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RSS Usability Problems And Solutions

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RSS is a family of web-feed formats that is used for web syndication. It can also be used by news websites, weblogs and podcasting, among others.

The acronym can refer to various standards such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS 2.0), Rich Site Summary (RSS 0.91 and RSS 1.0) and the RDF Site Summary (RSS 0.9 and RSS 1.0)

RSS Backgrounder

Several similar formats already existed for syndication before RSS, but none was able to achieve widespread popularity or are still in common use today like it. This is primarily due to the fact that most were envisioned to work only within a single service. The RDF Site Summary which is the first version of RSS was created for use on the My Netscape portal. This eventually became known as RSS 0.9. A prototype that simplified the format and incorporated parts of a new scripting news format was produced in response to comments and suggestions made to the existing version. It was considered an interim measure as an RSS 1.0 like format was suggested through the so-called Futures Document.

The format was left without an owner when Netscape lost interest. Since it is becoming widely used, a working group and mailing list was set by various users and XML notables to continue its development. An RSS fork was created when two companies claimed ownership of the existing RSS.

A format grouped under an RSS 0.92 heading contained incremental changes to the existing format. Meanwhile, another group went on to produce RSS 1.0 which was based on RDF specifications but was more modular. When the RSS 0.92 was released, it contained minor and supposedly compatible set of changes to RSS 0.91. A subsequent draft was published for RSS 0.93 and RSS 0.94 by the same creator. RSS 0.93 was almost identical to 0.92 while the 0.94 reverted changes made in 0.93 and added a type attribute to the description element.

A final successor to the RSS 0.92 known as RSS 2.0 was released in September 2002 which emphasized “Really Simple Syndication” as the meaning of the three-letter acronym. It removed the type attribute added in RSS 0.94 and allowed users to add extension element using XML namespaces. Although several versions of it were released, the version number of the document model remained unchanged.

The adoption of the RSS format by New York Times became the starting point for such a format to becoming a standard. This format enabled it to offer its readers the ability to subscribe to RSS news feeds related to various topics. The RSS 2.0 specification was assigned ownership to Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. The creation of the new format and the raising of the version number were criticized and were answered with the creation of RSS 3.0, which is a non-XML textual format. It was only intended as a parody and very few implementations were made.

A preliminary draft of RSS 1.1 was produced to fix 1.0 by removing little-used features, simplifying the syntax and improving the specification based on the more recent RDF specifications. However, such work eventually became a mere academic exercise. RSS 1.1 never prospered.

Apple Computer, Inc. released Safari 2.0 with built-in RSS Feeds capabilities. It delivered the ability to read RSS feeds and bookmark them while having built-in search features. An independent project intended to create RSS 3 failed to gain backing from anyone in the industry.

Microsoft proposed its Simple Sharing Extensions to RSS, informally named Real Simple Synchronization. Together with the Outlook team, it eventually announced the adoption of the feed icon first used in the Mozilla Firefox browser. This effectively made the orange square with white radio waves the industry standard for both RSS and related formats such as Atom. Opera followed suit when they added the orange square in the release of Opera 9. The start of 2006 saw the re-launching of the RSS Advisory Board to work for the further development of the RSS format.

Usability Problems and Solutions

One of the major problems in RSS usability is the absence of consistency in the manner of subscribing. Some sites use the RSS icon such as the orange XML icon but other sites don’t have any icon but instead use words such as subscribe, feed or web-feed. There are even sites that don’t have any icon or word with any link at all. Still there are sites that use different icons for RSS. One offered solution is putting a text link in very small type at the bottom of the page which may prove to be unsatisfying to say the least. Another is sticking out with the orange XML icon as it tends to stand-out and have a link next to it describing what the RSS is and how to use it. It can be very difficult when a browser starts spewing undecipherable code after clicking an orange button with an unfamiliar acronym. Apple has recently come out with the Safari to handle RSS feeds or send it off to a chosen aggregator. A look into the Safari’s preferences at the RSS pane will reveal a dropdown menu for setting which application is desired as default news aggregator.

It is important to make software usable. Usability then was all about computer-human interaction and a lot of software remain as such. However, the Internet has given rise to new software that centers on the interaction between humans. This has been seen in discussion groups, social networking, on-line classified ads and of course, the e-mail which are all softwares that mediate between people. In this case, social interface is equally important.

RSS or news feeds in general, is like getting a subscription to a magazine except that there is no need to regularly check for new issues to come out. Through RSS, the user is informed about sites which are particularly being watched instead of checking a dozen or hundred of websites everyday. This technology is very useful but there seems to be an information overload prevailing in the system.

Some suggested solutions include visualization or collaborative filtering through smart search terms. The solution is about identifying the echoes and grouping them. When RSS readers collect updates, these results to so many unread items which make it very difficult to determine which one to read first. There are a few things to remember when subscribing to feeds. It is impossible to read everything even if all your time is devoted to reading. Even contents of a limited number of feeds may involve a lot of reading. It is important to know how to use the RSS technology before it manages to drown the user and render it useless.

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