Is RSS Feed Synching a New Need?

Google Reader will die on July 1

I miss Google Reader already.

Humans are lazy. It’s not their fault, but the default action for any situation seems, for most people, to wait and see. It can be something as trivial as what to have for dinner (“Oh, we’ll decide when that time rolls around.”) or as enormous and threatening as Climate Change (“Let’s do more research to see if it really, really, really is the result of human activity and is something that might be dangerous…”) the standard plan for most of us is to wait until we have to do something. It looks like, for an issue somewhere in between dinner and the fate of the planet, is requiring some action on our part, and soon.

Up to now, some of us had gotten used to relying on that huge, ‘non-evil’ corporation, Google, to act as caretaker of our choices for news feeds (as well as a bunch of other pieces of info, but today I’m talking about the news stuff). Because we wanted to keep all of the ways that we consume those news feeds in different places on different devices or software packages in synch, we relied on Google to be the keeper of our choices. In addition to offering a pretty good online feed reader, Google also (and less obviously) gave us a canonical place to save all of our feeds, how they were organized, and even which articles we had already read out of each RSS feed (so as not to reread the same articles again when we switched devices/locations/software).

Google has announced that as of July 1, they’ll be killing Google Reader, the aforementioned web-based reader and keeper of our RSS feed list. That not only means that the web-access to online RSS feeds is going away, but the infrastructure that a lot of other feed readers (since they figured that everyone had a Google Reader account) was something important to support, since it provided a way to quickly synch all of those preferences (what feeds you subscribe to, what feeds have read items, etc.) Google Reader’s feed collection became, partly by default, the single place where you could count on to make sure that all of your readers (and some of them actually depended on Google Reader being their to hold those Feed preferences, ‘in the cloud’ as it were) could be set up the same way. Yes, you can export your feeds as a collection of them (called an OPML file – so nerdy it doesn’t even have a clever acronym), but that’s pain and doesn’t help reconcile 2 of those files, should you add or delete feeds in 2 different contexts. I suppose someone will come up with a method of putting your OPML/reader settings in dropbox, and then the program can use it there to show your feeds, but that already feels like a hack.

So, it looks as if Feedly is going to probably be one of my main ways to read CSS feeds, along with the more standard Reeder on iOS and Mac OS X. I also use Netvibes to read news, along with my mail, calendar, stocks and and a few other odds and ends. It’s a bit cluttered, but a fine start page/dashboard for most of the time.

Still, I like the idea of a service that keeps all of those other readers in synch. Might there be one waiting in the wings, the way iCloud is supposed to keep my calendar, contacts and mail in synch? There has been some noise about a project called ‘Normandy’ that Feedly is working on – mostly that it is a clone of the Google Reader API (but it will never have the horsepower that Google had, especially if you ever wanted to search millions or trillions of feeds in order to find something important). In some ways, my subscriptions are almost as important as my files and other information. I also expect that as computing power gets cheaper, the need to have cloud-based services to keep all of those computing points-of-contact working well together becomes more and more important, and makes the experience all the more powerful. No note-taking software on the iPhone or iPad can even approach the power of Evernote, because with that service, no matter where I take the note on my phone, when I get home it’s already on my computer. Conversely, before I leave to go somewhere, I enter all of the information I’m going to need into Evernote on the desktop, and then when I get there, access it on the phone. My feed choices should work the same way, whether I listen to them read to me in the car, see them flashed on the TV screen, or snuggle up with them on the sofa with my iPad.

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My Presentation on UX for WordPress Sites

I recently gave a talk on applying some User Experience considerations to the design decisions one makes in a WordPress blog. Since there are a number of plugins and other technologies that can enhance the user experience of a blog, I thought it would be good to promote some of these. Here’s the presentation deck (without my commentary, so not every slide will make 100% sense, but you’ll get a feel for the subject):

The Greasepaint Approach

A Real iPhone is smaller than this, and that’s the issue

I’ve recently been involved with an iPhone project where we are doing a few custom UI controls, and it’s definitely proved a learning experience about the difference between designing for a computer screen and designing for the iPhone screen (either the current one or the upcoming iPhone 4 Retina Display screen).

