It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: direct links to syndication feeds, be they buttons or text, present a problem for end users:
I am not a technically proficient user. I don’t know what XML, RSS, or even HTML stand for. I think the internet is the web, and the web is the internet. I still haven’t figured out that I can dial up without having to click on the blue ‘E’ first.
When I see an orange button, I wonder what it does. I push it. A bunch of garbage text fills my screen, so I assume the button is broken. I don’t push the useless button again, and resent it being there.
This is 90% of your viewing audience. Even if you have a core of more educated, technically-inclined users, you’re still creating confusion. My first (and second, and many subsequent) exposures to the links caused momentary doubt. Why would I be seeing raw XML? What broke here, me or them? What is this XML good for, anyway? It took a long while before I managed to put the pieces together, and realize that it symbolizes something called RSS (which is inexplicably labelled ‘XML’, about as useful as labelling a desklamp ‘Wires and Glass’).
The worst part is how avoidable this confusion is. A simple page explaining the feeds is all it takes. This site has been using an explanatory page that lists associated feeds for ages. Simple, but necessary.
Still, in the interest of pushing the bar, I’ve taken to some further experimentation. Others like Sam and Anne have been playing around with CSS and various syndication formats. While I’m completely out of my element here, I’ve managed to take Anne’s lead and use a touch of XSL mixed with CSS to actually do something useful with an experimental feed.
Since I believe the XSL must be parsed client-side (so that the RSS can actually be used as RSS, rather than XHTML), this will most likely only work in Gecko-based browsers for the time being. The layout is a simpler version of this site’s current layout; it could go further, and using XSL I could theoretically duplicate everything from the sidebar to the fancy new CSS-based menus. But that’s a lot of work just to create what already exists.
The key to the whole thing is a text explanation in the sidebar:
This is an RSS feed.
So what’s RSS, you may ask? It’s a technology that notifies you when a site is updated, and allows you to read the updated content without viewing the site itself. Think of it like a mailing list for web sites. More reading is available on this site’s RSS resource page.
By styling and providing a reason for this page’s existence, hopefully users will be provided an answer before the question is asked.
Most browsers won’t be able to render this, so it’s not much more than a theoretical glimpse at what could be. The main point in this exercise is the information page, which does help solve the problem now instead of later. But with better browser support, it should be possible to go even further and do something about the raw code dump as well.