tecznotes

Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Jun 25, 2009 5:04am

fever again

I mentioned a few things last week I thought were interesting about Fever, Shaun Inman's new web-based feed reading tool. Feed readers as a technology have basically remained stationary for a number of years, so I'm excited by the idea that someone is rethinking them in some way. This is a set of hastily-written notes based on my experience with Fever.

I'm a little harsh on the application in places, so it's worth mentioning that I think Shaun Inman has made a beautiful thing, and apart from the gripes listed here, I'd probably recommend Fever to anyone who's looking for a basic feed reader and wants to avoid being tethered to a single desktop or remote service provider.

First, my bias: four years ago, Mike Frumin, Boris Anthony and I were working hard on Reblog, the Eyebeam-supported tool for reading and republishing RSS feeds. Eyebeam used it to curate feeds about art and technology, with weekly stints by guest Rebloggers using software initially created by Frumin. I'm told that Tumblr's Reblog feature was explicitly influenced by our Reblog. Even though ours is for all intents and purposes a dead project, I continue to use it every day as my primary reading and republishing mechanism.

I'm interested in Fever because I'd be happy to move away from Reblog if the right tool came along, and the core promise of Fever, to show you what's most highly attended-to in your collection of feeds, is a pretty exciting one, like a personal Memeorandum or Digg.

I went ahead and bought a copy of Fever to give it a test run. It's server side software, and there doesn't seem to be anything like a demo mode. You need to cough up $30 to see what it's like. Now that I've tried it out, I have some additional things to say about this software in particular and web interaction patterns in general.

Install

The installation process is a breeze, and extremely innovative to boot. There are three steps: you start with a small seed application on your own server, you make it world-writeable so that it can modify itself, and then you link it to a paid account on the Fever website. The complete application is pushed to your server without your intervention, and you're off to the races. I'm fairly certain I've never seen anything quite like this before: usually PHP/MySQL software is more like Reblog or Wordpress, where you unpack the thing as a complete unit, install the database and so on yourself, and do your own configuration. Fever seems to have some basic protections in-place to prevent malicious outsiders from scrambling your installation, but there's a completely fascinating power inversion at play. Where the entertainment and software industries have spent millions or more trying to develop bulletproof phone-home mechanisms to ensure that your local copies of their media refuse to play without remote authorization, Fever takes advantage of its naturally web-facing nature to establish a link back to its home base. Because Fever doesn't ask you to change the folder permissions back from world-writeable, I was curious whether Inman would use this as a vector for remote software upgrades.

I saw this just the other day:

Just now I saw a second one, for version 1.02. The messaging here is astonishing: while you were out, something you own transformed itself into something new.

Overall though, installation was a breeze: it took a few minutes (including some wrangling with the always-execrable PayPal) to get set up.

There are two aspects of Fever's design that I'm not altogether happy with.

Hover

The first is hover controls, described by Smashing Magazine:

When a user interface has many elements in which the user can perform actions, the page can become cluttered and hard to scan. This is especially common in the administration section of Web applications, where users can change table data. A good way to handle this is to hide each element and reveal it when the user hovers over that area.

Fever uses this technique to a frustrating degree, shown in this animation of me moving the mouse from the left side of the browser to the right:

Whole swaths of functionality hide and show themselves, including various management controls, an iPhone-style alphabetical navigation column, and highlighting of feed items on the right hand side. Personally, I think this is a particularly terrible form of mystery meat navigation. It's difficult to discover what actions are available to you in an application if you need to fly around the screen with your mouse to look for controls, and the particular design of Fever doesn't let the hover controls save any particular space or clutter. Commenter James Schend on the article linked above describes a second way in which this pattern is harmful: Beware, hover controls only work on devices that have a mouse. They're useless on iPhones. (And tablet PCs, and touchscreen kiosks, etc, etc.)

Overall, the high amount of mouse-reactive interface mutability in Fever makes it feel shaky, jittery and tentative. There are places where it doesn't even help, e.g. what the fuck is this?

