Usability of Twitter Search Services

Twitter has grown in popularity over the last 6 months. This increase in users has attracted developers seeking to create new Twitter applications to improve your Twitter experience. However, it important to know how user friendly these applications are and which ones are the most useful. Search is one of the most common tasks users complete on the web today. Therefore a small selection of web based Twitter search engines were examined to reveal how user friendly these applications are.

The Twitter search services examined in this article include:

  • Twitter Search
  • Tweetzi
  • Twazzup
  • Flaptor
  • Tweefind
  • TweetGrid

When conducting our usability evaluation, the same search was created in each application. This made it possible to directly compare the effectiveness of each set of results. In each case the search criteria used was ‘Usability’.

Each site was also assessed against the following criteria and given a usability rating out of 5.

  • Initial impressions of the homepage
  • Conducting a search
  • Effectiveness of the search results
  • How current the returned results were
  • Advanced search options and useful features

Twitter Search

Twitter

First Impressions:

Twitter 2The look and feel of the home page makes it clear that this is Twitter’s own search engine. An advanced search option is provided along with additional links to popular topics and of course Twitter. Interestingly Twitter search uses the tagline “See what’s happening – right now” however it is generally considered amongst users to have a poor retrieval rate. This means that results are not always comprehensive or up to the minute. A section on ‘Trending Topics’ is also provided below the search field. This is simple feature allows users to preview popular topics and see what people are talking about on current affairs.

Twitter has recently launched their search tool within user accounts (see image right). It is currently positioned on the right hand column, below favourites. This is convenient as it allows users to conduct searches without leaving their own page.

Search results:

Results are displayed over several pages using the ‘Older’ link that is common in Twitter for moving to other tweets, rather than page numbers. In addition the number of search results returned is not provided which would be helpful. It is possible to reply to a tweet and view a profile but not possible to retweet which is extremely limiting. Results are presented in the same way as Twitter feeds which keep it familiar to users.

Twitter 3
Twitter 4

Features of Twitter search include the ability to change the language, tweet your results and subscribe to an RSS feed of your chosen search. The advanced search offers quite a long form giving users a number of options to select from including people, places, dates and attitudes. Although the form is comprehensive and provides more specific results, it could be daunting to users. There is also a ‘Search Operators’ page which gives tips on how to get the most out of your searches. This is a useful page but hidden by a misleading label. Currently the advanced search options of sites such as Tweetzi are quicker and easier to use.

Verdict:

A simple search with some useful features, however the poor retrieval rate reputation will be discouraging to some users. The advanced search is unlikely to be used because the form is too daunting and a little confusing to new users. It does not make advanced searching as intuitive and accessible as Tweetzi. However, the new search widget provided within Twitter accounts will prove to be a very useful shortcut for users.

Rating: 3/5 has all the basic functionality you want from a search engine but not as sophisticated as competitors such as Twazzup or as easy to use as Tweetzi.

Tweetzi

Tweetzi

First Impressions

Similar to Google and other well known search engines including Twitter Search, the design is simple and minimalist. However, it does not include the useful ‘Trends’ topics which provide useful shortcuts. The purpose of the site is understood quickly and the search tool is prominently displayed in the centre of the page. The ‘Twitter powered’ logo in the bottom right corner reassures users that results are likely to be comprehensive and search through all Twitter accounts. There is also a useful ‘Add to browser’ shortcut which enables users to include Tweetzi to the drop-down search menu provided by browsers such as Internet Explorer and Firefox.

Search Results

Similar to Twitter, there is no indication of how many results your search returned and also no idea how many pages of results there are. This makes it difficult to know how many tweets on your topic there are and how far through the pages of results to search. In addition, the keyword used in the search is not highlighted in each result, making it difficult to identify the relevant results quickly. Finally, the results are presented in large Courier New font making it difficult to view more than two results without scrolling. Results are made even bigger when the user hovers over a result to reveal the avatar, something which would be easy to provide without the mouse action.

Tweetzi 2

Tweetzi does have some useful tools to get more powerful search results. Shortcut links to positive and negative tweets, those with a hash tag and tweets with questions in them are all extremely useful, particularly to businesses using Twitter. You can also play and pause your search in real-time. This allows you to watch any new tweets update as they are written and saves users refreshing the page. What would make this feature even more effective would be to have ‘Play’ selected by default and allow users to pause the updates if they wish.

