May 31

Marc Hedlund

Marc Hedlund


Last week, I was wondering about how best to make RSS/Atom feeds available on CodeZoo so they'd be easy to find and use. (Jeffrey Veen was thinking about similar problems from another perspective, and while I like his ideas, I think the solution he proposes is very explicit and UI-heavy. Maybe that's what's needed, though -- keep reading.) I originally thought the answer was to use the ugly little "RSS" icon, since RSS is the term people know. Then I found that the similarly ugly little "XML" icon was more commonly used on the sites in my bookmarks. I came down, eventually, in favor of that (hoping in part to avoid any silliness about whether Atom behind an RSS icon was somehow false advertising -- spare me).

But then I noticed something about the sites using the "XML" icon: nearly all of them add some text right next to the icon, clarifying that by XML, they really mean RSS. In some cases, such as SFGate and Amazon, they devote entire pages to explaining what RSS is, before going ahead and using the XML icon. Oy, I ask you. What craziness is this? Using one obscure acronym to describe another obscure acronym...oy!

I'm nearly inclined to give up, and wait for the browsers to provide better UIs for autodiscovery (which Firefox already does, somewhat). But for CodeZoo's needs, I don't think that's the right answer, either. I'm back to thinking the RSS icon is the right choice, with a brief sentence explaining the use of the icon for those who haven't used RSS yet. Use the term that people know -- RSS -- and don't force them to learn yet another new term -- XML -- along the way. I'd still love a better solution, though.

tags: affordances  | comments: 18   | Sphere It

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Comments: 18

  robin [06.01.05 01:19 AM]


SYN = syndicate

covers rss 1.0, rss 2.0, rss x.0, Atom and whatever else shows up at the party :o)

  Imran Ali [06.01.05 02:52 AM]

There's a neat 'Add To My Portal' device used by 'Weather Underground'...replacing the ubiquitous orange buttons with a pulldown that adds that feed to commonly used readers like My Yahoo, Newsgator, and Bloglines.

Screenshot & description here - http://wanadoo.typepad.com/affinity/2005/05/newsreaders_per.html

  Don [06.01.05 04:00 AM]

Different approach: Mark Pilgrim talked in Feb. 2004 about The myth of RSS compatibility. Both RSS and ATOM are good. There are situations when one works better than the other. Neither is good or evil.

On a practical level I think we should expect most news readers /feed software to support RSS2.0 and ATOM 0.3. Then it should not be a problem. What I would like to know is if My Yahoo, My feedster, etc. use incompatible formats! It's the badges that are the most confusing. I recon all we just need a subscribe button. Keep it simple it's the only solution.

  Kyle [06.01.05 07:20 AM]

I would agree with Don that the best solution in an ideal world would be a subscribe button. No TLAs, thought I suppose it could still the standard ugly orange if needed.

That said, in the real world de-facto standards rule, even if they're bad standards. The sheer number of XML button + RSS text sites out there makes it very difficult to do something different without having to explain "yeah, my subscribe button really just means the same thing as the XML + RSS you've gotten used to on other sites."

I really wish geeks had gotten their ducks in a row a little bit quicker on this whole syndication thing, because it's a beast to explain to new users. The crying shame is that it should be as easy to use as e-mail.

  Marc Hedlund [06.01.05 07:28 AM]

To be clear, I'm in agreement with Kyle about de facto standards -- I'm not asking "what new icon could we invent that would be better than 'XML' or 'RSS'?" I'd like to believe that *all* of the icons will go the way of "Built for Netscape/IE/Lynx..." icons, and it seems like they should (if autodiscovery gets easy enough to use). But as a transitional tool, I think the icons work as a "There be RSS here" flags. My question is more, how best to use those flags so people get the message. (In the original post I noted that people definitely don't get use of the term "Atom," and that going with whatever they were seeing elsewhere was probably best.)

  Greg Linden [06.01.05 08:01 AM]

There was a lively discussion of this back in Jan 2005 between many popular bloggers. Here's a post with links to the articles:


When it comes down to it, I'm not sure we should be exposing RSS/XML to people at all. It's a data format, something software needs but interfaces should abstract away. People just want to read news.

  Michal Migurski [06.01.05 08:29 AM]

The one thing all those buttons have in common is white text on an orange background, which is becoming something of an international symbol for a feed independent of format. RSS Equalizer and RSS Content Builder.com even use this convention in their product logos. It won't be long before this pattern enters the global consciousness, "the thing that decided decaf coffeepots should be orange."

