On 3rd November 2015, Twitter came up with the following announcement:
“We are changing our star icon for favorites to a heart and we’ll be calling them likes. We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.
The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.”
Well, yes. And no.
Favourites were born in 2006, around the dawn of Twitter. I think they pre-date both Tumblr’s red hearts, which arrived toward the end of 2008, and Facebook’s “like” button, which was introduced in 2009. Favourites were initially designed as a way of bookmarking tweets — a feature, I admit, feels fairly insane for a service whose messages are limited to 140 characters and (at the time) could not include photos or videos. But from the start, third-party developers sought to make the feature more useful.
In other words, favs, as they came to be abbreviated, were one more instance of Twitter’s community understanding the power of the service more completely than the people who were building it. They added hashtags to organize content around keywords; retweets to spread content virally; and through brute force converted a near-useless bookmarking feature into a powerful multi-purpose tool.
The response wasn’t as heart-warming as Twitter expected. There were howls of protest from the Twitterati all around the world. The big objection was that “Favourites” were kind of bookmarks for many, saved and filed to be read later. A transaction, rather than any meaningful action. “Like”, on the other hand, seemed to establish emotional connections to news and events which did not necessarily reflect the true feelings involved.
As Casey Newton wrote in The Verge: “A star is not a heart. A favorite is not a like. The newest mode of engagement on Twitter is a bit less versatile, a bit less powerful, a bit more compressed. Like Moments, its big bet on casual users, Twitter’s likes are basic, in all senses of the word. I’m sure we’ll get used to them in time. I’m less sure I’ll ever really come to like them.”
And to some, it didn’t make sense, from the bookmarking perspective:
Others mocked Twitter for missing the point – how do you “Like” news?
Twitter hung on, and a week after the change, while speaking at the Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco today, Twitter’s SVP of Product, Kevin Weil, shared with the crowd that the new hearts aren’t stopping activity. According to Weil, “It’s easier to understand.” He also claimed that the move showed an increase in engagement – 6% for existing users and 9% for new users (exactly how Twitter splits “new” and “existing” users wasn’t made clear). Twitter attributes the increase to hearts being “easier to understand” than the star-shaped favorite button. “The heart is a universal symbol,” he said. “It’s a much more inclusive symbol.”
This is part of CEO Jack Dorsey’s drive towards greater engagement, part of the revamp plan aimed at galvanising the stagnating user base at Twitter. This follows the the launch of Moments, the company’s first television ads, and even some layoffs.
So, it seems that move worked. But it may not have made Twitter very popular with some users. A final Tweet on this, shortly after the launch, summed it all up:
Over at Airbnb
A few years ago, Airbnb had made a similar switch. It all started back in 2012, when Airbnb wanted a total site redesign. They chose to centre this initiative around “Wish Lists,” which are lists of desired properties that users create themselves. Today, 45% of their users engage with Wish Lists, and over a million have been created. Perhaps none of it would have happened if they hadn’t seen just how radically a few simple changes can remake people’s relationship to the site.
From the launch of the platform, registered Airbnb users had been able to star the properties they browse, and save them to a list. And then, a unique employee engagement plan that they had helped them hit jackpot!
As part of the onboarding process at Airbnb, the company encourages new employees to think up new features on their first day at the company. It is a great plan to get the greenhorns enagage without baggage, get welcomed into the innovative environment, and shows that great ideas can come from anywhere. One Airbnb designer was assigned what seemed like the small task of reevaluating the “star” function. In the original Airbnb product, users could ‘star’ properties to add them to a wish list — a basic feature. Joe Gebbia, co-founder, recounted the story:
“Our new designer comes back and says I have it. I go what do you mean you have it? You only spent the day on it. He goes, well, I think the stars are the kinds of things you see in utility-driven experiences. He explained our service is so aspirational. Why don’t we tap into that? He goes I’m going to change that to a heart. I go, wow, okay. It’s interesting, and we can ship it so we did. When we ship it, we put code in it so we can track it and see how behaviour changed.”
Interesting – Airbnb’s logo is an inverted looped heart, after all. But Gebbia’s team wondered whether just a few tweaks here and there could change engagement, so they changed that star to a heart.
To their surprise, engagement went up by a whopping 30%. The star, they realized, was a generic web shorthand and a utilitarian symbol that didn’t carry much weight. The heart, by contrast, was aspirational.
“It showed us the potential for something bigger,” Gebbia told Co.Design. And in particular, it made them think about the subtle limitations of having a search-based service. “You have to have search,” Gebbia says. “But what if you don’t know where you want to go?”
Probing the reasons why a heart was so different from a star, they eventually landed on the concept of Wish Lists. Outwardly, these are similar to a pinboard you might set up on Pinterest—it’s just a list of places you really, really want to visit that’s designed to be shared. You can broadcast your Wish List additions on Facebook; you can see the Wish Lists friends have created; you can share the Wish Lists with others, for trips you’re planning. But the bigger picture is that Airbnb’s listings become content. And as content, the Wish Lists offer a way to unlock listings that would otherwise float in the ether, undiscovered.
All this came from the humble move – from star to heart.
So, what we do take from here? I had blogged on the Airbnb story earlier and it remains one of my favourite (ok, “liked”) success cases for Design Thinking. Why did Twitter face such a backlash? Is it because of the basic nature of the services? Is it because of the relative positions of the two brands – Twitter in the social media world and Airbnb in the travel business?
What can we learn from here? If we are to do something like this, what should we do differently?
Please post your comments and thoughts.