Verdict

The play/pause button and advanced search options are useful and easy to use. Search results could be better displayed to make it easier for users to scan a number of results quickly.

Rating: 3/5 Simple and effective but with less features than others and a design format that needs to be improved.

Twazzup

twazzup

First Impressions

Another simple search homepage in keeping with other search engines, Twazzup places more emphasis upfront on trending topics. This provides a useful shortcut to the most popular searches. The search button has a subtle difference in that it more clearly describes what the user will be searching – Twitter. This is an effective call to action which accurately describes the search, giving users’ confidence.

Search Results

Results are neatly displayed down the left hand side in a similar format to Twitter feeds. It also uses the same affordance from Twitter in the way it displays more results. Instead of using pagination to display results, as used by other Twitter search engines reviewed, Twazzup uses the ‘more’ button to display older results. This simple alternative to pagination is less daunting to users who may be put off by several pages of results.

Twazzup is packed with features and tools to perform more powerful searches and do more with the search results. Users can reply, retweet and view the tweet when they hover over a result. They can also follow twitter accounts by hovering over the profile avatar. Similar to Tweetzi, results are updated in real time with the option to pause.

The variety of results presented also adds depth to the searches. Related images, most popular links and top trend makers are provided on the right had side of the results. These all provide a variety of alternative search criteria and give the user more choice on the direction their search can take.

twazzup

Trend topics are repeated on the results page with more detailed categories provided in a pop-up ‘More’ link. There are also permanent search topics which are one click away. Below the trend links are a number of other links which are not immediately understood. It appears that these links provide shortcuts to the words which commonly occur in the users search results. Although this is a more advanced option it is something which could be more clearly explained. No other advanced options are available.

Verdict

Visually appealing and well laid out, Twazzup provides a lot of extra features which other Twitter search alternatives do not. Useful for following popular topics but has an unconventional advanced search feature which is difficult to understand.

Rating: 4/5 powerful search results make this engine the most likely to be used time and time again.

Flaptor

Flaptor

First Impressions:

Similar to Tweetzi, Flaptor has a simple minimalist homepage which clearly indicates the main purpose of the site. Again a descriptive call to action button, ‘Search Twitter’ has been used alongside the ability to add the plug-in into your browser for future searches. One difference with Flaptor is the absence of direct branding. The subtle image of a hummingbird is clever but might be lost with some users. Perhaps the creators felt that the name Flaptor was not indicative of a Twitter application and opted for the more explanatory ‘Twitter Search’ title instead.

Search results:

The search conducted returned a large number of results which were presented using pagination. Additionally the total number of results returned is provided which is useful and is the first site reviewed that offers this simple but useful method.

The more recent results returned were 20 minutes old which was not as recent as Twitter Search results. This suggests that the information provided is not up to date. Results are displayed in a similar way to Twitter’s own feeds which is helpful however, the avatars did not display in Firefox or IE8, despite the areas being linked. The black text on blue background is not always easy to read and could be even more difficult for visually impaired users.

Flaptor

The only additional functions are the trends link and the RSS feed. The trends page provides a useful ‘mentions’ graph which can be embedded in your own site. There is also a list of other popular topics. However, it is not possible to preview trend topics within the search results as seen in other search engines. The RSS feed function is very useful and is something not found on many other Twitter search engines. However, the RSS button is quite subtle and would only be recognised by advanced users who have other RSS feeds. Flaptor should promote any features which competitors may not have and therefore need to place more emphasis on the RSS feed. A label or instructions would be helpful for new users.

Verdict:

For basic searches Flaptor does an adequate job. Although tweets are not as up to date as they could be it’s a good starting point. The RSS feed function is the only feature which will draw users back. Those users are likely to be heavy internet users and require more advanced search options which Flaptor does not provide.

Rating: 2/5 Straightforward to use but without enough advanced options this search engine could be too basic for its user base.

