The icon doesn’t matter.

James Robertson comments on Robert Scoble’s discovery that RSS usability sucks, based primarily on the fact that people use different icons and words to indicate how to subscribe. James suggest that shouldn’t really matter:

The icons are for the minority of the audience that knows what they are. Most people are going to interact with RSS in one of two ways:

  • Their favorite browser will do auto-discovery for them, and offer to subscribe for them
  • They’ll try to subscribe (in their aggregator) to the main page, and the aggregator will do auto-discovery for them. BottomFeeder does the latter already; is there an aggregator out there that doesn’t?

Supporting this comment, Alex Barnett mentions an RSS study that suggest the vast majority of those that use RSS don’t even know it:

27% of Internet users consume RSS syndicated content on personalized start pages (e.g., My Yahoo!, My MSN) without knowing that RSS is the enabling technology.

My father was talking to my youngest son tonight and asked him if his email program read .eml files. Of course my son uses web-based email and never really thinks about file types because they really don’t matter to him, so he wasn’t sure how to answer.

Then it occurred to me that these days the format shouldn’t even matter. The software should just know what to do. Just as Microsoft Word opens word processing files, my newsreader should just know to subscribe when faced with an RSS or Atom file. Why do I need to know what to do with a particular type of file or feed? That’s the job of software.

Usability isn’t about the right icons or words. It’s about software that does what it is expected to do, without depending on a human to interpret something the software should already know how to deal with.

One thought on “The icon doesn’t matter.

  1. One of the biggest things holding back RSS is the insistence that people acknowledge and interact with it as a ‘different’ thing. The last thing that I believe people would want is yet another thing to learn about when they already understand the concept of headline and summary, much less another three letter acronym (TLA).

    For what it’s worth, I thought Apple’s decision to move RSS support into the browser put web content back where it belongs. Just like the idea of learning what RSS is can hold people back from starting to use it, separate aggregators (while they currently offer some nice features) is yet another hurdle for average users to jump before they can enjoy the benefits. That has to end.

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