh. Maybe we shouldn’t.’”
So for the desktop redesign, Twitter’s design team chose to proceed with caution. The preview back in January was just a heads up. A small percentage of Twitter users could opt in to a series of design “experiments,” but nothing was final, feedback was welcome, and no one had a new design foisted upon them. And those “experiments”? Nothing explosive. Twitter just wanted to see how its users would interact with bookmarks, or dark mode, or a search bar that had been moved to a different spot on the page.
“Our purpose is to serve the public conversation. Once that became clear, it was like, wait a minute. How well are we doing that?”
Biz Stone, Twitter cofounder
Today, Twitter is rolling out the new website to absolutely everyone. Those who see it (or those who already have it) may find the new design refreshing in its subtlety. A few things have been rearranged in the new three-column design, and the site is noticeably faster, but there aren’t a lot of drastic updates. (No, there still isn’t an edit button.) That, to Twitter, is the whole point.
“Some of it is subtle, but a lot of it is a simplification of design,” says Mike Kruzeniski, Twitter’s senior director of product design. “We are trying to find the right places to be bold again, but it’s a resetting of that foundation. Starting with the best stuff and building from there.”
That foundation will prove important for Twitter. The redesign comes at a time when the company is beginning to revise its policies about hate and harassment on the platform, and is leaning more heavily on human moderators to do the janitorial tasks of keeping the place nice. There’s still more work to be done in cleaning up the toxic swamp. In the meantime, Twitter is planting a community garden.
The web redesign isn’t just about making the place prettier. It’s also about sending a message to users: Twitter is listening to what you want—even if it doesn’t always seem like it.
In the early days of Twitter, design decisions weren’t so much made poorly as they were never made to begin with. “We were just working as fast as we could,” says Stone. “We weren’t trying to make it look good at all.”
And it showed. At launch, Twitter’s design spelled out the company’s name in a neon-green typeface that looked like flubber. (Stone designed much of the early website himself, and apologizes for it. Only “like 30 people” were on Twitter at the time, he says in defense.) The decision to put a follower count in users’ bios? Stone barely thought about it. “We were just struggling to stay alive,” he says.
Over time—and with the addition of a real design team—Twitter has devoted more of its brainpower to intentional design. It watched its users hack together creative ways to retweet each other or tag posts, and then built in UI fixes to support those behaviors. It experimented with new ways to see the news or find events or share parts of your life with your friends.
But along the way, Twitter has struggled with existential questions, often shaped by the way it presents itself. What, exactly, is Twitter? Who is it for? How should it be used—and, more recently, should it even exist?
“Sometimes what we struggle with is, OK, which group of people is it for?” says Kruzeniski. “Is it about your friends? Is this for your family? Is it for people you wish you knew? Or your internet friends?” Twitter has answered these questions differently at various points throughout its history, and its design has tended to emphasize whatever identity it’s assumed at the time. It’s pulled information about news into its own column, or experimented with making Twitter’s homepage about finding events. “At different moments in time, it was like, Twitter is for events. No, Twitter is for news,” says Kruzeniski.
What the design team says now is that Twitter is for conversation. The best stories out of Twitter—the ones about the winds of the Arab Spring, or NBA fanatics buzzing about Kevin Durant, or choose-your-own-adventure-style storylines in which you are cast as Beyoncé’s assistant—have to do with people finding likeminded users and responding to each other in real time.
“Internally, we call this project ‘Delight.’ One of the things we’re trying to do is make sure this is a delightful experience for users.”
Jesar Shah, product lead on Twitter.com’s redesign
The user interface is the membrane between Twitter’s engineers and its users; the people who build the platform and the people who use it. So Twitter’s design team has tried to make choices that nudge people toward the stuff that makes Twitter great: the formations of niche communities, the ability to talk to world leaders and celebrities, the ease of finding pockets of folks with shared interests.
“Our purpose is to serve the public conversation,” says Stone. “Once that became clear, it was like, wait a minute. How well are we doing that?”
The new Twitter.com approaches that question seriously, if cautiously. It’s made some thoughtful UI tweaks, and the team rebuilt the website’s entire technology stack in order to make things easier to update going forward.
