“We didn’t know that we needed to write in 140 characters until Twitter! You couldn’t ask people if that’s what they wanted,” he argued. He went on to talk about Snapchat and TikTok, but Twitter was the one that stuck in my head. Anyone is UX has heard a version of this story, but the most famous example of the question is about Henry Ford. If he’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. (Laughter here.) In sum, people don’t know what they want. It is up to geniuses, visionaries, and innovators to tell them what they want and, now, can no longer live without.

As a researcher, stories like these test my faith in the user. We are presented with a stark dichotomy: inspired genius vs. the people. The genius will lead the way. What role could research possibly have for products that don’t exist yet? Yet, I believe that successful products are rooted in human behavior. Behavior can be studied, motivation and goals can be understood. Even Henry Ford didn’t start from nothing; people needed a faster way to get places, fueling competition and innovation.

Back to Twitter for a moment… Twitter lore has it that Jack Dorsey was studying IM and courier dispatches. Twitter is really just a kind of SMS, you can trace its origins back to early radio. In 1985, Friedhelm Hillebrand was trying to solve a problem for his company. He was trying to squeeze more efficiency out of the phone lines and realized there was potential for character messages. He worked out the system for the characters, but had to figure out how many could be sent through the system. In trying to determine the character length, he was concerned that the system would not provide enough space to convey a coherent message, so he looked to the comparable systems of the day. Telex, a popular business telegraphy business, charged a fee per character that incentivized concise messages, but there was no character limit. He discovered that their average length was about the same as a typical postcard, another popular method of communication, but used by the wider public. Finally, he sat at a typewriter and typed out a variety of typical messages he would expect to see before deciding on the 160 character limit. (Lori Shepler wrote a riveting story about Hillebrand for the Los Angeles Times here.)

Twitter built on existing patterns and behaviors, a desire for quick communication — the equivalent of an arms race in social media. Innovative, yes, but even Dorsey didn’t set the limit; he carved off the last 20 characters for the Twitter handle, whittling it down to 140 characters. It worked because it was enough, just as Hillebrand had proven in 1985. As Shepler quotes Hillebrand, upon making his decision, “This is perfectly sufficient.” Research not only led the innovation, it helps explain why it stuck, why it would go on to be so successful. Researchers don’t ask people to solve our UX problems or to be the designer, our objective is to understand their problems so we can get to work making it better, whether it’s transportation or communication, it starts with learning about their needs and understanding why.

Writer, researcher, observer