This idea of subjective perception of physical stability in interactive software is something I think is particularly hard to get right, but enormously important - Apple's work in particular seems to absolutely nail this every time, through the acceleration models in their basic widgetry, particularly on the iPhone and trackpad.

My recommendation here would be to simply turn all this stuff off, and leave all the UI elements on-screen and unresponsive to simple mouse movements. 99% of desktop UI conventions simply don't make sense on the web (I'm looking at you, drag and drop).

Distance

The second aspect of Fever's design that I'm not altogether happy with is spooky action at a distance. By this I mean pieces of the page that influence other pieces of the page without apparent reason.

Fever uses the now-common AJAX technique to perform updates, allowing users to delete articles and modify feed subscriptions within list views. The frustrating thing about Fever's implementation of this technique is that it visually centralizes the wait indicator: you perform an action such as deleting an article on the right-hand side of the browser window, a wait spinner appears on the left-hand side of the window, time passes, and finally the visual result of your action modifies the appearance of the page. Your single action has effects in two places and two times, and your attention is split.

To be fair, Fever is not the only offender here. For a long time, Twitter used this same pattern when posting updates from inside the web interface, with a tiny spinner tucked up and away in the corner of the screen, far away from the text and button form elements you used to make your update. They've since mended this particular problem (while simultaneously introducing some really ill-advised link-breaking AJAX-based page replacement navigation).

When you perform "bigger" actions, Fever uses a modal dialog box to ask for confirmation, something I've always called The Ghetto Shield because it's so lame. Here's me trying to add an item to a blacklist:

This is another desktop UI convention that has no place on the web. Even Apple left this in the dustbin of history when it replaced system-blocking dialogs with per-window sheets with the introduction of OSX.

My recommendation here would be to take advantage of AJAX and HTML's ability to localize action and reaction: changes should take place where and when you made them, even if their confirmation takes time. This is something that I continue to believe we got absolutely right with Reblog back in 2005. As an example, here's the bit of interface Reblog provides for adding tags or comments to an article prior to republishing it:

The form replaces the content of the item (it's invoked by the small tabs to the right), so that you can have as many forms as you have items. No modal dialog, just an asynchronous modification in place. We also handle the split attention issue here by placing loading spinners near their associated actions. In this example, you'd publish the article by clicking the big letter "P" next to its title, which would be replaced by a spinner for a second or two until the action returns successfully. If you were to archive the article (mark it as read), the content immediately disappears leaving just a collapsed title bar area to indicate that you want it gone, the "A" is replaced by a spinner, and soon it's visually labeled "archived". Crucially, this allows you to immediately shift your attention to the next article in the list, knowing that there will be no further motion of on-screen elements to further distract you. Fever by contrast doesn't remove the article from the screen until after the server has confirmed that it's gone, making it necessary to hang around waiting for your action to have an effect before you can safely move to the next article.

Temperature

I've not said much about the core feature of Fever, its ability to dig through your articles and "take the temperature of your slice of the web and shows you what's hot".

What Fever gets right is that that it looks at all the links in each article, not just the primary linked article. This means that if a lot of authors of various blogs are all pointing to the same story, it will have a higher-than-normal temperature and will bubble to the top of the Hot view.

It turns out that even in the nearly-200 feeds I'm subscribed to, the link overlap between feeds seems to congregate around some pretty mundane shit. Steve Jobs's liver transplant, that guy who got his iPhone back, etc. I'm interested in this stuff exactly once, then I would like to mark it read. Fever offers a "blacklist" feature in this view, but that's not quite what I want: it's not spam, it's just something I've read and am finished with.

I'm not sure what my recommendation here would be. This is the difficult part. Recommendation engines are hard, and the task of building one that operates just on your personal stuff with minimal input is even harder. I hope that this is an aspect of Fever that Shaun puts additional future effort into, because it shows the most promise of any part of this interesting application. If he manages to really nail this down, I will changes RSS readers and even do the plug-in plumbing work to drag my republishing activities over. Happily, Fever will continue to update itself with fresh version while I'm out.

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