The navigation icons have migrated to the left and the compose box—forever prompting “What’s happening?”—is now front and center, above the stream of tweets. You can now save your tweets in bookmarks, for referencing later on. On the right, the search bar features more prominently above a list of trending topics.
“People use Twitter a lot on desktop to look for information, and it tends to be around their interests,” says Jesar Shah, the web redesign’s product lead. “So we’re trying to make that easier for people, and leverage these new spaces we’ve created on the site and compliment their primary browsing experience.” It’s surfacing the search and explore tabs in a more obvious way in an effort to signpost what Twitter is for: finding your internet tribe.
There’s a new profile button in the left sidebar, and it’s easy to switch between accounts. “There was a lot of global feedback around that,” says Shah. In Japan, one of Twitter’s largest markets, a lot of users were creating different accounts for different interests. “So they’ll have an account for food, and then another account for travel, and another account for TV shows, or maybe even a specific TV show. Being able to access that easily, regardless of what device you’re on, is something we’ve heard about a lot, and it’s been one of the top feature requests for a long time.”
Twitter’s website is now more customizable, too. You can change the size of your text, choose from one of several accent colors, and turn on one of Twitter’s new dark modes. “Personalization and customization—that’s something we hope to start bringing out throughout the product,” says Ashlie Ford, the product designer who led Twitter.com’s redesign.
Twitter has considered bolder ideas—like removing the metrics from tweets, for example—and earlier this year it introduced twttr, a prototyping app for these and other experiments. But the web redesign is focused mostly on building the “foundation” for a future Twitter. And taking it slow is important. “When we first started running experiments, we had it be opt-in,” Shah says. “We’re just making sure we feel confident in the experience we’re putting forward. One of our principles is ‘be rigorous, get it right.’ That’s around experimentation. Given that we’re a global company, it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re understanding everyone’s needs.”
To that end, Shah, Ford, and the team created a survey for Twitter users to give feedback on the design. It received over 200,000 submissions from around the world. Ford spent entire weeks parsing them, using translation services to get to the ones that came from non-English-speaking countries. “People definitely don’t think we’re reading them, but we are,” she says.
Arielle Pardes covers personal technology, social media, and culture for WIRED.
As proof, she points to one of the new features: a tool that puts an emoji keyboard in the desktop composition box. “In the beginning, I thought, we don’t need an emoji picker right now. There’s a workaround for this,” she says. “But that was the No. 1 piece of feedback we heard about what people wanted, by a landslide.”
Features like those might seem like small potatoes. But for Twitter, bringing some of the whimsy back to the website’s design was a central goal.
“Internally, we call this project ‘Delight,’” says Shah. “One of the things we’re trying to do is make sure this is a delightful experience for users. We want to make sure people come back to it often and can achieve what they want to achieve on Twitter.com.”
Twitter turned 13 this year, and it’s hard to imagine a period of its history with less delight. The platform has become an arena for political infighting, a place where @realDonaldTrump both commands a huge audience and lashes out about Twitter’s discrimination against conservatives. There are problems with disinformation, harassment, “dehumanizing speech,” and simply having a coherent public conversation. Earlier this year at the TED Conference, curator Chris Anderson compared Twitter to the Titanic heading straight for the iceberg. In other words: a ship about ready to sink.
Design can’t change all of this. But Twitter thinks that it can at least help define what Twitter is for and begin grappling with some of those questions about its identity.
“In the past, as a company, we’ve struggled, because if you ask people at Twitter what they use Twitter for, you’d get a thousand different answers,” says Kruzeniski. “We used to think maybe that was bad. But I think it’s a wonderful thing. We’re now getting better at helping you find your specific interests, and connecting you to those topics and interests.”
This mindset shift seems to be happening all over Twitter. The whole company seems to be redesigning itself, down to the headquarters, which started a major remodel last year. Where the office once looked like a “birdhouse,” all blue hues and wooden tones, it’s now cleaner and more modern. And the walls are full of murals representing the communities that thrive on the platform: Black Twitter, NBA Twitter, celebrity Twitter.
Walk through any of the remodeled parts of the office and you get the message loud and clear: Twitter is about the people, not the product. Now the company hopes that message comes through on its website too.