Jakob Nielsen Critiques Twitter

Few would dispute that Twitter is the hottest social medium around. The microblogging application, which enables anyone with Internet access to issue short public messages—about where to buy the best red-velvet cupcakes or what the latest tally is on swine flu—has enjoyed stunning growth that has made Facebook and MySpace look like yesterday's children. An increasing number of CEOs are employing Twitter to communicate and bond with customers and employees.

Nonetheless, it might be time to put some brakes on tweeting, according to Jakob Nielsen, a principal at Fremont (Calif.) Web-usability consulting firm the Nielsen Norman Group and author of 11 books on the way humans interact with technology. Nielsen recently answered some of BusinessWeek.com's questions about Twitter. Edited excerpts follow.

Are you surprised to see so many CEOs tweeting?

Well, there are always people who jump on the latest bandwagon, no matter what it is, but I do think it's surprising that CEOs would have the time to tweet, since they can't just toss off a sentence without repercussions the same way a normal user can. One of my former bosses once said that he had to be very careful what he said because tens of thousands of people in his organization would actually take it seriously and act on it. So if he said something that was easily misinterpreted, it could steer the company in the wrong direction.

Do you think it's a good idea for CEOs to tweet to their customers?

Mostly no. Posting on the Web is the modern PR, and the CEO's job is to articulate the company's vision and direction, which requires more than 140 characters. Being perceived as a wise guy or a shallow thinker is not going to do your stock price much good. We have just completed a usability study of investor relations info on corporate Web sites, and one of the big reasons individual investors turn to companies' Web sites is to find the CEO's vision and take on the company's and industry's direction.

Because users don't want to read very much online, this information should be addressed concisely, but not as concisely as in a tweet. Better to write something deeper (or post a video clip, since investors also want to assess the CEO's personality by watching him or her speak), and then announce that, with a link, from the company's general Twitter update, as opposed to in the CEO's personal tweet.

Is Twitter is a fad or here to stay?

Something like Twitter is certainly here to stay, even if that specific company could go the way of Excite and Geocities. Being early doesn't guarantee success if a better implementation of the same idea comes along. But fundamentally, this micro-announcement service does serve two needs: to post updates with low overhead and to follow a concise stream of updates.

Do you think the growth of Twitter is a threat to individuals' ability to concentrate?

If you care about productivity, don't check your Twitter feed while you're trying to get work done. Disruptions are deadly for productivity because it takes several minutes to reorient the brain every time you go off track looking at something else. Stick to checking updates once per day—for example, during lunch. All the tweets will still be there.

I don't think companies should ban Twitter use during business hours because it does have its business uses, as previously discussed. But companies could cash in major productivity gains if they advised employees on how to minimize disruptions. The growth in social media can become a major drain on the economy unless people learn how to be in control of their time instead of allowing external updates to be in the driver's seat.

Are you a fan of any particular organizations' tweets?

One example of good business use of Twitter is the CDC's stream of updates on the H1N1 influenza. I have two recommendations for improved usability of this account: (a) Spell out the full name (Centers for Disease Control) in the bio, because not everybody knows the acronym CDC; and (b) link the "Web" field directly to a specific page about H1N1 instead of a generic page about all possible health emergencies, including many that are not of current interest.

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