I Want VLI

Back in 2006 while on a trip to HQ, I sat in a meeting with some folks from the User Experience (UX) team. I don’t remember exactly what the purpose of the meeting was, but we wandered off topic and were just bouncing ideas off each other.

I threw out the idea of a zero interface, erm very little interface (VLI), which understandably did not go over well. Not the best audience in hindsight. Looking at Twitter’s astounding growth, I wonder how much can be attributed to their laissez faire attitude and very functional API, which has created an ecosystem of apps around them.

I'm always reminded of Joey from Friends "How you doin'?"

Granted, Twitter has a pretty limited feature set, which makes it much easier for them to implement a VLI, but that combined with their openness has bread success. This is a repeatable formula.

I’m a big believer in simplicity in UI, frequently preferring a command line interface (CLI) to a UI. Obviously, zero interface is an impossibility, which is why I’m using the term VLI. Using Twitter as an analog again, Twitter.com is very simplistic. In fact, they haven’t integrated twitter.search.com (formerly Summize), nor do they track all @ replies.

However, their API is very functional, allowing client apps like TweetDeck to replace (and augment) the twitter.com feature set. The only piece they’ve kept closed is account creation and management, and now that OAuth integration is in public beta, who knows if they’ll open pieces of profile management as well.

Twitter.com remains the most popular way to tweet, although its share has fallen from 55% in April 2008 to 32% in February 2009. Granted, it’s difficult to track traffic accurately, so this is an unscientific measure. As an aside, I wonder which client benefited the most from the loss of IM as a client?

And all bets are off, if Twitter decides to monetize the pageviews. That would be interesting.

So, what have we learned? VLI isn’t about interface at all. It’s about data.

Data make your app valuable. Interface is a byproduct of data.

If you’ve ever built UI, you know how tough it is to balance usability with functionality. Throw users into the mix, and you have a whole lot of must-have requirements that don’t play nicely with each other.

Enter the second tenant of VLI, open APIs.

You must give your users (specifically, their developers) that ability to remix the data.

This has been our goal for Connect. We haven’t been able to keep the UI as simple as Twitter’s because as a new app, we needed a more functional UI so our new users could get what Connect was.

However, as our user base has grown, we’ve added REST APIs for the user data, which has spawned integrations with a few other apps, e.g. OraTweet. Noel has followed the same principles too, producing APIs for OraTweet that we consume.

As Connect’s user base grows, more people have asked about using the APIs we produce because they have specific uses and don’t expect (or want) us to extend Connect to support them.

We do benefit from the security blanket of being behind the firewall, and if Twitter’s growth is an indication, I expect to see lots more demand for Connect data in the next year-ish.

So, what do you about VLI? Are you a more traditional UI person? If so, call me out in comments.

Update: As Andy C points out in comments, Twitter isn’t as open when compared to open source projects like Laconica, although that’s not really the point of the post. My goal is to examine a for-profit (an assumption in Twitter’s case) service and its approach to APIs and interface. The model is interesting to me, similar to one that I’ve proposed in the past and one we’ve tried to model with our work on Connect.




  1. Interesting article as ever and love the concept of VLI but I must call you out on 'Twitter and Openness'.

    Twitter's refusal to participate in OMB and share their source code with the world so we can address the performance and scalability problems hardly make it open.

    Can you download Twitter and install it behind the corporate firewall ? No.

    Can you implement Twitter with an Oracle back-end or modify it to alk to OraTweet ? No.

    If you are mixing the words 'µblogging and openness' in the same sentence…try 'Laconi.ca'

  2. Sure, but don't get caught up in that. Twitter's API offers a lot more of its functionality than other similar services, specifically Facebook. That's not really the point though.

    BTW, does laconi.ca run on Oracle? I can't recall.

    There's no need to defend laconi.ca or identi.ca vs. Twitter to me. I met Evan last year at Beer and Blog during OSCON, and I'm an open source guy. I'm into what he's doing with that project.

    Again, not the point of this post, so I'll amend it accordingly.

  3. I suppose it really depends on who you are and what you are using the app for. I also prefer simple interfaces, but if you actually prefer CLI, then you are likely not in the majority of target users who likely are not programmers. I say likely, but how would I know?

     I recently saw a short video on TED about “Sixth Sense” showing a mashup of capabilities using a phone, web cam and mirror (that you carry) to do some fascinating things.  Worth a watch.

    Combined with this discussion, it makes me wonder if the future (or next step) for Twitter isn't a voice version that uses something like GoogleVoice so that you don't even have to key-in the message, just say it.  Or maybe it's voice recognition on the phone?  You know, pick the icon, say your tweet and hit send.  just a thought…

  4. Preference is a funny thing with a lot of users. I think it's more what I'm used to and what I know, e.g. Google for search, Amazon for e-commerce, Twitter for micro-blogging.

    I ran into this a lot in consulting, when replacing a mainframe-based terminal system with a GUI. Adding the need for a mouse to tasks that used to be fully keyboard-based threw people for a loop. I don't think they *preferred* the keyboard way, it was just what they were accustomed to using.

    I love TED talks, will definitely take a look.

    There is a Twitter-by-voice app, TwiterFone. I covered it here about a year ago. If you want to try it, get on their invites list or ping @patphelan. Overall, I don't use it as much as I thought I would, but it's very handy if you're on the go a lot. Plus, it's voice recognition makes for some unintentional comedy.

  5. Nice post. It made me think of an article I had read from Andrew McAfee. As it relates, I think the term he would use is, “frictionless.” Here's a link to the article: http://andrewmcafee.org/blog/?p=584

    “Frictionless means that users perceive it to be easy to participate in the platform, and can do so with very little time or effort. One measure of friction is the total time required between having an idea for a contribution (while sitting in front of the computer, carrying the iPhone, etc.) and the appearance of that contribution on the platform.

    Sign-ins, navigation through many web pages, and clunky user interfaces are all perceived as hurdles by a platform’s potential users, and increase friction. So does the need to massage a contribution like a blog post to look like it wasn’t put together by a complete hack. I can already tell, for example, that I’m going to post to this version of my blog more often than I did when it was hosted under the hbs.edu domain name and used a different and clunkier interface for posting. I felt like I had to tweak each entry for a long time to make it look OK, and it was a disincentive to post.

    Tweetdeck, on the other hand, makes contribution to Twitter pretty frictionless. It sits on my desktop as a separate client, and I zip over to it whenever I have an idea. It’s quick and painless to send a standard tweet, a reply, a direct message, or a retweet, and to shorten and include a URL. With Tweetdeck I can convince myself to take a timeout from my deep academic thinking (coughcough) more often because each timeout is so short – literally just a matter of seconds.”

  6. Good tip on the post from Dr. McAfee.

    Funny. This is why I dislike comment moderation and what I like about Pivotal Tracker. Now, I have a fancy word to use. That will make me sound very intellectual 🙂

    I guess McAfee doesn't subscribe to the theory that sustained, uninterrupted thinking is better than multi-tasking. I do subscribe to that theory, which is why I drop out of Twitter, email, IM and other distractions when I need to think big thoughts.

    That's a post for another time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.