December 15, 2006

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.

July 21, 2006

What?

Firefox logo

Change the color of the active tab in Firefox to improve its visibility.

 

By default, the active tab in Firefox is not very visible, and it becomes less so the more tabs you open in a single browser window.

Why?

Changing the color of the active tab makes it easy to see at a glance.

Firefox's tabbed browsing makes it easy to manage having several websites open at once, but with multiple tabs open, it doesn't take long to lose sight of the active tab.  Spending time looking for the active tab reduces the benefit of using multiple tabs. Changing the active tab's color solves the problem by making it stand out in the crowd.

Before

Firefox active tab default

After

Firefox active tab more visible

How?

Make a quick change to your userChrome.css file, then restart Firefox

Edit your "userChrome.css" file and add:
/* Change color of ACTIVE tab */
tab
{
    -moz-appearance: none !important;
}
tab[selected="true"]
{
    background-color: rgb(255, 106, 106) !important;
    color: black !important;
}
/* Change color of normal tabs */
tab:not([selected="true"])
{
    background-color: rgb( 70, 130, 180) !important;
    color: white !important;
}

The colors in the example code above will make your tabs the same colors as mine in the screenshot above; you can use any colors you like.

Note:  You must restart Firefox for this change to take effect.

Reference

July 08, 2006

What?

Firefox logo

Use the Firefox address bar instead of the built-in search box to search any website or search engine.

 

By default, if you enter a search query in Firefox's address bar, the browser will perform a Google "I'm Feeling Lucky" search.  You can change this so it will perform a normal search using Google or any other search engine you want.

Firefox search from address bar

Why?

Fewer text input areas = simpler & faster searching

It's much more efficient to use a single input field for all text entry, rather than one for addresses and another for search. This eliminates the need to think about which one to use based on what you want to do, which means one less keyboard shortcut to memorize, and one less decision to make.

Computers can do a pretty good job of figuring out what to do based on what you enter, so let the browser work for you, and get in the habit of always using the same keyboard shortcut to jump to the address bar, whether you're navigating or searching.  After you try it for a while, you'll wonder why anyone would want two text input areas. No, it's not perfect, but it works great 99% of the time.

One less thing on the toolbar

Now you can free up space on the toolbar by removing Firefox's built-in search box (right-click on the toolbar, select Customize, and drag the search box off the toolbar).  If you were using it to access other search engines, try setting up Quick Searches for those instead.  Quick Searches use the address bar, and let you quickly perform a search on any website or search engine.

How?

Make a quick change to your user.js file, then restart Firefox

Edit your "user.js" file, and add:

// Change to normal Google search:
user_pref("keyword.URL", "http://www.google.com/search?btnG=Google+Search&q=");

You can substitute the URL with the appropriate syntax for whatever search engine you want to use.

You may have heard about making changes like this by typing "about:config" in the address bar, but as far as I can tell, those changes apply only to the current browser session, and don't persist when you restart.

Note: You must restart Firefox for this change to take effect.

Reference

July 04, 2006

What?

Firefox logo 

Instantly find and jump to any link or text in a web page just by typing into your Firefox browser window.  No keyboard shortcut required.

 

As part of the Accessibility functionality, the Mozilla developers made it possible to "find as you type" without using a keyboard shortcut.  You can set this up by enabling "Begin finding when you begin typing" in Firefox, which takes less than 10 seconds. 

Why?

This makes finding anything on a web page almost effortless, and eliminates the need to do something (e.g. use a keyboard shortcut) to tell the browser you want to start searching.

Why go through extra steps when you want to find something on a web page?  Once you try this, you'll see it's really fast & convenient to be able to just start typing when you think of something you want to find on a web page.

Great for finding a tag in a tag cloud

This is a generally useful trick, but it's also a perfect solution for finding tags in a busy tag cloud, since you often know the name of the tag you want, but have to find it among many others.

I'm discussing this in the context of  del.icio.us tag clouds since mine is pretty large, and that's what inspired me to start using this technique.  One of the strengths of del.icio.us is that it facilitates using a lot of tags.  Unfortunately, if you do so, it soon becomes a challenge to visually locate and click on the one you want.  "Find as you type" solves this problem.

SCREENSHOT: Firefox find as you type in tagcloud

Screencast demo: See it in action

The best way to see the benefit of this is to try it, but you can get a sense of it by watching the screencast I made to demonstrate how this works:

SCREENSHOT: Firefox find as you type tagcloud demo 

(This is my first screencast, and it was very easy to create using Wink, so I want to thank the developers for this great free software!)

How?

Enable "Begin finding when you begin typing" in 2 easy steps:

  1. Go to the menu and navigate to: Tools - Options - Advanced - General
  2. Select "Begin finding when you begin typing"
    • SCREENSHOT: Firefox Begin finding when you begin typing

 

To use it:

  1. Go to any web page and start typing a word you see on the page.
  2. When the link you want is selected, press "Enter" to open it.

