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This article was published on April 9, 2013

Conversation tool Branch simplifies, dropping groups, ask-to-join and more to prep for its next phase

Conversation tool Branch simplifies, dropping groups, ask-to-join and more to prep for its next phase
Matthew Panzarino
Story by

Matthew Panzarino

Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter. Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter.

Discussion tool Branch is undergoing a spring cleaning of sorts today, as it simplifies its features, trimming the virtual fat back to its core experience. The new Branch has less doodads, like group messaging, but its all in preparation for the service’s next phase.

Branch is a platform for curated discussion among people that are knowledgable about a particular topic. It was backed early on by Obvious Corporation, the new endeavor of Twitter founders Biz Stone, Evan Williams and Jason Goldman. It was co-founded by Josh MillerHursh Agrawal, and designer Cemre Güngöre. You might have seen Branch around. It’s a service that has been popping up more and more wherever discussions are being had online.

We use it here on TNW from time to time, and it pops up on other blogs with increasing regularity. I’m a fan of the service because the discussions are typically high-value and low-noise. I rarely waste time reading a Branch thread, and that’s valuable.

And the service has been steadily adding features since it first popped up in early 2012. Highlights, activity feeds, Spotify integration, recommendations and group discussions are some of the many features that the service has added over the year since its launch. But today, some of those will be gone.

I spoke to Branch’s Josh Miller about the changes, which he says are not about changing the nature of the service, but instead getting back to the core of it. “We reached a tipping point with the service, especially with publishers,” Miller tells me.

Simply put, Branch is finding that it’s having to do less ‘outbound’ work to try to drive adoption of the service, and it’s now getting more ‘inbound’ traffic from publishers using it to embed or direct attention to discussions between experts. Publishers like USA Today Sports, New York Times’ Parenting, and us, have all been driving that adoption.

Basically, what Miller and the Branch team found is that their original, primary use case was in fact super popular.  People liked creating and sharing discussions, period. All of the other fancy stuff that they’d added to the service over time allowed them to determine exactly what people did and didn’t like, and it let them tap into that user behavior to start tweaking the service.

And that behavior told them that they needed to dial it back. So that’s what they’re doing. Some features are sticking around and some are going, but overall you’re going to be seeing a much simpler Branch from now on. The Highlight feature, Miller says, actually turned out to be extremely popular, because it allowed you to skim long threads of conversation to pull out the prime points without having to read them all.

Some of the features getting the axe include groups, the notification drawer and even the ‘branching’ of individual posts that (in part) gave the service its name. Another option, the ability to ‘ask to join’ a Branch, is also getting the boot. Miller says that they found that it ended up just causing negative feelings for those not getting a response, and most of the folks that you wanted in the conversation you generally know how to invite anyway. Miller likened it to not being able to get into a party, a feeling no one likes. So now, invites only come one way, from the owner of the Branch.

I asked Miller what the simplification of the service was leading to, but he wasn’t sharing much of the future plans. What he did say is that, over the past few months, they’ve been seeing other kinds of conversations come to the fore, besides just ‘professional commentators’. “For example, this is essentially a group of friends messing around on a Friday afternoon,” says Miller. “Simplifying the product will allow us to begin to support many other types of conversations, since in the real world the places and people we talk to vary widely.” He also said that ‘mobile’ may be involved in the next phase of Branch.

Miller credits Williams, Stone and Goldman for offering solid advice about Branch. Especially the idea that you learn a lot from your users once you get a product out into the world. All you have to do is listen and deliver on that knowledge. Which is what Branch is in the process of doing.