Twitter’s New Profile Pages Reveal Design Trends, Business Challenges

Last week Twitter started rolling out its latest redesign of user profile pages. The first change users will notice is the introduction of a large, full-width header image, a design element that’s becoming increasingly common across the social web. A more subtle feature that many users are applauding is the ability to “pin” a Tweet to the top of your profile.

As with every redesign, some people liked it and some didn’t—that’s par for the course. What really got everyone talking was the perceived similarity of the Twitter desktop UI to Facebook. It’s a valid comparison. The changes to the header, multiple columns, and increased emphasis on imagery are all Facebook-like in their execution. But the question of originality doesn’t matter much to most users. What’s more interesting is that the two designs demonstrate that Facebook and Twitter are facing the same challenges as they grow, and have arrived at similar design solutions.

The change fits into a larger trend in many social sites, especially on the desktop. As these sites grow larger in user base, they’re also growing significantly in terms of the volume of data they’re collecting about each user, and the relationships, commonalities, and interests of those users. And while that data is a goldmine for the networks and their advertisers, HootSuite designer Jason Esteban thinks “it looks as though many of the sites are still figuring out how much of it to throw back at the user, and how.”

As each network strives to increase their share of a finite attention economy, users are flooded with more and more information. One strategy to keep from overwhelming the user is to pare down the interfaces to a more essential form. This happens in a couple ways, one based in aesthetics, and another in contemporary UI/UX principles. On the aesthetics side, interfaces are relying more on elements like typographic hierarchy and subtle shifts in visual weight, and less on flashy icons and animation. From the UI/UX angle, designers are building interfaces that selectively hide and show content and controls, as well as making informed decisions towards which elements should persist on the page.

With all this new content to add to the fray, something’s gotta give. The UI designs of both Facebook and Twitter have gradually been getting simpler and simpler (similarly, Apple dropped skeuomorphism for the simplicity of iOS7), and while it could be argued that this is just a design trend, it’s also very likely due to the fact that simpler, flatter, transparent design allows for more content. “In a way, its a pretty true expression of the modernist mantra ‘form follows function,’ where the function is to present as much information as possible, and the form takes a back seat to accommodate,” says Esteban.

While the design shift in Twitter’s UI has been received by many as, to put it delicately, Facebook-inspired, it may also be just another example of a broader shift in UI theory. Way back when, Microsoft began to mirror the revolutionary GUI of the Macintosh, and the adoption by these popular platforms resulted in the laying of cornerstones in UI theory for decades afterwards. “We may be watching the emergence of a new information-filtering strategy in UI, particularly with the advent of so many new channels, in the form of devices and data streams, for pushing information,” observes HootSuite graphic designer Mark Stokoe.

Some of the thinking behind these decisions, particularly as the networks work to figure out their monetization strategies, is obvious. Information is the stock-in-trade of every social network, so the more of it they can display without compromising user experience, the more money they make. While Facebook and Twitter undoubtedly consider the preferences and needs of their users, revenue-driving elements are slowly becoming more visually prominent and persistent.

“It will be interesting to see where the balance between things like ad content and user interface needs will eventually be struck,” Stokoe muses. As social networks grow, their designs evolve to accommodate both aesthetic and businesses objectives. And right now it appears that Facebook and Twitter have very similar objectives.