Why not jump-start the process and ditch the letters altogether? A symbol such as this small image has a number of advantages over the RSS and XML buttons:

  • Orange and contains three enclosed elements. This echoes the older buttons for those familiar with them.
  • Visually distinctive, but still wordlike and usable within a text stream or verbal explanation.
  • Designed to be small.
  • Independent of language or character set.
  • Three bullets look like an ellipsis and imply repetition and continuation.

  Cailean [06.01.05 09:51 AM]

Could you not just create a generic white-on-orange "FEED" icon? Maybe with a tooltip (title) that specifies the type: RSS1, RSS2, ATOM, etc.

Similar to the first suggestion of "SYN" but without the inevitable religious connotation of its homonym. Also SYN is not necessarily understood by newbies.

  Laird [06.01.05 10:30 AM]

The 'XML' tag is extremely misleading. IMO, the use of the 'XML' button to label RSS feeds is intentionally quite misleading, since RSS isn't the only XML syndication protocol, nor even the first. But some RSS proponents have been quite aggressive about trying to use naming to propote RSS, and even their specific flavor of RSS, as the only way to syndicate content.

The more honest way to tackle this issue is to label all of the flavors of syndication protocol so that users can make an informed decision. Thus, there should be standard graphics for RSS 0.9/1.0/2.0 (each significantly different), ATOM, and ICE so that people who prefer each format can pick it, rather than clicking on an 'XML' button and getting whatever format the site chooses to send out.

  LeMel [06.01.05 12:48 PM]

If you use the term "XML" and it really takes off in popular culture, the term XML will get highjacked into meaning 'news feed' (think 'PC vs. Mac' in which 'PC' got highjacked into meaning 'non-mac computer').

  Steve Bogart [06.01.05 01:26 PM]

I'd vote for either a [FEED] button or, an unlinked [FEEDS:] graphic with a plain link for each flavor after it - Atom / RSS / etc.

  Amy Gahran [06.01.05 02:39 PM]

See what happens when you let a bunch of geeks name a communications medium? Like we needed another acronym...

For years I've been talking about how lousy and confusing the "RSS" and "XML" labels and buttons are. I even held a contest through my weblog to get public input into choosing a non-geeky nickname for the type of communication enable by RSS and Atom feeds. The winner was "webfeed" -- which has caught on to some extent.

But since that's actually a bit of a misnomer too, I've taken to just calling them "feeds." That term still requires a little more explaining, but it seems more intuitive to non-geeks.

It never ceases to amaze me that so many geeks still insist that cryptic little RSS and XML buttons should be completely intuitive to anyone...

- Amy Gahran

  Dan L [06.01.05 04:58 PM]

From a usability perspective, I think that a white on orange button with a simple, English word such as FEED or NEWSFEED or SYNDICATE (though not an abbreviation such as SYN) would work best. Semantic redundancy, with meaning symbolized by color, language and, to a degree, shape (currently a rectangle, though implementing a suggestive yet very simple icon- a newspaper, perhaps?) would likely also facilitate recognition without detracting from usability. Let's not forget that there are color-blind users, acronym-deficient users, and images-off users out there, so in this case redundancy in conveying meaning is a very good thing. Also, my guess is that the majority of people who currently click on XML or RSS buttons are fairly sophisticated users who wouldn't be thrown by by a shift from XML or RSS to a more obvious word such as NEWSFEED. I also think it's probably the bright orange color that most people recognize more so than the actual letters. If a goal is to make the symbol more friendly to the less tech-inclined, then the argument to keep XML or RSS so as not to confuse the current 'user-base' isn't so hot- it's possible that renaming the button NEWSFEED might even attract people to syndications who never would have clicked on a button labeled RSS or XML. Since this is a techie sort of site, I doubt there's much harm in being at the vanguard, and experimenting by changing to FEED or NEWSFEED or whatever descriptive term is most apt and broad. I'd just make sure to account for users with images turned off (e.g., if images are off it should still show a white-on-orange word). I'll tell you what- if you lead the charge, when I set up a site in a few months, I'll do whatever you decide to do. That way you'll automatically be creating a standard!

  Hans Mast [06.03.05 12:27 PM]

"the ugly little 'RSS' icon"

I think those are pretty little icons!