One thing I’ve learned has to do with the characteristics of the iPhone screen, and how that influences User Interface Design choices. Over the years, I’ve become used to the what it takes to show a change on a computer monitor, which is to say, the degree to much you need to change the colour, shape, or scale so that it’s obvious, even if the user looks away for a second before the change occurs and then looks back.  This might apply to an object in its selected and unselected states, or the addition of something new on the screen, or perhaps the enabling or disabling of a button or other element.  At first, I thought this was due to the dots (or in this case, pixels) per inch of the iPhone versus computer monitors. Monitors are usually somewhere between 72 PPI (Pixels Per Inch) and perhaps 200 PPI on the best equipment. The IBM T220/T221 LCD monitors marketed from 2001–2005 were 204 PPI, and they probably set the standard for a while. These days, a 20-inch (50.8 cm) screen with a 1680×1050 resolution has a 99.06 PPI, and a garden variety Macbook (not the higher end Macbook Pros) has 113 PPI (Wikipedia has an article on how this is calculated).

However, the iPhone PPI is listed at 163 PPI, which although it’s on the high side, is certainly not significantly higher than a typical computer these days. The difference, then, must be the size of the screen. In the case of any iPhone screen 2G, 3G, 3Gs and 4G, it’s a 3.5 inch screen (compare that to the aforementioned 20-inch, and now we’re talking different.)

It might be obvious, but what I’ve noticed is that the amount of change you have to make in order to be noticeable is far more on the iPhone’s screen. The contrast must be greater, scaling or moving an object between one state and another has to be larger (or farther), and as a corollary to this rule of thumb,  it’s easy to miss subtle changes.  Several times during development of the app we’re working on, I had to report to the graphic designer that I was working with, that a selection style wasn’t distinct enough, or that a small detail of a button, such as a downward pointing arrow, had to be rendered with higher contrast (the UI had a lot of grey objects, and some of them had white or darker grey overlays).

I think the easy way to think about this is the analogy of greasepaint. What’s greasepaint? It’s the traditional makeup that actors wore (and has now been superseded by more modern stage makeup) that helps to compensate for both the washing out of facial features by the bright theatre lights, as well as help audience members to make out their faces, even though the actors were farther away (and hence, smaller in the eyes of theatregoers – perhaps the equivalent of being 4 or 5 centimeters tall depending on how far away from the stage they were sitting). I remember going backstage to a dressing room after the Play or Opera was over, and was always struck by how odd the performers looked before removing all of that extreme makeup, which brought out cheekbones or encircled their eyes (like a Raccoon, I though!).

So User Interface Designers working on iPhone apps, remember, the computer screen is the dressing room, and the iPhone screen is the stage. Don’t forget the greasepaint!

Eek!

For decades there was a religious war regarding what computer users should be doing with their hands when they weren’t typing. No, not that religious war (you cheeky monkey!), the one about the pointing device, which would allow a user to make gestures on the screen, and address parts of a graphic user interface. Before I even started using a computer, I imagined that I’d be using some sort of ‘light pen’ to do Music Notation on the screen, since I’d once seen someone using that kind of a device on a documentary (and wasn’t it used in the movie The Andromeda Strain)?  Then, when I was just returning to the US from school in England, a fellow student (who was Canadian) said I should look into using ‘A Moose’. No, I misheard his Toronto accent. He wasn’t talking about the Canadian animal, but the Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie of Robert Burns fame A Mouse. The original, first computer mouse, invented by Douglas Englebart in 1963 had this drawing in the patent:
Original Mouse Patent Engineering Drawing

The Original Mouse Patent Engineering Drawing

Though the drawing doesn’t show it, Englebart’s mouse, which was one small part of Engelbart’s a larger project, aimed at ‘augmenting human intellect’ had 1 button. The drawing mainly shows how the block uses multiple rollers, which sense which way the mouse is being moved in terms of X and Y coordinates.

When Apple shipped the first Lisa computer (and of course, the first Mac) , the commandment that ‘Thy mouse shall have but  1 button’ was spoken to the masses. On the other side, the X-Window System, and the IBM PC mouse had multiple buttons (2 or 3). The two to three camps dug in for years, each claiming the ergonomic, moral or practical high ground over the others. The antipathy between the 1 or many buttons groups continues to to this day, even if this division is no longer the case. Many people believe that Apple has stayed true to their gospel and only makes or supports a 1 button mouse, but the unforutnately named ‘Mighty Mouse’, which shipped in 2005, supports multiple buttons virtually rather than physically (you click on one side or other other to simulate one or the other button), and also has a roller ball and 2 physical side buttons, providing no fewer than 5 buttons. The proliferation of mouse buttons, sometimes 2, sometimes 3, sometimes 5 or more, depends on the system and software one encounters. Some trackball devices have had 5 buttons that effectively provide even more control messages by allowing a different kind of click from different combinations of those buttons. Apple’s latest mouse (the even more unfortunately named ‘Magic Mouse’ – what group is coming up with these names?) even goes farther, making the entire mouse surface another control surface in and of itself, like the trackpad on a laptop. This, to me, is akin to attaching a steering wheel to the top of a gearshift, or some other bizarre composite, but I’ll have to withhold judgement until I try one, even though it sounds like the Industrial Design equivalent of a Turducken.

