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December 30, 2006

Terms like OPML & XOXO are too technical and specific — let's call them "live outlines"

What?

Live outline icon

I propose we use the term "live outline" to refer to dynamic content — such as OPML files that contain lists of feeds — that people create using XML outline formats.

I've seen some discussion about what to call the information organized using these formats, but there doesn't seem to be a convention for referring to them in general. This leads to difficulties sharing ideas related to the formats, and explaining them to people who aren't familiar with them. I really like Dave Winer's idea of a reading list, but that's just one kind of live outline; these formats can be used to create live outlines that can serve various purposes (for example, the one on my blog's sidebar or a travel outline).

"Live outline" is friendlier and easier to talk about (and say!) than "OPML", "XOXO", etc. It's a good general term everyone can use and understand without too much difficulty. It's fine to use "outline" and "outlining" in context; "live" can be omitted when people know what's being discussed.

Audience

This proposal is intended for people creating content and applications using structured outlines based on XML formats, such as OPML, XOXO, and OML.

Why?

To encourage widespread adoption and use of these formats and reltated technologies, we need simple, non-technical terms that convey meaning well. People are much more open to learning something new if it has a name they can relate to, understand, and pronounce.

Live outlines will have a significant and growing role in how people consume, organize, and share feeds:

If we want people to get comfortable using structured outline formats, we need to talk about them in terms that won't alienate or put people off. Try telling someone about the cool OPML file you're building, and watch how quickly their eyes glaze over. Changing the language we use can make all the difference, and we already have a familiar example of this: Consider the idea that live outline is to OPML document as web page is to HTML document. People can relate to the idea of writing a web page, and it's easy to talk about web pages; a major reason is the lack of hard-to-pronounce technical acronyms.

  • People are already familiar with the concept of an outline. They don't have to learn an entirely new concept to understand a live outline, just a new use for something they already know.
  • People can easily understand that live = dynamic (e.g., feeds). Again, though, "live" sounds better and is easier to say than "dynamic". I know that OPML, etc. are not just for feeds, but I think organizing and managing feeds will be the highest-profile common use for the formats, at least for a while.
  • Firefox has already begun to popularlize the term and concept of "live bookmarks". We can take advantage of that and extend the idea to live outlines.
  • Non-technical people who use these outlines aren't going to (and shouldn't) care much about the details of the format in which they're written.. They'll need to recognize names for compatibility, but only until services and applications interoperate well (how many feed readers support RSS and not ATOM, or require a specific version of either?) Recognition can be important for a while when a technology is new, but how many people that use the web care about the language in which web pages are written? In most cases, they don't want to know.

I'm not arguing that we should stop using format-specific terms in technical discussions and documents; they certainly have their place. I just want to promote the use of terms that insulate people from unnecessarily technical, specific acronyms that aren't likely to be relevant to them. Plus, I want a general way to talk about the information structures we build with these formats. "Live outline" conveys meaning without being overly technical or specific to a particular format or technology. I hope the term will help these formats and creative uses of them proliferate more quickly and easily.

What do you think?

I hope this proposal will provoke some discussion. Unfortunately, I've had to disable comments due to spam (and the lack of a good mitigation capability), but if you have thoughts on this proposal, link to this post from your blog. If discussion ensues, I'll add a live search feed of links to this post to tie it all together.

December 21, 2006

Diagramming Tip: Write first, then draw the box

What?

When you're drawing a diagram, write the words first. Draw the box or circle around the words after you've finished writing what will go in the container.

Diagramming tip: write the words first

Why?

Writing first ensures the words will fit inside the container, since you'll draw it around what you've already written. You won't get stuck trying to squeeze the words into a space that's too small.

How many times have you seen people draw boxes on a whiteboard, then try to fit words and phrases into them, and have to start writing smaller or erasing the lines to make more room? Writing the words first

  • eliminates the problem of running out of space,
  • results in a nicer looking diagram, and
  • helps you look better while creating it.

Sometimes it's good to be inside the box.

December 15, 2006

Benefits of using feeds

Feed Icon

For both subscribers and publishers, feeds are a useful addition to the tools we use to distribute, consume, and manage information.

Benefits of subscribing to feeds

Key steps toward addressing the problem of information overload include classifying & prioritizing the information you receive, and reducing the amount of work required to get the information you want. Feeds and a feed reader can help you redirect some information away from your email inbox and automate the retrieval of information you may currently be getting manually.

  • You can stop checking websites for updated content — the content comes to you. Once you subscribe to a website's feed, you never have to go back and check for updated information. Think about how many sites you visit on a regular basis &mdash news, sports, weather, stocks, blogs, etc. A feed reader automatically checks sites you choose on a regular basis, and lets you know if there's anything new. You can truly "set it and forget it".