  Michael Bernstein [06.03.05 02:38 PM]


If you re-read your original post on this subject, you were being prompted to add a more recognizable link to the feed by users.

I think any user that is asking for a feed will recognize either one of the white-on-orange [XML] or [RSS] buttons, so these aren't the people you need to worry about providing possibly confusing explanatory text to. Either button will work for this audience, though I still think the [XML] should be preferred slightly.

Now, if you are primarily concerned with less syndication-acculturated users you obviously do need some explanatory text, but I don't think that explanantion should focus on the feed formats at all, except as examples, any of which will likely work for the user. An explanation using the words 'syndication', 'feed', and 'xml' should cover your bases, and you can provide (in a second paragraph) a few words on Atom and RSS as examples of formats *if you feel you absolutely must*.

I think we're mostly beyond needing to evangelize developers on the the merits of various formats.

That said, index.rdf is confusing because it doesn't use the term xml *or* RSS, and I really don't think you want to open the RDF Site Summary can of worms. rss.xml would probably be a better choice for a human readble URL.

The point for usability is to implement a feature in a way that will be as familiar to users as possible from other website's implementation of that same feature. Do not reinvent the wheel. Amazon et. al. have more users than you do.

Another way of saying this is "try to make sure the user is only ever confused *once*."

  Tearfang [06.04.05 01:52 AM]

First off I don’t think that the XML text is too engrained into people’s consciousness to be changed. XML is a stupid label, you might as well say ASCII. The square orange button with white lettering is definitely what I recognize. The letters could say anything I can reasonable associate with an RSS feed and I will recognize it as an RSS feed.

The labeling thing is important for new users as a good label will help them discover and understand faster. Labeling is also important for experienced users as it will aid their memory. As mentioned by other posts FEED is the most self descriptive. FEED is better than SYNDICATE, which is too long the little orange rectangle is no longer little. It is also better than NEWSFEED because sites are starting to use RSS feeds for things other than news, news feed is too limiting of a term. I agree with Dan L that there should be a no image indicator and an icon. I would choose the Firefox icon of a wave evocative of a broadcast.
Besides the fact that the symbol creates the right connotations, the Firefox Icon has the following going for it:
1. looks good in low resolution
2. would logically ‘fit’ any use for an RSS feed
3. is international
4. is extremely simple
5. is already in use for the 2nd most popular browser, Firefox (this would facilitate cross recognition and discovery)
6. is small (would allow it to be combined with the word FEED without making the little orange rectangle much bigger)

  kosmar [06.13.05 10:05 AM]

i agree on using the firefox symbol. the broadcasting metaphor overruns the crude techno-centered rss/xml buttons for anyone not being a nerd (hopefully still most of worlds population)
compare fx' solution to what safari offers ... miles ahead (visually, implementation as bookmarks still is not very usable ...)!
the color seems to be traditional orange, but i see that change already. major sites integrating feeds will and did lead to non-orange stuff due to ci-restrictions.
so i consider a broadcast metaphor to be the icon for anything that sends a feed out, with a minor problem being mistaken as a sound-file-icon.
anyway we should ask, if indicating the existence of a feed must be in the site itself, as some browsers already show it within the UA as a feature.

  Boris [08.31.05 02:57 PM]

The very last people who should be deciding this are the geeks and powerusers of the technology.

Can we get some linguists in here please? Library sciences people? Preferably people with multilingual skills and multicultural exposure/sensibilites.

No more wave icons please. Firefox's icon is bad because it's a broadcast motif. It says "radio", wifi" way more than "alternate content delivery method"...

Feed. Feed me what? Food? Animal feed?

Synd, syndicate... this one never ever made any goddamn sense. Look up the definition of syndicate.

What people forget is that RSS et all are *part of* the web. It's just another application. Now ideally, the content should get served in the appropriate format depending on what client application is making the request. However the issue at hand here is "how do we denote the URL for the XML format of this content for inclusion in an aggreagtor." In other words, it's a bookmark shortcut. But let's not even go there...

we need something text-based (becasue the WWW is text-based). Graphical versions are secondary.

Let's look at teh table of "special characters"... @ has been repurposed from it's original meaning to stand for "email"... # is (sometimes) used for permalinks... let's see...

What about the § "Section Sign" [1]? Hardly used, has a hertage as meaning "paragraph"... Looks "linky" and all... I think we have a winner...

[1] http://www.fileformat.info/info/unicode/char/00a7/index.htm

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