In Search of the Perfect Twitter Client
Readers of this post may also want to read KDMC's comprehensive tutorial Twitter for Journalists.
In any given software category, there's usually more than one offering. For word processing you can use MS Word, Libre Office, or Pages. For image editing you can use Photoshop, Acorn, Pixelmator, or others.
One of the great things about the Twitter ecosystem is its wide-open API, which has enabled a whole marketplace of third-party clients for Mac, Windows, iPhone, Blackberry, Android and the web. There are literally hundreds to choose from, and all of them let you interact with Twitter and your social networks in ways you can't on twitter.com.
For an upcoming training, the KDMC staff was recently producing curriculum for teaching journalists about Twitter and social engagement (among other things). While we encourage trainees to experiment and pick the tool that works best for them, we did need to settle on just one for the training session itself. However, it quickly became apparent that every member of our staff had a different favorite Twitter client. Some preferred web-based clients for their ubiquity, some prefer desktop clients for their elegance and respect for Mac interface conventions. Some put more weight on speed and usability, while others put more emphasis on a broad feature set.
Some Twitter clients also integrate with Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn and provide access to RSS feeds, while others are more streamlined and do Twitter only. Some provide a multi-column, newspaper-style display, while others present one stream of information at a time, with easy ways to navigate between streams. Our staff had different opinions on the usefulness/usability of the "dashboard" vs. the "streamlined" tools.
The single-column vs. multi-column conundrum - what's the best way to provide access to lots of info streams?
We came up with a list of common tasks that a socially engaged journalist might need to do on a regular basis, and put each of these tools through that set of tasks:
- See and reply to direct messages and mentions that have come in over night.
- Navigate between views of ONE account: stream, mentions, DMs, a list, and a saved search
- For one of those views, scroll through several "pages" of tweets, noting usability
- Create a new post from selected text on a random web page, and shorten the URL it contains
- Post a longer variant of the same post on Facebook, with proper Facebook formatting
- Click on a hashtag and see what you get. Save the results as a saved search so you can return to it tomorrow.
- Send a direct message to a person who follows you.
- Locate a new user by searching for their username, see what they've posted recently, and follow them.
- Add that user to one of your lists.
- "Favorite" a tweet so you can read the link it contains later
- Report a user for spam
- Schedule a tweet for posting later.
- Retweet a tweet you saw in one account out through another account (without copy/paste)
- Upload an image to an external service (twitpic, yfrog, etc.) and build a tweet around it.
- Create a new list and add members to it
- Ability to see an @ reply in context (see the whole thread it's a part of)
The clients we tested were:
- The official Twitter client for Mac (formerly Tweetie)
- Seesmic (desktop and web)
Since we're an all-Mac shop, we didn't test any Windows clients, though many of these are cross-platform since they're written in HTML, Adobe Air, or Microsoft Silverlight.
While all of the clients could do most of the tasks on the list, some definitely did them more easily than others (i.e. with fewer clicks, or better keyboard shortcuts, or less digging through the UI). Here are notes on some of the noteworthy differences.
Most of the clients provide Growl notifications, which pop up on your screen for a few seconds when new mentions or direct messages come through. That's fine when you're actually at the computer, but surprisingly, only one (Twitter for Mac) shows a glowing dot next to any stream that needs your attention. That's excellent for when you're away from your computer for hours and just need a gentle reminder about new activity.
We highlighted "navigate between views of ONE stream" here because of the annoying way some of the "dashboard" clients like TweetDeck and Seesmic mix info streams from multiple accounts into a single, horizontal scrolling view, making it difficult to tell what's coming from where. Yes, you can rearrange the columns, but we mostly agreed this was a pretty bad user experience. Hootsuite gets this right by grouping column sets under account tabs, while Socialite and Twitter for Mac avoid the problem by never displaying multiple columns at once.
Scrolling Through Streams
We included this criteria only because we had trouble paging down through streams in TweetDeck (a bug, apparently - you could hit Page Down twice, then it would freeze until you hit Arrow Down and continued). In addition, some of us like being able to use the Spacebar for page down in browsers, email clients, etc. and expected the same in our Twitter experience. Air-based clients like TweetDeck don't allow this. The multi-column clients naturally require you to select a column before you can page down in it - Twitter for Mac and Socialite avoid this problem.