Tips & Tricks

  • Try this on any web page that has text and links.
  • Try this with your tag cloud on your del.icio.us start page.
    • If you don't use del.icio.us, or don't have enough tags to warrant searching, try it with the main del.icio.us tag cloud that I used in the screencast.
  • If your cursor ends up on a word in the link title or notes that you don't want, just press "F3" to find the next instance.
  • I haven't seen an obvious way to do the equivalent of this in Internet Explorer; if you know how, please comment.

Reference

  • Mozilla Documentation / Keyboard Feature: Find as You Type
    • A bit out-dated, and this feature is now implemented via dialog boxes, but the documentation provides some tweaks some may find useful.

May 25, 2005

Maybe the better question is, "Should we take a different approach to tagging email vs. other information?" 

I know a lot of people are jumping on the "don't even bother to categorize email" bandwagon lately, and I'm considering what aspects of that approach are applicable to how I operate.  I've dramatically flattened my work email folder structure in the last couple years, and now I put things into much broader categories.  My over-categorization eventually led to excessive effort to find anything, but that was before client search tools & interfaces began to really improve (e.g. Tbird's quick search & saved search folders).

I often see the argument, "But I can always search my mail!", and that's true.  In fact, as the tools are evolving, I'm becoming a huge advocate of using search, but I don't think that precludes manual categorization; I think it's an additional capability.  People seem to be increasingly recognizing the value of tagging information, and Gmail's "labels" are essentially tags, so why exclude email?   

As good as search tools are becoming, there is still value in doing some "pre-processing" (specifically, I mean categorizing it, using whatever means available, tags, folders, etc.) of email.  As I've noted before, adding tags enriches information and improves search results, among other benefits.

 

A hybrid approach?  Email is different than other information we manage 

I've often prided myself on how quickly I can find any email message, but in fact, I don't refer to my saved personal mail as often as I used to think I would.  I do actually refer to my saved work mail a lot, and  that's largely due to the nature of my job & culture of my team.  By contrast, I tend to refer to my non-email files (e.g. documents, spreadsheets, notes, photos,etc.) quite often.  (Interesting!  I do this much more with my personal files than work files; probably because most of my work stuff is email-based.)  Given that, maybe it's not important that email be as "enriched" as other information.   Of course, this depends on how and for what purposes people use  email.  Perhaps we should use a hybrid approach, relying a bit more on search and expending less effort on pre-processing, since many of us probably:

  • have a more rapid influx of email relative to other information we accumulate
  • have many more email messages than non-email files
  • don't refer to saved email as much as other saved information
These two "balance questions" come to mind:
  • value gained by enriching information (by tagging/categorizing it) vs. time & effort spent time doing so
  • effectiveness of pre-processing vs. searching
Clearly, the frequency of receiving and referring to the information are two of the factors that must be considered.  I think this balance is shifting as search tools improve, but there will always be value in some pre-processing.

I'm curious to know if other people are thinking about this question in the context of email vs. non-email information.  Email definitely has different characteristics than other information, and I think it is important to distinguish the two.  For example, we typically use different tools to manage each -- email client vs. file system browser/command line -- and historically, there have been good reasons for this.  How do you manage & process email vs. other information, and why?

 

Comments

Migrated from my former blog

 

By Taylor - Wed 25 May 2005 08:00 PM PDT

I can always search email....and typically I find that email only has "time" relevance, i.e. you rarely go find that email from a year ago! Therefore I think it is a complete waste of time (and have said this for years) to perform any kind of categorization, tagging or other such "pre-search" work.

That said, there are times when it makes sense to categorize, or otherwise distinguish certain types of email (there are always exceptions to the rule, right?). In the past I have found these to be certain kinds of feeds, e.g. housing/rental listings - which would now be sent to bloglines anyway, or highly relevant threads/conversations, maybe a re-fi or something else high priority.

For everything else, a thread typically is no longer than 4 messages (at the most!) and can be found easily by scanning back (manually, if I used Google maybe I wouldn't, but Yahoo!'s search is somewhat poor) a few days worth, or performing a hard search.

A final reason why I think it's a waste of time to pre-search email - it's a high-volume, medium response type of information, which is why it's relevancy drops off quickly with time. I *already* spend too much time on email, I think it's not worthwhile to spend more (and most of my time spent is not searching).

 

By James E. Lee - Wed 25 May 2005 09:06 PM PDT

Clearly we agree on some general points, but we take our (age-old) arguments/approaches to different extents.

Part of that may be due to the fact that my work is extremely email-centric. I should have made it clear that I rarely refer to my personal mail; in thinking further about it, I actually do so fairly often with my work mail, since email such a part of my job and my team's culture. I'm going to go edit the article to include that point.

