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May 22, 2004

Future battles in syndication space

Robert Scoble: "There are several other far more serious fights coming in the syndication space. Here's the fights that are coming." While I agree with Robert that the whole RSS/Atom sideshow is basically unimportant, his key issues seem rather odd, and I find some of his analysis very doubtful.

Full text vs. synopsis? Robert, no way is this the number one most important fight in syndication space. It's basically a judgement call. Some people, like you, prefer to get the whole article in the RSS feed. Others apparently prefer just to get the headline. I reckon it depends on the article. It will depend on the writer and the audience. If the writer doesn't make his readers happy, they won't subscribe. If the readers don't like what the writer is offering, they can send email or comments. Shrug.

What to call it? It doesn't matter. I just want to subscribe. Let Ruby and Winer squabble over what to call it: as long as my aggregator can read it, I neither know nor care.

Designers vs. readers. Now here is an issue with meat. Robert argues that "feed producers should ALWAYS leave the user in control." I'd love that: I'm a puritan. I like my RSS feeds like I like my Web sites: unencumbered by some lunatic who thinks the font and blink tags are Tim's Own Gift to information design. But we had this battle on the Web, and we lost. Realistically, is it worth trying to fight it again?

What's more, good graphic design enhances the subject matter, making it easier to read, drawing out key points and setting the mood. Some good writers may even be deeply unwilling to lose control of how their content is presented, either because they don't want to lose their identity in the aggregated feed or because the design is integral to what they want to communicate. And we can't permit good design without also permitting the bad and malicious design that has defaced the Web. A possible compromise is to allow limited styling via CSS or XSLT only (plus really basic inline styling like bold and italic): successful aggregators would allow users to refuse or override stylesheets on a per-feed basis if a feed author insisted on using an obnoxious design.

Finally, what to do with the XML orange icons. Sure, Robert, let's encourage the orange icon standard. It's a poor design, because it's utterly cryptic to the uninitiated, but it's established, and those of us who care about users can get around its enigmatic nature by adding explanatory text such as "Subscribe to this site." Once the orange icon convention is sufficiently well established, it doesn't really matter that the "XML" caption is meaningless or ambiguous -- people will just recognise it as a conventional icon, like a stop light or a no entry sign.

But as to what users should see when they click on the orange icon, I'm sorry, Robert, but if you think its behaviour is easy to learn, you have been hanging around developers too long. Put yourself in Rebecca Krolander's shoes. You've found a quilting site. You click on the icon. Your screen fills with garbage. At best, you go, "What the hell is this?" and click the Back button. At worst, you go, "Shit, a virus" and go into a panic. Or, if the XML icon is linking to localhost port 5335 (the Radio subscription callback), you get some sort of "site not found" error, and you give up thinking there's a fault. There's no way this is an acceptable user experience.

I'm sure NewsGator does allow you to right-click a XML icon and choose "Subscribe." That's nice, but if you have NewsGator, you already know all about syndication. What about the poor chap to whom all this is new? He needs some guidance. What is this page for? How can I use it? A simple XSLT or even CSS to say, "This link is for use in aggregators, not browsers. Aggregators allow you to subscribe Web sites. To subscribe to this site, copy the link into your aggregator. To find out more about aggregators, go to..." would make such a difference.

To me, this is the number one issue in syndication space, because it's critical in enabling syndication to cross over to mainstream users. And it's an issue, not a battle. It's a no-brainer what needs to be done. It's just a matter of having the will to do it.

I've been very dilatory about doing any of this stuff on my own TypePad site, but writing this stuff up has reminded me just how awful the subscription/syndication user experience is at the moment. Shame on me. Time to do something about it.

May 22, 2004 in Usability, Weblogs | Permalink


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Fantastic points all around.

I wanted to suggest that there is a solution available to the XML buttons right now; there's a very easy to install Javascript applet called QuickSub that removes much of the pain of subscribing and informing people about what the button is used for.


Posted by: Dan Dickinson at May 22, 2004 4:05:19 AM