Part 0: Introduction
An Explosion of RSS Icons
On his blog, Ray Ozzie has a picture of the various types of buttons that have appeared on the Web to represent RSS feeds:
Several of these are truly bizarre. There seems to be an unusually high occurrence of coffee mugs and pills. I am not really sure what either of those have to do with syndication of content, but clearly a lot of people thought they were reasonable metaphors.
This chaotic user experience was the result of Web browsers not being proactive enough at providing the user with a consistent interface for the detection of Web Feeds:
Other Types of Structured Data Showing up on the Web
RSS Feeds are not the only type of structured data Web sites are exposing. We are now seeing similar buttons showing up on sites for other types of information.
Social networking sites often allow you to download a contact’s information. For instance, LinkedIn:
and openBC / XING:
Sometimes people expose their contact information as structured data on their personal homepage:
And companies occasionally do this as well:
At Evite.com, iCal users can add Evite events to their calendar:
At OpenTable, Outlook users can add dinner reservations to their calendar:
..so apparently only Mac users get to party, and only Windows users get to eat out at nice restaurants.
Upcoming.org is a bit more egalitarian, but the trade off is a complicated user interface:
Unfortunately this still leaves out a lot of users. What if you use Lightning, or Spongecell or AirSet? All of these calendars import iCal, but is the user expected to know that? Should every site create a button for every associated app? That sends us right back to the RSS icon explosion, except it will be worse, because now we are talking about every popular type of structured data on the Web.
It is incredibly common for sites to contain location information. Often these are the results of a search, finding all the doctors/stores/apartments/subway stations/etc. near a particular address. Usually the locations are hard coded to a particular map provider. Often the mapping service isn’t so great:
There are several problems with this interaction:
- Web sites are not usually updated fast enough to keep up with the best mapping applications.
- The user is not in control of selecting what mapping service they would like to use. Perhaps they would prefer to use Google Earth, or the Yahoo Maps Beta.
- There is no way to push multiple locations onto the same map
- There is no way to save the location
While location information is an extreme example, across all of the different data types, the action of coupling the data itself to a particular service provider often seriously degrades the user experience.
Microformat Buttons Enter the Mix
We are now seeing buttons emerge for microformats (microformats are described in the previous post). Some of these buttons are better than others, and overall these are more useful than not having any affordance at all. But similar to what happened with RSS, once again the Web has evolved faster than the browser, and the user experience is now a mixture of specific (but not unnecessarily applicable) application buttons, and a sea of mostly unintelligible acronyms:
This is a problem that only the browser can solve. Just like with RSS, it is time for Web browsers to provide the user with a clean, consistent, and simplistic user interface.
Next: The Fundamental Types