What can we learn from Elon Musk’s Twitter 2.0?
A turbulent first few weeks of Elon Musk’s reign at Twitter have created a weird, meta-product spectacle.
It’s hard to deny the cultural impact Twitter has had as a social media platform.
It’s a communication behemoth, used by a wide variety of public figures, including its new owner, Elon Musk. An avid user of the platform, he’s been quick to implement some monumental changes to the service. Regardless of your thoughts on these changes, the response has been impassioned and the situation unfolding is fascinating.
I decided to use Musk’s highly publicised takeover as a reminder of some basic product principles.
User research is key
One major product change at Twitter has been the introduction of a paid, ‘Blue’ tier. In its initial format, this allowed users to pay $8 a month for a blue, ‘verified’ badge plus some perks. But the response was not as hoped and the trial was swiftly abandoned. The short turnaround time to scope and introduce the feature, coupled with a lack of enthusiasm from the majority of users, suggests that user research was insufficient prior to launch.
The overall purpose of the endeavour has also been called into question. Not only due to the quick reversal and return to the drawing board, but also because it did not seem to tackle the actual problem at hand. Twitter has struggled with bots and fake accounts and the official purpose of the new verification system was to reduce these. Instead, it only helped to reduce the entry point for verification on an individual level, leading to widespread fake accounts holding the verified symbol. Musk has also stated that diversifying revenue is crucial for Twitter - this may be related to the work here.
Users are the lifeblood of your product. Without them, it will cease to function. This is why it’s so crucial that you understand what drives them to your product and what is likely to keep them there. Without speaking to your users, you are far more prone to incorrect assumptions, which increases the risk of feature failure.
Handle data with care
Another major change at Twitter has been the reintroduction of previously banned accounts. Controversial celebrities and accounts linked to hate speech were previously deplatformed, although a new ‘freedom of speech’-first policy has allowed many of these users to return. Musk even allowed users the chance to vote on whether Donald Trump could return to the platform, with a slim majority voting in favour. While this created a talking point around Twitter and showcased Musk’s more cavalier approach to managing the platform, the method used was highly questionable. When gathering user insight on your product, ensure that you are getting all the relevant information you need. Don’t simply ask straightforward questions with two options - try to fully understand their motivations and why they feel this way.
This poll is a good example of how not to conduct user research. While it appears to allow a democratic decision making process, the ‘electorate’ was Elon Musk’s followers - so the results may have been unrepresentative of the user-base as a whole. In his book Strategize, Roman Pichler explains the importance of robust data collection to avoid self-serving bias decision making. Ideally, you’ll have data that strongly supports your decision. Around 6 million users disagreed with Trump’s reinstatement and may have left the app as a result. This is not necessarily a strong showing for a new feature.
Don’t let personal bias get in the way
Many of the recent decisions made at Twitter seem to stem from Elon Musk’s personal beliefs in what the platform should represent. He has been an avid, and often highly critical user for a number of years, while amassing millions of followers, who he engages with directly on a daily basis.
Taking a personal interest in your product and being able to put yourself in the shoes of users is a great trait. There should always be space for opinions when making product decisions, and having a vision that your work ladders towards is paramount. However, it’s also important to not allow your own biases to cloud your judgement. Musk seems to reinforce his opinions by seeking sources of information that confirm his worldview - such as the skewed polls or other interactions with loyal supporters. In doing so, he falls foul of confirmation bias (something explored in Testing with Humans by Giff Constable). Gathering data and insights to both challenge and verify hypotheses is crucial, while decisions anchored on one piece of information are dangerous. We should never take our own assumptions as gospel.
Keep pulling in the same direction
In addition to the introduction of new features and an apparent change to the product vision, the sale of Twitter has also led to changes in company working practice and expectations. Leaked emails have shown Musk is looking to introduce a new ‘hardcore’ culture, essentially introducing longer working hours and a ‘crunch’-like approach to development.
This was introduced via an ultimatum presented to the teams: agree to the new terms or hand in your notice. It was also ushered in alongside large swathes of redundancy, including redundancies across European divisions.
This style of working appears to be in response to Musk’s ‘fast fail’ approach. He is experimenting quite publicly and responding quickly to these changes. While this approach can yield positive results, according to Roman Pichler, it’s only successful if everyone is on board and clear goals and objectives are in place.
Inspiring your team and keeping morale high is crucial. Positive motivation, as well as regular cadence, input and feedback, will help ensure your team is driven. Setting tangible goals shows you understand your team’s capabilities and gives them the opportunity to succeed to realistic standards. Discussing these with the team also allows them to feel a strong part of the team, circling back to pulling in the same direction. Musk seems to be intent on creating a much harsher, slightly macho, bunker mentality. Perhaps he believes that the ‘hardcore’ hardcore that remain at Twitter will run through walls for him and achieve great things. Only time will tell, but it does have echoes of Melissa Meyer’s failed efforts at Yahoo! a decade ago.
As a user of Twitter and a Product Manager, the ownership spectacle has been fascinating. There are many learnings to take from a product perspective, including: the importance of unifying the team behind a clear product vision, the value of user research, the negative impacts of personal and confirmation bias. It’s a welcome reminder of why we do what we do and the importance of robust discovery and delivery.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The culture of innovation and experimentation, and the ability to learn quickly and make changes, are all positives. However, Musk’s approach to these seems haphazard. His belief in his own exceptionalism may cause issues this time around.
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