Archive for the 'RSS feeds' Category

Voyage: A road to nowhere

Voyage is a novel feed reader that displays content in a 3D-appearing space, and despite my well-documented reservations about 3D interfaces, I tried to give Voyage a go.  I have to assume that Voyage is not actually a production-level RSS service, but rather a demonstration system, because it is lacking some fundamental features of RSS readers including:

  • Personalisation: You can’t create your own account on Voyage, which would mean you had to re-add your feeds every time you visited the site.
  • RSS search: Voyage forces you to know the RSS URL of the feed you want to access–not the name of the site or the site URL, but the RSS URL.  This is a big ask of the average user
  • Reading: To actually read any interesting RSS feeds you leave Voyage and go to the original site, even in cases where the feed is full-text (rather than an “atom”).
  • Pictures: The site does not display pictures. This is a bit of a problem for picture-oriented blogs like I Can Has Cheezburger

Given these limitations, this display feels more like a discovery service for new blogs (along the lines of the liveplasma music and movie discovery service), but it does not have the back-end database of recommendations.  Either way, there are considerable usability problems with this interface:

  • The text is not clear and readable
  • The 3D-ness of the interface doesn’t add anything (the only dimension that appears to have any meaning at all is the forward and back one), and does make things harder to find (indeed, included in the 23 things task is the “add a feed and try to find it” puzzle).  Given that 3D interfaces perform deomnstrably (PDF) worse in information organisation tasks, and this interface does not have to be 3D, this is a serious usability concern
  • The feeds area looks as though you ought to be able to click n the feeds to go to them.  Instead clicking on them deletes them, which given that you need to know the feed URL of a site to add it, is a high cost error for a simple action
  • It simply isn’t clear what many of the interface elements (space, colour, the horizontal line) mean, making the interface difficult to learn
  • it is difficult to navigate back “out”once you have selected something, meaning that the navigation is difficult and actions cannot be easily undone

Each of these concerns is in contravention of at least one of this excellent list of usability first principles, meaning that basically Voyage is hard to use.  Not only is it difficult to use, but it doesn’t offer either a decent feed reader or an interesting discovery service, so there is nothing in the user experience that is compelling enough to entice users back.  Maybe in a couple of years this concept will be more fully fleshed out, but in the mean time I am going to stick with Google Reader, which does reading and recommendations very well indeed.

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iGoogle: Not habit forming

My apologies, I am behind and I have had some lovely comments from those of you who read regularly. My other work has gotten somewhat on top of me over the past couple of weeks, but I think the worst of the storm is past now.

I tried to use iGoogle for a week so I could make some educated comment on it, and the most educated comment I can actually make is that I didn’t actually manage to see the week out. The premise is good, but the execution just wasn’t there to keep me going back.

Part of the problem is that I can get most of the online services I use regularly into it, but not all of them; gmail, my rss feeder, a calendar and weather I could have, but I couldn’t get the metlink timetable, nor an online community I’m a part of nor Facebook in any meaningful way. Given that iGoogle is supposed to be my “one-stop shop”, the inability to access so many things that I use regularly is a substantial failing (and while I am aware that this is not Google’s fault, and someone needs to write a plugin for each of these things, knowing that doesn’t help me any).

The integration with Google’s own services is relatively poor; instead of Google content opening in a new tab the way content from all other applications did, Google content opened in the same tab, obliterating iGoogle (this was actually one of my most common paths out of iGoogle — I would do a search or read a blog post in my RSS feed and simply move on, forgetting I had ever been in iGoogle). Not only did it open in the same tab, but in the cases of gmail and Google reader it presented me with just the content of the email or feed, and none of the usual functionalities of moving to other emails or feeds.

Having failed in the useful stakes, I tried to make iGoogle fun by creating a ‘fun’ tab and adding some dingbats and crosswords and such; I also kept the original funny cat picture that it came with. I set the background to be the solar system (though I did think the one that had the sun rise and set in tune with local time was kind of fun) and tried really hard to be engaged. The only thing out of the whole lot that I liked was the funny cat picture, and I actually get my fill of those by subscribing to ICanHasCheezburger. Again, it isn’t iGoogle’s fault that I couldn’t find a cryptic crossword, but when you have to work too hard to have fun, well, it isn’t fun anymore.

One of the fundamental principles of usability is that if there is a conventional way to do something (like the top right-hand search box, for example), then you better be making a usability improvement if you break that convention, and it better be a significant improvement, or the convention being broken just overshadows whatever you are trying to do. I think it is the same with people — if you want people to change their usual habits, you need to have a compelling incentive for them to do so. If iGoogle really did create a one-stop-shop for all my web things, if it had a good interface, or even just if it was fun it could have formed a new habit for me. However, it fails on all these counts, and I have to say if I go back, it will only be to look at the cat pictures.

Digg: Not for me, certainly not for everybody

The idea behind Digg is interesting enough, get a community of people rating and commenting on news. Like any other community, Digg has its norms and social mores, unfortunately, however, they are not my social norms or mores. As per the 23 things, I signed up to Digg, and let the links roll in (and they certainly did roll — at last count I had 209 unread Digg links in my feed reader). Anecdotally, most of what Digg is feeding me is either techtips (most of them to do with the iPhone) or college boy humour (’10 ways to get kinky in the kitchen’, ‘look what happens when some girl tries to eat a tablespoon of cinnamon’, ‘catfight in the girls locker’ room…that sort of thing). I haven’t done a watertight analysis of this, but on first second and third glance, it seems to be fairly accurate. In fact, the most interesting thing Digg has presented me with is this Stephen Pinker article about swearing (be warned, this paper includes explicit examples of bad language), which piqued an old interest in socio- and psycholinguistics.