New Post from Page
Essential to a streamlined Twitter experience is the ability to quickly post a tweet from any web page in any browser. A simple bookmarklet will let you do this, but surprisingly, that's the only browser-agnostic one we found. To do similar for other clients required browser-specific extensions like Hootsuite's Hootlet. Without a bookmarklet or browser extension, you'll have to copy/paste URLs and text around manually.
All clients provide integrated URL shortening of some sort. Annoyingly, Twitter's official client forces all links to be shortened through t.co. This means that even if you use a shortener customized for your organization, your links will be RE-shortened through t.co. Since rumor is that Twitter is buying TweetDeck, expect to see the same behavior in that tool before long.
Posting to Facebook
While many of the clients let you manage some aspects of your Facebook presence as well, only one - Hootsuite - lets you create Facebook posts with "fancy" formatting like a native Facebook post (auto-retrieving a thumbnail image and summarizing the page). To avoid the appearance of "auto-pumping" content between services, it's important to use native Facebook post styling. Point goes to Hootsuite.
Only HootSuite lets you do create richly formatted Facebook posts outside of facebook.com
However, not all of us felt that it was important to be able to manage Facebook from a Twitter client. Some of us feel that Facebook is best managed from Facebook.com, and it's usually best to find the right tool for any given job (i.e. some of us prefer to use Apple's separate apps for mail, calendaring, and contacts, as opposed to Entourage's integrated approach). Opinions differed on this point.
Add a User to a List
All of the tools provide access to Twitter lists, but Socialite and Twitter for Mac don't let you manage your lists. Instead you'll need to click on a user to view their page on twitter.com and add them to a list from there. Not a huge deal, but hopefully those features will be coming soon.
A fantastic way to save tweets as temporary bookmarks to be read later is to mark them as favorites, then un-favorite them after they've been read later on. Twitter for Mac gets this one right - just tap the "f" key to toggle the favorite status of a tweet. Other clients will get you there, but not as gracefully.
This is potentially a big one for journalists, who might want to be able to promote content in the middle of the night, or on the weekends while they're away. Your computer can't send a tweet while it's sleeping, so scheduled tweets need to be stored on a server. That means desktop clients like Socialite and Twitter for Mac can't do scheduling. A definite minus if this feature is important to you.
All of the clients provide some way to post associated images to TwitPic, YFrog, or other services. TweetDeck, however, also lets you post video directly from your webcam - a potentially useful feature, though it would be nice if you could upload video files directly.
Twitter for Mac lets you drag an image from the Finder directly into the compose window - a nice usability touch.
See an @ Reply in Context
This feature is essential for making sense of those replies that come in seeming to lack all context, and all of the clients but Socialite let you do this. We thought Twitter for Mac handled this the most gracefully - the conversation button is easily accessible, and the thread is clearly laid out.
Readability / Usability
Unfortunately, some of the clients we looked at don't seem to put a lot of thought into readability. We found TweetDeck's default theme the hardest to read of the lot (light text on a dark background is fatiguing). TweetDeck does let you change themes, but that's a very fiddly/finicky process - would be nice if they let you load in themes made by users who have actual design experience. Amazingly, not all of the clients even let you change the font size - get with the program, client developers!
Of all the clients we looked at, Seesmic Desktop is the most beautiful to look at, and gets major points for great design. The Seesmic web client is the most readable of the dashboard products.
Our staff differed on the usability of the horizontal scrolling interface provided by most of the dashboard clients. We teach our web development students to avoid horizontal scrolling like the plague, and it's a paradigm just not seen in many apps or web sites because it's just plain awkward. Most of the dashboard clients mitigate the problem by providing alternative navigation mechanisms, but we didn't think any of them were as graceful to use as the single-column clients, which avoid the problem altogether. Some of the multi-column clients can be configured to work in single-column mode, though less gracefully than real single-column clients.
Most of the clients provide some collection of keyboard shortcuts for navigating, tweeting, replying, and more. Twitter for Mac had the best keyboard shortcuts by far, followed by Seesmic and TweetDeck.
At the end of the day, all of this comes down to personal preference and workflow. Because Hootsuite has scheduled tweets and does the best job of keeping multiple columns organized intelligently, and because it does nicely formatted Facebook posts, we've decided to do our training on Hootsuite, which also has some really nice analytics tools built in that the others lack.
But between you and me, I personally find Twitter for Mac to be the must usable, most readable, fastest, most graceful Twitter client out there. I really don't like multi-column clients, I want my standard Mac keyboard shortcuts to work, and I'm not looking for an "everything but the kitchen sink" tool.