For me, such a heavy emphasis on time relevance doesn't work; I am terrible at remembering when a given subject was current, and I prefer to leave that to a computer to tell me. That's part of why I like some pre-processing. I think we'll always be at different places along this particular spectrum, but it's good to keep the discussion going!

March 18, 2005

 

I've been using Yahoo! Mail for several years, and it's been great, but Google is doing more to advance technology (especially in some areas of interest to me), and I'm finding myself compelled to switch to Gmail, because I think it's a more "intelligent" email application.

Labels/Tags

Labels (also referred to as "tags" by Flickr, Technorati & del.icio.us -- here's a good intro to tags and why they're useful), are probably the main specific reason I'm switching.  Tags free me from the typical contraints of folders (though folders as a concept are still useful!) and enable me to put messages in more than one category.  I don't mind folders being the metaphor for looking for things in those categories, but I've always resented the fact that folders (as implemented in most contexts) limit me to a single category.

Notably, blogharbor.com, where I host my blog, takes the same approach, letting users put articles in one or more Categories, something the very popular (and Google-owned) blogger.com does not, AFAIK.  This is one of the reasons I chose to host my blog at blogharbor.com.

Google describes labels as part of their approach to creating "A more flexible filing system", something about which I plan to write some day.

 

More manageable Inbox

It takes a while to get used to it and start seeing the benefits, but Gmail provides a much more manageable Inbox than many other email clients (web based or not!).

"Conversation View" keeps your conversations together - Gmail groups messages related to a certain topic (or "thread") together to create a "Conversation View":

 

 

 

I don't understand why people accept the idea of using a Sent folder (I have an article about this planned too!) in email.  Saving messages in Sent causes your conversation to become fragmented; the part you write is in one folder - Sent - and the part others write is in your Inbox or whatever folder you file it.

It's still useful to be able to view all the messages you've sent (a capability Gmail provides), but that does not have to mean they are filed in a different place.

If you're not using Gmail, the way to get around using a Sent folder is to Bcc (blind carbon-copy) yourself on each message you send.  Unfortunately, Yahoo! Mail  (which I'll refer to a lot not to single it out, but because I use it a lot) doesn't provide this capability (why??), so for my personal mail, I'm stuck with a Sent folder.  For my work mail though, I do have the option to Bcc myself, and I haven't used a Sent folder for years.  That means if I look for email about project X, I find everything everyone involved in the conversation said, in a single place.  With Gmail, you don't have to Bcc yourself on everything, because it already groups what you write with what others write on the same topic/thread.

Update: 2005.03.23

Less cluttered list of messages - Conversation view  provides a very efficient use of space when displaying a list of messages.  I currently have 9 conversation threads in my Gmail Inbox, with a total of 31 messages.  With Yahoo Mail (and many others), the 31 messages would all be displayed "flat" (each message displayed in a list) and unrelated in my Inbox, as opposed to condensed into just 9 conversation threads.

Keep track of where you are - Also of note, when you look at your Inbox in Gmail, there is a > to the left of the thread you last viewed.  This is much more useful than you might guess, when switching between reading messages and the list of threads in your Inbox!

I know threading isn't new, but I think Gmail does a nice job of presenting a user inteface that takes advantage of it.  This really helps with managing mail, but you'll probably get a better sense of this after working with it for a while.

Better & faster management of Drafts

Update: 2005.05.13

Gmail makes saving a draft quick & easy, and unlike Yahoo mail, once you create a draft, future saves are updates to that same message; Yahoo Mail creates several copies, each is a later revision with the most current updates.  I'm sure that works for some people, but I don't care for it.

Update: Gmail now auto-saves drafts!


Better (indexed!) searching

 Google applied the idea of indexing (building a list of keywords and relating it to content) web content to email.

Indexing is effectively doing the "work" of searching in advance (and updating it regularly), so the search takes a lot less time when you request it.  When you search your Gmail, you get results very quickly because the server simply looks in its index for the search term, and shows you the messages that contain it. 

Try doing a search in your Yahoo! Mail and compare it to a search over a similar amount of data in Gmail.  Disclaimer: I can't yet actually do this myself (I only just started using Gmail), but I'd bet you a dollar the Gmail search is faster.

Some people argue that we shouldn't bother to put things in folders since searching is so good these days, but folders have long been a metaphor for manual categorization, a capability that's extremely valuable.  We should start getting into the habit of using labels (or tags, or keywords) instead of physically moving data into folders.  More on this in another article.

These are my thoughts on the matter so far (March 2005); I will likely add more reasons for migrating as the occur to me...

Since writing this article, I've found a wealth of information about Gmail over at gmailtips.com.