TweeFind

tweefind

First Impressions

The main difference with TweeFind is the way that results are produced. From the homepage it claims that the results are displayed by user rank. There is a filter for English tweets and you can also add TweeFind to your website using the ‘Widget’ link. One noticeable absence is the search button. Here the developers have assumed that users know how to search using their keyboard rather than a mouse. This could be confusing to blind users who believe the button is present but that the screen reader is not picking it up. They might spend time searching for the button before selecting ‘Enter’. Additionally, the unconventional colour does not make it immediately obvious that the text field is an input field.

Search Results

Presentation wise, the results are displayed in a very similar manner to Twitter feeds. You can tweet your search (although it’s not clear when you would want to do this) and reply to tweets. Like Tweetzi, there is no indication of the number of returned results or number of pages. The link to other pages is also quite small at the bottom of the page and could be easily overlooked.

The most puzzling aspect of the results are the dots displayed under each avatar. The developers leave it up to users to make the connection between the tagline above the search field and the dots. The lack of explanation could lead users to wrongly interpret the dots or ignore them altogether. Being that this user ranking is the differentiating thing between TweeFind and other Twitter search engines, this could be explained better.

The results themselves were a few hours old, although this is an approximation as results are presented with a timestamp of when they were posted and not by the number of hours/days since they were posted. The keywords used in the search are highlighted in bold. While this is better than not highlighting them at all, they are still not very easy to identify in each tweet. A different colour background would make them stand out more.

tweefind

Verdict

The missing search button is a bold move and one which is not really necessary to make this search engine stand out. There search itself is very limited and has no advanced tools. Finally, the system used to rank search results is explained poorly and does not make it stand out against its competitors.

Rating: 2/5 the confusing rank system, limited advanced and additional features makes this site quite basic.

TweetGrid

Tweet Grid

First Impressions:

The succinct tagline description under the title immediately gives the user a good understanding of the site – and this offers a refreshing alternative to the other search engines reviewed on first impressions. This is reinforced by the variety of dashboard options provided, ranging from one to nine. There are also a number of useful links that a user can follow before creating their own dashboard, including an example grid. This will quickly provide insight into how the site works without forcing users to read lots of instructions.

Noticeably this is the only search engine reviewed that did not have a search field on the home page. Users must select a grid format or click ‘Search’ to get to a page where they can enter a search. This could confuse new visitors who may spend time searching for an input field. However, it is less likely to affect returning users who have experience with the site and are encouraged to bookmark previous searches to make it quicker and easier.

The main difference between TweetGrid and other search engines apart from the multiple searches is that you can view multiple account feeds similar to the desktop application TweetDeck. You can also blog and tweet from the site as well as follow accounts. You can also save searches by creating a link or a bookmark.

The ‘Party’ link allows you to follow all the tweets during a Twitter meet-up which updates and displays in real time. With the rise in popularity of Twitter related meetings, this feature will be really useful in the future.

Search results:

Results were a few minutes old and new posts updated regularly, indicated by their different background colour. This makes them easy to identify and reinforces the accuracy of the results. The layout and presentation of results depends a lot on the layout you select. Having upwards of four searches running at one time compromises the size of the box and the number of results in each box which can mean a lot of scrolling. However, you can increase the size of the font using a keyboard command. Each result has a number of options such as reply, retweet, favourite and email. One particularly good feature is the ability to see images and view profiles without opening a new window.

tweetgrid

Some of the additional features in TweetGrid are not intuitive and rely on the tutorial videos which users can watch in the ‘How To’ section. This includes changing settings and bookmarking searches which are not immediately obvious. Although the tutorial videos are short and comprehensive, they are often essential to getting the most out of the features available.

Verdict:

A powerful search tool which advanced users will find very useful. Some of the features are not easy to use and assume that users will have a good knowledge of keyboard shortcuts and search techniques to use it effectively.

Rating: 4/5 great for advanced users, Twitter parties and those familiar with TweetDeck but unlikely to appeal to novice or basic users.

Conclusions

There are many useful features which developers have incorporated into their search engines making them much more than just a place to search. Each site brings something different to the user experience with varying levels of complexity. However, no matter which site users choose to use, developers must ensure that the experience is always positive. The sites which become successful are those who develop services which cater for future user needs as well as current ones, something which Twazzup and TweetGrid have already begun to do.

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This article was written by User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitve advantage through improved ease of use.

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