The point is, complex gestural movements, involving more than a simple click (or double click) on a pointing device have pretty much been adopted by all computer makers, with at least an accepted level of complexity, although for the most part, a user can work up to that complexity, by moving from simple gestures to more complex ones over time, hence the idea of a short cut to a function instead of making  that function only executable from a complex gesture.

As a friend of my parents puts it, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing’. I shouldn’t be surprised by what I thought was certainly a post on The Onion, but no, it was serious, and it was the Open Office Consortium who was proposing this mouse:


The Open Office Mouse. Really. No, really.

Holy Roller, Batman! This thing is certainly the other end of the spectrum from the mice we’ve seen up until this point, at least for the general public. (More complicated mice like this one have shown up on engineering stations, imaging systems, and countless other vertical application machinery).

If you look carefully (click on the photo to see it a bit larger), you’ll see that it has no fewer than 16 buttons and a roller that are visible. The description actually boasts that it has “18 programmable mouse buttons with double-click functionality” and “Three different button modes: Key, Keypress, and Macro”.  They even show a comparison chart comparing it to other mice on the market.

While I won’t comment on the oddness of an open software consortium designing hardware (or rather, having a designer design some for them), I have to admit that this initial paragraph, on the page ‘About the OpenOfficeMouse, caught my attention:

The OpenOfficeMouse was designed with the goal of being the best and most useful mouse the digital world has seen to date. Initially inspired by the keyboards on the Treo smartphones, it was designed by a game designer who was annoyed with the paltry number of buttons available on high-end gaming mice. Because gaming mice have historically been designed primarily for FPS¹ games, not MMO² and RTS³ games, they do not possess sufficient buttons for the dozens of commands, actions and spells that are required in games that make heavy use of icon bars and pull-down menus. After discovering that the available World of Warcraft mice were nothing more than regular two-button mice decorated with orcs, dwarves, and Night elves, the idea of the WarMouse was born. After much experimentation, it was determined that 16 buttons divided into two 8-button halves were the maximum number of buttons that could be efficiently used by feel alone. However, in the process of design and development, it quickly became apparent that many non-gaming applications would also benefit from having dozens of commands accessible directly from the mouse, especially applications with nested pull-down menus and hotkey combinations. OpenOffice.org was selected as the ideal application suite around which to design this application mouse because the usage tracking feature of OpenOffice.org 3.1 permitted the assignment of application commands to mouse buttons based on the data gathered from more than 600 million actual mouse and keystroke commands enacted by users. The OpenOfficeMouse team are advocates of Free and Open Source Software, which is why we are members of the OpenOffice.org community and have created custom profiles for other OSS applications such as Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, The Battle for Wesnoth, D-Fend Reloaded, and The Gnu Image Manipulation Program.

So what we have here is a design for a gaming mouse, now re-purposed for general purpose applications (like browsing the web, email, and the Open/MS Office suite of word processing, spreadsheets and presentations).

Maybe it’s because I don’t do much gaming (and by ‘don’t do much’,  I mean hardly at all),  maybe it’s because I come from the ‘make it for a klutz’ school of UI design because I’m not very coordinated, but I think that this approach to User Interface or Industrial Design will never have much of a following. It wasn’t lost on me that I had to look up some of those acronyms to provide the footnotes here. Sure, there will always be some small group of people who want more and more direct power over their work from their hardware, and they often buy the most baroque control devices. For me, however, the whole idea of taking a piece of gaming hardware and repurposing it to work on everyday tasks is about as appealing as using a flight simulator to do your banking. Sure, you might get more fine maneuverability during a funds transfer (if you could master the controls), but it hardly seems worth the effort. Maybe that’s the key here: Having a competitive advantage from  your hardware and your skill with it during a game is far more important and more likely to have you make that effort than being a whiz at moving from cell to cell in your spreadsheet or even triggering one of the 100 or so macros you’ve created for your word processing tasks.

So to the OpenOfficeMouse folks, I say, good luck, but forget about selling one of those mice to me. Now, we start seeing the ‘direct to brain’ controllers, where I don’t have involve my arms and fingers at all with typing and gesturing on the screen but just think where I want to the cursor to go, I’ll be more interested. That would be the 0 button mouse, which I think I’m going to have to address in some future post.


¹first-person shooter
²massively multiplayer online
³real-time strategy