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 2:04am

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.

Comments (15)

  1. Interesting review. I used to use Reblog quite a lot, and the 'edit in place' feature you mention was really useful. After getting into the habit of editing/republishing snippets in Reblog, I found the 'share with comment' feature in Google Reader particularly annoying in comparison. I guess this is the difference in UI decisions, between 'curating' and 'consuming' information. Almost all feed readers are focused towards consuming only. And yes, it would be great to see the recommendation/relevance features in Fever develop further, something that is still fairly underexplored in this space. However, I am slightly cynical that this will be able to work at all well in a general install, without a huge amount of specific tuning for personal preferences. A related problem is that a lot of people already have a 'hot' notification service, which goes by the name of Twitter. I can imagine not being able to avoid seeing a link being retweeted to hell and back, only to log in to Fever, to find, predictably, what has risen to the top. Even with a useful archive/hide feature, it will still be hard for Fever to beat Twitter as a medium for bubbling these links up (or 'echo chamber' if you prefer to see it that way). The way around this is to look deeper at the psychology of someone's reading habits and look at other aspects that might define a 'hot' link, rather than sticking with measures based on popularity and overlapping citations. It boils down to whether people want tools to see a realtime statistical/data crunch of popular memes and 'issue of the week' topics, or whether they want tools that recommend them new and interesting things to read (the former being much more evident than the latter). Sounds difficult, but I hope Shaun Inman does well with it.

    Posted by maetl on Thursday, June 25 2009 5:46am PDT

  2. Hello, Quick question-- what is so bad about drag and drop on the internet? I've seen you mention it twice-- have you written somewhere about drag and drop on the web? I've been tempted to use it a few times for mapping related sites, but only because it's the best option I can think of; I know Google Maps' pulls it off well for dragging markers around on the map. Still, I get your point about a sense of stability in the interface. I'm just wondering about your arguments against drag and drop. (Oh also -- I always enjoy this blog and your stuff at stamen. Many thanks.)

    Posted by Rob Stenson on Thursday, June 25 2009 7:32am PDT

  3. Nice, I like the direct assault on Internet <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whack-a-mole">Whac-A-Mole</a>; Syndrome™.

    Posted by Dorian Taylor on Thursday, June 25 2009 9:40am PDT

  4. Clearly not reading this morning. That would be (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whack-a-mole ) syndrome.

    Posted by Dorian Taylor on Thursday, June 25 2009 9:42am PDT

  5. Rob - My main argument against drag and drop on the web is that it's not compatible with drag and drop on the desktop. Each operating system has a carefully constructed set of expectations around what it considers a draggable representation of an object, how those objects behave in combination, and how they respond to environmental settings like doubleclick speed and trackpad preferences. None of that transfers to the web, where each site must reinvent its own local conventions (often simply those of the author) around what boxes are or are not moveable, and how they influence one another. Further, these system settings often come in direct conflict with the web, where certain objects such as hyperlinks *are* treated as draggable by the OS or browser. It's worth mentioning that I'm a Mac + Safari user, which means that I have a browser that makes heavy use of existing OS conventions and widgets, and integrates fairly cleanly with its surrounding environment. These arguments might be completely moot for Firefox, which still feels to me like a spaceship from 2003 whenever I open it. =) Also two big caveats: it's nice to be able to drag and drop objects from the filesystem directly onto file upload form elements, but that's something that browsers support directly, with no additional javascript coding from the host site. There's also a class of project emerging through development environments like 280North's Cappuccino http://280north.com/ explicitly aimed toward creating "applications not sites". I think in another few years, these are going to replace Flash-based "rich" applications but not traditional websites.

    Posted by Michal Migurski on Thursday, June 25 2009 11:03am PDT

  6. Mark, Twitter is kind of a weird bird. I keep hearing that it's replacing RSS reading for a lot of people, which is interesting. It seems like it's a shift in focus from primary sources to secondary, community sources. Nothing wrong with that, just an noteworthy change.

    Posted by Michal Migurski on Thursday, June 25 2009 11:05am PDT

  7. I haven't checked Fever out yet but after watching the screencast, my three initial thoughts were: 1. Like you said, beautiful. I hope young developers are inspired by Inman's impressive mix of design and programming skills. 2. The temperature text takes up waaaaaaay too much screen real estate. 3. I'm unsure if the recommendations are actually useful...most of it is stuff you'd see anyway. The really good links and information aren't always shared around in great numbers. A few good filters (like your snippets http://mike.teczno.com/snippets.html ) still beat recommendation engines or wisdom of crowds sites like Digg.