    Dave Winer, widely credited as the "father of RSS", described feeds as automated web surfing:

    "...when people ask what RSS is, I say it's automated web surfing. We took something lots of people do, visiting sites looking for new stuff, and automated it. It's a very predictable thing, that's what computers do -- automate repetitive things."

  • Free up your email inbox for correspondence. As an information tool, email has long been overloaded as a catch-all for information people want to send and receive. A lot of the email we get isn't correspondence, and often doesn't deserve a high priority. The problem is, we don't have enough control over what we get via email — it just arrives and competes for our attention. One part of the solution is to direct information away from your email inbox and into your feed reader, a tool that's purpose-built for managing information you want to see but don't need to necessarily respond to via email.
  • Put "read-only" information in its place. Feeds are well suited to one-way and "read-only" communication, and a good feed reader can help you manage a wide range of information you might be getting now via email or by visiting individual web sites. You can use feeds to:
    • keep current with the latest news
    • monitor stock prices
    • get weather updates
    • check the traffic report
    • track a package
    • share links to websites
    • monitor topics of interest (using a "search feed"; a feed of search engine results)
    • read blogs
    • keep up with busy discussion groups

    Consider how much less cluttered your email inbox might be if you redirected some of the information above to a feed reader. It's worth noting that the tagline for Google Reader is "Your inbox for the web." Email is great for two-way communication, but for information you just want to read, a feed is often a better choice.

  • You can unsubscribe with confidence. You own and manage your list of feed subscriptions, not the publishers. Unlike with email lists, when you want to unsubscribe from a feed, it's your choice and it happens immediately — you don't have to ask, wait for confirmation, or wonder if it's really going to happen.
  • The content has a consistent look & feel. Given the variety of website designs, getting to the actual content you want on each website can take a while. With a good feed reader, the content is all displayed using a consistent interface. Feeds are typically more content-centric than design-centric. Some feeds contain ads, but they're often displayed inconspicuously compared to looking at the same content on the publisher's website.

Benefits of publishing feeds

Publishing feeds lets you maintain and update your content centrally, and stop worrying about how to distribute it.

  • You get the centralization benefits of a web page & distribution benefits of email. Once you send email, you can't make changes if the information needs to be updated; you have to send a new message. When you publish a feed, you maintain the content centrally. When you update content, subscribers automatically get the current version &mdash in some cases highlighted as updated, depending on the feed reader — even if they already seen the previous version. Any time they refer back to it, they'll have access to the most current version; with email, they'd have an out-of-date copy. (Note that some feed readers keep copies of previous versions.)
  • You don't have to do anything to notify your audience. Feeds solve the problem of notification; there's no more having to ask people to "check back soon" for updates, or ask for their email address. Neither the publisher nor the subscriber has to do any work to be notified when new content is published; feed readers do the work for us.
  • You don't have to maintain email lists — you can stop sending content and let subscribers come get it. When you publish a feed, subscribers take responsibility for consuming your content. You just publish it, and you're done; people who want it can get it. People may be more likely to subscribe knowing that they have full control over unsubscribing. (If you want to know who your subscribers are, you can create an individual subscription form and publish a unique feed for each subscriber. This could be a great way to provide spam-free, individualized, direct communication with your audience.)
  • There's a high probability your audience wants what you publish. People have to consciously subscribe to feeds, and don't usually do so by accident. When someone subscribes to your feed, there's a good chance it's because they want the information you provide.
  • Non-email communication may be better received by your audience. People are tired of being inundated by email, and often ignore it when they feel overwhelmed. By publishing a feed, you give people a choice in how they consume your content, and they may be more likely to do so as a result.

Use feeds to stay current with discussion groups without cluttering your email inbox

What?

Feed Icon

You can reduce noise and clutter in your email inbox by subscribing to feeds of discussion groups and forums. Keep your email subscription so you can participate, but filter the group's email list messages away from your inbox.

  • Check to see if your discussion group publishes a feed. If you're on an email list for a discussion group or forum, but don't usually participate in the discussion, see if you can subscribe to a feed of the discussion. For example, you can subscribe to feeds for both Google Groups and Yahoos Groups. (Regrettably, feeds from Yahoo Groups seem to be just summaries of each post.)
  • Subscribe to the feed, but don't remove yourself from the email list. Instead, setup a filter in your email to bypass your inbox, and send the list messages to a folder. This gets them out of your way, but allows you to access them if you want to respond to a message.

Why?

Use your feed reader for "read-only" monitoring, and reserve your email inbox for correspondence.

Redirecting the discussion to your feed reader reduces the clutter and interruptions competing for attention in your email inbox. This reduces the burden on email — a tool we all know is overloaded — and makes it easier to use for correspondence; two-way communication.

December 06, 2006

Put multiple Google Reader gadgets on your Personalized Homepage

What?

Google logo

You can see several of your Google Reader subscriptions at once by putting multiple Google Reader gadgets on your Personalized Homepage. Each gadget can display a different folder or tag in your Reader subscription list.

