Jacob Nielsen: what about RSS?


Jacob Nielsen's written up a look-back article on the 10th anniversary of his widely read Alertbox column series.


Nielsen as succeeded in being the customer advocate regarding the usability of sites, and while I don't always agree with his views, I'd say he's generally right most of the time.



"My most-read article, "Top Ten Mistakes of Web Design," has long passed two million readers. The average Alertbox gets 300,000 page views; the total number of page views for all columns is about 50 million. Even if I never wrote another article, the Alertbox would be a 100-million-page-view project, because the next ten years will double the readership of the archived pages.


Yes: it was worth it.

When I conducted my first user tests of websites and intranets in 1994, I was probably the only person in the world with this esoteric interest. Web people didn't care about usability, and usability people didn't care about the Web. After years of incessantly promoting user research findings for websites and intranets, the situation has changed: thousands of people now work on online usability. Nielsen Norman Group alone has trained 11,208 people and, given that many other places teach usability as well, the worldwide total is no doubt much larger. "


On the subject of RSS though, Jacob Nielsen has been very quiet. 


In fact the only thing I've seen Nielsen write on the subject is the comment he posted on my 'Email v RSS, let us move on' article last year:



"There are several additional positives for email from the customers' perspective. For example:

*) Easily forwarded to friends and colleagues.

*) Easy to add comments to forwards.

*) Easy to edit forwards to only include the info you want to show to your friend/colleague.

*) Can get fullly formatted newsletter in a medium that you are checking every day anyway.


(There are several more, but these were some of the points to come out of our recent usability study of how users deal with email newsletters, see
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20040217.html )

A negative for RSS for most mainstream users:

*) One more application to download and one more user interface to learn.

For expert users, email has the additional advantage that it can be filtered, sorted, and archived, but most users don't know how to do any of this."


Great feedback, which I added to the email/RSS comparison matrix.


On the matter of the RSS downside, that using RSS requires 'one more application to learn',...great point...but there are two thoughts I have on this. First, if potential users of RSS readers understand the value it can bring, then users will learn (remember: the email clients and browsers were once new apps to learn, but their value was enough to get over the learning barrier).  The second is that web-based readers are 'apps' too, but with Yahoo, MSN and other online services companies bringing in RSS to their offering (while investing in usability dollars as they do so), the customer won't necessarily feel they are 'learning a new app' - it is just another feature of a website.


My ask for Jacob is this....what about RSS?  I haven't seen much in the way (in general) on the subject of the usability of RSS (this is a short but good example by Jeffery Vreen and this thread discussing the 'RSS Customer Experience...search Google for 'Jacob Nielsen RSS' or MSN and you don't get much!)...So come on...I'd love to understand Nielsen's take on the facets of RSS usability.


Comments (10)

  1. So far, I find RSS a nightmare.

    I can’t get any decent search agents to work properly.

    I’m a Jakob Nielsenite web usability blogologist, and I’m pretty frustrated with low usability of RSS and aggregators.

    PubSub is doing nearly nothing for me, missing many items.

    Subscriptions to my Feedburner feeds fluctuate up and down in quantity. At first I thought it was tied to my content: anger someone with a post they dislike, unsubscribe.

    Now a couple subscribers tell me they get "URL not available message". Maybe that’s how I’m losing subscribers, and thus, credibility.

    This is why it’s a nightmare. I cannot lose cred, my blogs are all about cred.

    ugh.

    My posts always contain 150 kb digital art images, so I cannot provide "full text, entire post" subscriptions, can I?

    RSS? Right now, I think it sucks.

    :^(

  2. overthink says:

    Wow, the usability of RSS, interesting…

    …not.

    There are plenty of people who still don’t know how to make a web site, format a plain text OR an HTML email, or figure out where a file goes when they save it on their computer.

    Because these same people can’t understand RSS and Newsreaders, it is somehow "not usable?"

    Whatever, how about this. Some people are dumb. Whether they’re trained by Jakob Nielsen, or not.

    I don’t even use a News reader, but I still use RSS feeds when BUILDING sites. RSS fulfills a promise of standardized communication between web sites. This is what syndication is for… it’s not so blog readers can be made aware of each new post, that is just as easily done with a web browser (I do it every day.)

    The second S in RSS is what’s important.

    I would hate to think that RSS is going to be judged on whether it’s easy to CREATE a feed with some bozo’s blog software, or whether it is easy to use a News Reader.

    If I’m missing the point of this article, I apologize, this just strikes me as weird.

  3. MSDNArchive says:

    ‘Overthink’…thanks for the comments…you say:

    "There are plenty of people who still don’t know how to make a web site, format a plain text OR an HTML email, or figure out where a file goes when they save it on their computer."

    …But surely that is what usability is about…making computing really, really easy…? That’s a good thing right?

    "Because these same people can’t understand RSS and Newsreaders, it is somehow "not usable?""

    …You’re comparing apples to oranges here. Just because someone doesn’t know how to make a website (probably around 99.9% of the world’s population) doesn’t mean they are incapable of learning an RSS application.

    "Whatever, how about this. Some people are dumb. Whether they’re trained by Jakob Nielsen, or not. "

    …The people Jacob trains are generally in the website desgin/interface design industry…he doesn’t train the users…!

    "I would hate to think that RSS is going to be judged on whether it’s easy to CREATE a feed with some bozo’s blog software, or whether it is easy to use a News Reader."

    "If I’m missing the point of this article, I apologize, this just strikes me as weird."

    …With all due respect ‘overthink’, I believe you have entirely missed the point. The usability target audience at question here is not those who use RSS to syndicate out content (site managers devleopers, webmonkeys, bloggers), but those who want to consume RSS. The Jeffrey Vreen post I point to above is an example of what I mean.

  4. Alan Howshall says:

    As a newcomer to daily use of RSS I’ve actually sidesteped the whole issue and got the best of both worlds…RSS within Outlook as news item posts, which I can get notification on new, read, delete or keep and all within same normal app as my email.

    One that works for me is free http://www.rsspopper.com

  5. Adrian Lee says:

    I tend to disagree with Nielsen. Personally, I clearly segregate e-mail (communication) and content (information), with a slight overlap. But I just think that mixing the two into one interface is just a horrible ideal. I’ve got more than enough problems with noise in my inbox (even the unread "RSS" mails is noise to me), and I firmly believe that, like the gadget world, we are going to see a divergence of applications for specific functions (like e-mail vs. RSS for instace), instead of having convergence (e-mail as the panacea).

    Mobile phones (esp. SMS) were drastically more complex interfaces to learn. Just see where that went!

  6. Percy says:

    Once you get the hang of RSS (and I think that this doesn’t take too long), it’s so much better than visiting a blog or a website. It’s so much more convenient that without my RSS feeds I kinda feel lost. It’s almost like using POP in your mail client to check your web-based mail. Setting it up might require you to get a bit technical, but once you do it, consolidating your email becomes much easier.

    Right now, I think that RSS is still a little geeky, in that you have to do some geeky things to figure out feeds, etc. However, the concept itself is so convenient that you can’t help but tell others about it. I feel that it’s a matter of time before RSS becomes something everyone starts to use.

  7. I asked two of the RSS industry's leading lights to join me for a call and share their perspective

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