    Posted by jkottke on Thursday, June 25 2009 11:52am PDT

  8. Jason - thanks. =) I think the recommendations can be useful as a way to smartly avoid pile-ons. Unlike with Memeorandum there *is* a bottom, and it's worth being able to peel back a few layers to find it. Or would be, if this idea makes it into Fever.

    Posted by Michal Migurski on Thursday, June 25 2009 1:55pm PDT

  9. Hello again, Thanks for the response-- I pretty much agree with what you're saying (especially about Firefox on the Mac). Still, I do enjoy it when certain websites get drag and drop right -- for instance on the coda site http://www.panic.com/ , where the functionality is pretty similar to just dragging an image in a browser on a mac. I asked because I was just asked to implement a javascript drag and drop for a site, so it's been on my mind. Thanks!

    Posted by Rob Stenson on Friday, June 26 2009 10:00am PDT

  10. A small followup on this drag/drop business. Les Orchard has a post showing some of the new HTML5 support for this feature, and it actually makes sense in combination with a way to move *data* around: http://decafbad.com/blog/2009/07/15/html5-drag-and-drop

    Posted by Michal Migurski on Wednesday, July 15 2009 9:05pm PDT

  11. I'm really looking forward to whatever support forum or bug-tracking system that Shaun is setting up (he had mentioned it in an email a few weeks back). It'll be nice to know what's already been reported to him, and perhaps get a glimpse of upcoming features (if he chooses to share). I honestly don't use Fever for its purported strong suit, the Hot list. My experience with it so far is that there are too many "false positives," illustrated by the bazillion entries for Andy Baio's latest feed item: http://punkassjim.com/pics/IMG_0605.PNG http://punkassjim.com/pics/IMG_0606.PNG http://punkassjim.com/pics/IMG_0607.PNG This also happens a lot with Glenn Greenwald's posts, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, and various others. So, yeah, the Hot list doesn't do me much good. Too much noise, not enough signal. What I really like is that I can specify, on a per-category or per-feed basis, whether the feed items are listed chronologically or reverse-chrono. So, for things like political news, I can thumb through the news in its proper order. Same with serial comics. But, for most link lists or "curator" feeds, I'd prefer to just see the latest first, and mark all as read when I get my fill. For me, this is why Fever rocks. Another excellent feature is the "unread most recently read" keyboard shortcut. The fact that it supports "multiple undo," and that you can perform these undo actions from a different device or computer than the one on which you did the reading? Man, that's just excellent. My biggest wish is that Shaun will write (or allow) a native app for iPhone. Or, failing that, at least modify his existing web app to use local database caching. Because, for those of us who do most of our reading on the train or subway, Fever's iPhone web app is currently all but useless.

    Posted by Jim Thorpe on Tuesday, July 21 2009 11:44am PDT

  12. ...people who use strike-through as their visited link style, something normally used for things that, um, are stricken from the record, shouldn't gripe about others' UI choices. Just saying.

    Posted by No offense, but... on Tuesday, July 21 2009 12:51pm PDT

  13. @No, I'm not selling an application, so: *shrug*. =)

    Posted by Michal Migurski on Tuesday, July 21 2009 1:01pm PDT

  14. I definitely agree with you about the "Hot" aspect of Fever. I was drawn in by the claims I saw around the internet that you can "create your own personalized digg." Of course I knew that probably wasn't exactly true, but what I got was the exact opposite. You're right, I want to look at the stuff in "Hot" exactly once. For a while I had the new Chrome OS at the top when I already knew all about it. I then tried to mark things as read and even started to debug using Firebug because I noticed each item has an onClick to set it as read. It was all very confusing. Since those first couple days I have not looked at the "Hot" tab once. I just use Fever as a normal feed reader, browsing through the "Kindling" and practically ignoring the "Sparks." I hope there are some updates in the not-so-distant future, because as it is I am not too happy with my 30$ purchase. (I must admit it is much better than what I had been previously using, though: Google Reader widget on iGoogle.

    Posted by Bryan Beaudreault on Thursday, July 23 2009 5:43am PDT

  15. I just know that there is another web base reading tool such as Fever. I think I will give a shot for trying this apps as some part that I cannot find with others. Anyway, thank you for your review.

    Posted by Frank Wong on Thursday, July 23 2009 6:03pm PDT

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