Not only is Digg full of college boy humour and tech-tips, I have also had the rather uncomfortable experience of someone I don’t know becoming my fan, claiming he likes what I am doing on Digg (which is precisely nothing). I know this is part of social networking, but on a site that already feels as hostile as Digg, someone being my fan is downright creepy.

So why is Digg the way it is? What has shaped the community? Part of the issue here is that Digg reflects the wider online community, men use the internet more often than women, and for longer. Moreover, younger people (PDF) are more likely to engage in social activities on the web — so young men are likely to be the primary users of a service like Digg because they are the primary users of social services online.

Having said that, Digg sublty encourages this demographic trend with its user interface. When I signed up, I was asked to choose my gender (which actually should be irrelevant on a site like Digg, but I assume they’re selling my eyeballs to an advertiser and gender matters there). The problem is not actually being asked my gender, the problem is the options I was offered: ‘Fellow’ and ‘Bird’. This is an example of where relying on fun to create a good user experience can be really risky: some people would find this fun, but I find the suggestion that males are ‘fellows’ (which has associations of jolly-goodness and even academia) and females are birds (near-brainless, decorative and flighty) pretty insulting–imagine, for example, that the options were ‘ladies’ and ‘roosters’ (or some synonym thereof).

This gender-naming slight is not the only thing about Digg that may discourage women, though: The main topics on Digg are ‘World & Business’, ‘Technology‘, ‘Science‘, ‘Entertainment’, ‘Gaming‘, ‘Sports‘, ‘Offbeat News’ and ‘Comedy Videos’, four of which are traditionally male dominated, and none of which are traditionally female dominated (I’m not going to get into whether things should be male or female dominated, I’m only talking about things as they are). If a news item you are interested in posting doesn’t fit into a Digg category, you are not welcome to post it to Digg.

These are just two of a number of ways Digg works to bias their user base further in favour of the typical internet user — young and male, and the popularity contest nature of Digg means that this culture is self-reinforcing. To be honest, though, whatever Digg wants to do with their user base is fine, provided they are aware they are doing it. It does mean, however, that this will not be a way I get my news in the future (as the 23 Things task suggested I might). I might occasionally visit and read the music section, which has many interesting articles about copyright, but I am certainly deleting my account, and unsubscribing from the RSS feed — Digg is not for me (clearly some of my colleagues feel the same way — see here, here and here), and the culture there makes that abundantly clear.

RSS and a simpler life

Once upon a time in the not so distant past I didn’t read very many blogs at all. I hadn’t found many I was interested in, and the few I was interested in I could go and look at on a pretty regular basis (I figured if I forgot then the blog must not have been that interesting in the first place).

Come about May this year, though, and I decided it was time to gain a more in-depth understanding of the library world, and the concerns facing those who work in it; after all this understanding makes it easier to really work with people in libraries to provide better user experiences — whether the users are library users, or librarians themselves. Now, I found quite a few blogs that I liked, and visiting them all regularly was really becoming a problem; the bookmarks toolbar in Firefox was getting decidedly crowded, and then I couldn’t remember what I had visited. Even then, often I would visit to find that there was nothing new for me to read; some of my favourite blogs are updated only a few times a month.

I’d known about RSS for a long time, but had not assumed there was anything in it for me until the blogs in my life got out of control…at that point I decided I had more to gain than lose, and that the time taken to set up a feed reader was going to be justified. I chose Google Reader for two main reasons:

  1. It’s online. That means that whether I am at work, at home or back in NZ visiting my family I can read all the stuff I am interested in reading, without installing extra software all over the place.
  2. I already had a Google email account and a couple of Blogger blogs, and I have found most Google products relatively easy to use — in other words I was suckered by the Google brand.

Like all of life’s best decisions, once I had set my feed reader up with all the blogs I liked to read, and even some of the ones that I only liked some of the material from, I wondered why the heck I hadn’t gotten a feed reader years ago. There are things that don’t really work about Google reader, it’s a shame not to be able to drag-and-drop blogs into the reader, or feeds into folders, for example. The thing that annoyed me most about Google reader initially has long since been fixed — it now has a search box. Now if only I could set Google reader to be my default reader (instead of being asked every time whether I want my feed to go to iGoogle or Google reader) and get my news alerts sent to my reader instead of my email…

I’m actually pretty attached to Google Reader. I tried to set up a Bloglines account today so that I could compare the two, and while I enjoyed looking through the standard things to subscribe to (though I can’t see why on earth anyone would subscribe to an About.com page — must be some cross-promotion with Ask.com) but when I clicked subscribe there was a ‘database error’ or some such thing. Then when I went to read my feeds it had subscribed me to some bloglines spam, so I had to click around furiously and largely unfruitfully to get rid of it. Finally I subscribed to something I was interested in, and I was presented with an array of options I could not be bothered reading, and some silly subscription options. Suffice it to say there ended my experience with Bloglines, because although I ought to be willing to put myself through that to make a comprehensive usability report on this blog, I have other things to do with my time this week. Tony and Gary have said much the same thing.

To be fair, I don’t use many advanced features of Google Reader meaning I can’t even give a comprehensive overview of its usability. I neither share posts I find interesting nor subscribe to others’ shared feeds, mostly because I have little time to read the blogs I keep up with, let alone anyone else’s, and I have no desire to share my reading with the world less discriminately than emailing someone a useful link. For what I do, though, Google reader is perfect. I’ve sorted all my feeds into folders (because of course the time I have saved by reading blogs in a reader means that I can read more blogs), and I am finally keeping up not just with the blogs I read for work, but also with those I read for pleasure.


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