inessential by Brent Simmons

On the Tab Labels in the New Twitter App for iPhone

There’s a lot to like in the new Twitter app for iPhone. It’s beautiful, easy-to-use, and packs in a bunch of useful features.

(Of course, that was also true of the previous Twitter app for iPhone.)

One of my favorite things about the new app over the old app is that it’s now closer to a standard tab-bar app, rather than the previous app’s slick-but-odd sometimes-tab-bar and sometimes-toolbar style.

It’s a good app — but there are, nevertheless, things to criticize. The previous app didn’t have labels for the tabs, and the new one does, which is good. But I disagree with the actual text used for each of the tabs.

What tab labels are for

Tab labels don’t always comprehensively describe everything you can do in a given tab. They’re more than hints — they’re indicators — but they don’t have to accurately encapsulate everything about a given tab.

People know this. They know to tap on each of the tabs and get an idea what’s in there. They then associate the features with location (where the tab is) and label/icon. Each time a user wants to do action x, they don’t read the tab labels and figure out which of the labels logically applies and reject any that aren’t perfect matches. It’s fuzzier than that.

And users are aware of context: they know that the Search tab in one app might be different from the Search tab in another app.

They learn the software by tapping and recognizing patterns, not by thinking logically and strictly at all times.

What we know about people and words

People respond best to concrete words, and English speakers respond best to non-Latinate words.

When asking your significant other to pick up some milk on the way home, you don’t ask, “Will you attend the purveyors and retrieve a dairy beverage?”

You ask, “Will you stop at the store and pick up some milk?”


How many times have you been to a product website and seen big bold letters proclaiming that you can CONNECT and ENGAGE and DISCOVER? Every time I see that, I hit the back button, and I bet you do too.

It’s because it’s vague. It’s supposed to sound exciting, but it’s not. It doesn’t say anything about what you can really do with the app.

Nobody wants to connect or discover. People want to talk, send email, chat, share, post to Facebook, tweet, and so on. They want to find old friends; they want to find new friends; they want to see if their brother went skiing on the weekend so they can remember to ask about it on Christmas.

They want to find out if people are talking about them or to them, or if other people are talking about the same things they’re talking about.

The tabs

There are four tabs: Home, Connect, Discover, and Me.

Home is what you call a tab when you don’t have any other idea what to call it. The label Home means nothing in particular. I would have gone with Tweets or Timeline — a more-concrete word that says what’s actually on that tab.

Connect and Discover are the ones I like least, since they sound as if they weren’t decided upon by designers but by a murder of marketing executives perched around a big table. Both are too-abstract Latin words with the blood sucked out of them.

I would have gone with Mentions and Find. Those words may not encompass everything you can do on those tabs, but they’re close enough, and they mean something — while connect and discover mean almost nothing. Those require translation into the concrete. (Why Find instead of Search? Because Find implies success, while Search is an action that may fail.)

Me I almost don’t mind, except that it reminds me of Microsoft, which would always have things like My Computer and My Photos and everything — which made me wonder why my computer thought it owned my stuff. The computer isn’t me, and the software I run isn’t me — I and only I am me. (I probably would have picked Profile for the last tab. Even though it’s Latin, it’s concrete in the world of software.)

Words are UI

Words are as important as graphics and animation. Words are part of the user interface. People prefer words with meaning to words that could mean just about anything.