If you use Google Reader (it's worth serious consideration!) and you're not using the Reader gadget on your Personalized Homepage, you're really missing out. This miniature interface to the full version of Google Reader is extremely useful, with pop-up "bubbles" for quick reading, the ability to switch between your folders & tags (but sadly not individual subscriptions) and smooth scrolling, all without taking you away from your homepage. You can multiply the benefits of using the gadget by putting more than one on a single homepage tab.

Google Homepage Reader Gadget Birds-Eye View

Why?

Look at a single page for a "birds-eye view" of your Google Reader feeds.

  • Scan the latest headlines or read entire articles right from your homepage. You don't need to go to Reader to see your feeds. You can get a quick update on several feeds at a glance, right from your homepage. If you want to read more than a headline, just click on it, and a "bubble" will pop-up and display the entire article. It's lightning fast, and you don't leave the homepage.
  • Syncs with full version of Google Reader. All the Reader gadgets stay in sync with your full version of Reader, so if you read or star something in a Reader gadget, it'll be that way in the full version, and vice versa. The basic feed gadget doesn't do this, since it has nothing to do with Reader.
    • This is a key feature, and it's worth highlighting: I can use the full version of Reader, Reader gadgets, or Reader Mobile to read feeds from almost anywhere, and state is always maintained. That means there's no downside to any of the methods, and it makes reading feeds easy and efficient.
  • Manage just one set of subscriptions. You've long been able to put multiple basic feed gadgets on your homepage, but if you do that and use Reader as your primary feed reader, you've got two sets of subscriptions to deal with. The Reader gadget uses the subscriptions you're already managing in Reader.

How?

Add a Google Reader gadget, press the Back button, add another, repeat. It's that simple.

Tip: Create a separate tab. If you plan to put multiple Reader gadgets on your homepage, you may want to start by making a separate homepage tab for them. Once you've done that, make sure you've got that tab selected, since gadgets get added to the current tab.

To add multiple Google Reader gadgets to your Google Personalized Homepage, follow these steps:

  1. Find it. Find the Google Reader gadget in the Homepage Content Directory. (You can either click on the link here, or go to your homepage, click on "Add stuff", and search for "reader").
  2. Add it. Click the "Add it now" button.
    • This will take you back to the Homepage Content Directory, and you'll see a "Back to homepage" link at the top left of the page. Do not click that link yet.
    • If you are not redirected to the Homepage Content Directory, you'll probably see the "Add it now" button disappear, and in its place, a check mark next to "Added". If you see that, you should be able to reload the page, and skip the next step.
  3. Go back. Use your web browser's Back button to go back to the previous page.
  4. Add it again. Click the "Add it now" button again.
  5. Repeat. Repeat the two steps above until you've added as many Reader gadgets as you want.
  6. End. After you've added your last one, click on the "Back to homepage" link.

Tips & Tricks

  • Each Reader gadget is an individual. You may find that you want different behavior for different feeds, depending on what they contain or how often they update. Try configuring gadgets to display various numbers of items, or changing whether or not they display items you've read.
  • See what you've starred. I star articles to highlight them for further reading or action. Putting my Starred Items on my "BirdsEyeView" tab ensures I don't forget about them, and makes them quick & easy to access.
  • You can scroll within each gadget. If you want to see more than the max of 10 items per gadget, you don't have to open Reader, you can just click on the up/down arrows, or hover over the gadget and use the scroll wheel on your mouse.

Feedback and suggestions to the developers

I've become a strong advocate of Google's Personalized Homepage, and an was instant convert to Reader as of it's redesign. I'm really impressed that the two work together so well, and the developers of both should be proud.

To the developers of Reader and the Reader gadget, thanks for such a nicely executed, well thought-out tool (and service)! Please consider these suggestions:

  • Enable us to choose individual subscriptions to display in the gadget. Currently, the gadget allows us to choose a folder or tag to display, but not individual feeds. (Each "folder" in Reader is a mix of the feeds it contains.) I know "river of news" style feed reading is all the rage, and it certainly has its benefits (I've advocated feedmixing myself). That said, it would be nice to be able to specify a particular feed to display in a gadget, just as we can do in the mobile version of Reader.
  • I'd like the option to auto-hide the bubble if I move the mouse away from it. That would mean one less mouse click, and potentially faster navigation. (Note the word "option"!)

Credit

I was inspired to try putting multiple Reader gadgets on my homepage by thinking about:

  • Dave Barnard's comment that he'd like to be able to customize what shows up on PopUrls.
  • Marshal Kirkpatrick's recent comments on using a startpage as a component of his feed-reading in his recent Open Sourcing My TechCrunch Workflow post. Marshall writes:
    Almost anything can be read by RSS feed, so you can display almost anything on a startpage. These services fulfill a very specific function for a person working on the web - they provide a one click view of updates from various sources, inside the browser and distinct from the more heavy duty environment of a feed reader.
    Exactly!