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What Mastodon’s explosive growth can teach us about UX

April 17th, 2017 Mastodon vs Twitter User Experience

Everybody’s heard of Twitter. The micro-blogging site, founded way back in 2006, is used by more than 300 million people each month. Even Presidents tweet. With the enormous reach and popularity Twitter currently enjoys, you would think it’s not in danger of being upended. Certainly not by some scrappy, open-source upstart. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

And it serves as a lesson for all of us: User Experience (UX) isn’t just important, it’s critical to your company’s survival.

The story of Mastodon’s sudden and meteoric rise to success is an interesting one. A 24-year-old German coder, who grew tired of Twitter’s constant changes and user experience missteps, decided to do what other users have threatened for years. He left and built a new Twitter, with the usability and user experience features that he felt were missing.

Mastodon Socia UX

A New Challenger Enters

Mastodon is unmistakably Twitter-like, right down to its timeline of posts, hashtags and @mentions. But it differs in some important ways in terms of usability and user experience. It ups the character limit from 140 characters to 500 characters. It has two-factor authentication baked right in. It makes hate speech, trolling and other bothersome behaviors that plague Twitter strictly forbidden, and will punish users who violate the rules.

Along with those usability improvements, the new service also brings a whole new level of privacy controls. Users can decide, on a post-by-post basis, what is shared publicly and what is shared privately. The entire service is built around different communities, called instances, but also allows sharing to all Mastodon users. It’s almost like Twitter 2.0.

If these all sound like common sense usability and user experience ideas, thousands of Twitter users are screaming in the corner right now. They’ve been asking the social networking service to make some of these UX improvements for more than a decade.

A lot has changed in a decade. But the user experience of Twitter really hasn’t.

Twitter User Experience

UX Missteps

If Twitter is entering its teen years, some feel like its going through another bout of painful puberty. Just last year, rumors swirled that somebody might buy Twitter. But company after company rejected any notion they planned to buy it out, and Twitter’s stock took a dive.

The company has tried to innovate in some areas: it launched Moments, its attempt at giving users access to major happenings a la Snapchat’s Stories, only to replace it in the app with a copy of Instagram’s Explore feature, also called Explore.

And let’s not forget, Twitter also wants to become a Live TV and Event platform, hosting Presidential debates and NFL games - only to lose the NFL to a company that’s actually in the TV business, Amazon.

Through all of this, the core platform and associated user experience to which Twitter owes its success has, some feel, largely been ignored. And its users continue to be vocal about their disappointment and frustration. Only recently has Twitter begun to take a serious stand against the rampant abuse that’s been at the center of user complaints for years.

What We Can Learn

In short: listen to your users. Ask them about ways to make your service or product better. User testing, moderated and unmoderated usability studies and user experience surveys are just some of the tools that give your users a say - and a stake - in what you provide as a company.

User Testing critical to User Experience Design

Certainly, don’t make the mistake of letting your main product languish while you invest in secondary features.

User testing research studies are critical to the longevity and growth of your organization. It improves your product, it improves your brand, and it shows your customers that you listen to their needs and concerns.

If you don’t continually user test and invest in your UX (Agile UX), it’s likely somebody else will come along and build a better version of your product. And it might just be one of your users.

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