Feeds – a threat to design on the web

When CSS was first introduced it got bashed by a lot of sceptics. At least as many defended the language and in the end CSS was what got widespread use. Today we see the exact same battle fought again, with feeds. Let me explain:

In the beginning HTML was a language for content exchange, and the content was mainly scientific papers. One thing you note about those papers is that all of them look the same. Sure, some use two columns and some use three, but very few were (or are) “branded”. The widely accepted rule was to let the users decide the layout; after all why should we need to download the same design over and over? Design was something the user decided, not the author.

But those content-only sites didn’t live long. First tables, then CSS, enabled users to make sites more interesting and in many cases easier to read. No one would come up with the idea or releasing an unstyled site today (except CSS naked day :).

Not too long ago feeds were introduced. Feeds make it easier to subscribe to websites by separating content from all the “design stuff”. This enables users to decide how your content should look. Proponents often talk about how much faster it is to read content from different sites when they all look the same. No time is lost trying to understand a new design.

When you read the paragraph above you’ll notice that it’s the exact same discussion and arguments as were used when CSS was introduced: “Users should decide” vs. “Webmasters should decide”. The difference between feeds and websites right now is that no one has gotten the idea of “designed” feeds. At least not yet, I believe we’re slowly approaching that point. I read about someone switching to spans instead of strong because bold “didn’t look right in the feed”. Expect more of that.

Now. Since more and more people are moving towards using feed readers to access their favourite websites it’s quite obvious that the tide is turning. One clear indicator is when people complain that sites don’t have their full articles in their feed (known as partial feeds). But this is not just me defending my use of partial feeds: I believe we should take it further than that. What kind of web do we want? What kind of web do you want? Should we go back to an unstyled web where content is the only thing that matters? Did the “content only”-proponents win after all? Is it a “feeds only” web what we want?

I believe content on the web should be allowed to have a style, brand, identity; whatever you want to call it. Style is an essential part of web content and a skilled designer can enhance my whole web experience with little tricks I barely notice.

Long live design!

15 responses to “Feeds – a threat to design on the web

  1. Content is king. Seriously.

    I think design, interactivity and so on are second to that. Of course there are web sites where design is more important than others; for instance, I find it highly unlikely that we will see rock band web sites as feeds in the near future. But then again, they might offer the latest news as a feed, but the rest of information on the web site.

    I’m more of the opinion that feeds and design can co-exist; frequently updated parts can be in feeds, but the complete information can be in the web page. Text for those who want it, and design for those who prefer that.

    Better to cater to all than to choose just one of the paths. Hell, let’s even call it accessibility!

    Don’t let feeds and design compete; let them live in symbiosis instead! :-)

  2. What should we do?

    I mean, I’m a heavy feed subscriber myself. Now it’s just so that I read the content and notice the design only when there are partial feeds or when I visit a site to get additional content (except news) or when I visit a site the first time.

    I used Thunderbird a year ago to subscribe to feeds and TechCrunch was presented in the page’s design. You know, it was like visiting the blog post from within Thunderbird. I don’t know whether that was Thunderbird following the source link or the feed itself that made it possible, but suddenly this stopped. Then, feeds looked just plain ugly, Times New Roman and the like. I switched to Google Reader since I wanted a web mail solution as well and here I am: missing the “real page” preview or how you call it but not knowing how to achieve this. Writing my own feed reader application that visits the site itself to show me the content the way it’s meant to be?
    I just like to subscribe to feeds to be notified whether something interesting and new is happening. I don’t mind visiting the site, but if Google Reader displays everything just fine, hell, why not?

    Probably this “post view” idea isn’t that bad at all. And writing a feed reader shouldn’t be too hard, should it?

  3. I like feeds, and like them separate, simply because I want that choice to view it plain, or styled. Some sites I like to read, don’t have much going on for them in a design respect ,so I would think they would note it in their feed if they put any effort in the design.

    I typically go to the sites to read the articles, though, even if the full article is offered in my feed. I’ll scan my feeds, and open up what I want to read in a bunch of tabs. It’s a little taxing on my machine at times if I go overboard. I’ll start closing tabs to read the next article. I think everybody probably has their own habits with feeds, also.

    To each their own.

  4. I hate the whole idea of feeds for content. To me Live Bookmarks are it. If I want to read the content, I just go to the website, whats’s the point of the feed?

  5. @Christian Tietze, Rowan Lewis: That’s how I use feeds too: as a way to see when someone updated their sites. I use Thunderbird, and like Christian says I have about half of the sites showing like I want them, fully rendered sites.

    @Robert Nyman, Roger Johansson: Of course content is king. This is about content with design and content without design.

    If more and more people switch to feeds for accessing sites, then why should I care to maintain the design? So yes, they can coexist, but sooner or later one of them will take over.

    Something else: Well marked up sites can easily get unstyled if that’s what you’re after, just disable the CSS. The “finding updated sites” part of feeds are damn useful, I’m not sure about the other parts.

  6. Emil,

    How would one of them take over? A web site is almost always a hierarchical representation. You have news, about, contact, information pages etc.

    The only one of those that could be turned into a useful feed is news, the other onea need to be “real” web pages.

  7. @Robert Nyman: So lets take it to the news page then. Why bother designing it if most people access it by feed?

    I’m sure you could push the other pages into feeds. We push most content into the “scientific paper” model HTML gives us today.

  8. I think that unstyled feeds and designed sites can definitely co-exist. Perhaps it’s me wishfully thinking, but personally when I’m sifting through my feed reader, I definitely take time out to open articles in my browser just so I can read the author’s writing in the intended environment. I might be the only one who does that, however.

    I can definitely understand your concern about one beating out the other, but in the end I think it comes down to reader preference.

    I can infer that a significant amount of my readers use RSS only to read my articles, so asking “Why bother designing anything” can come up. How I respond to that is that there are still going to be first time readers stumbling across the site every day. There are going to be new readers finding an article after searching Google for something they want to learn about. Your design will still be seen by many.

  9. I use a feed reader (Sage for Firefox) to quickly scan my favourite blogs for new posts, but I very seldom will read a full article within the reader.

    It’s about getting the best of both worlds. Unstyled (or uniformly styled) feeds allow me to quickly ascertain the “interestingness” of content, but when I view the article in its original context I can enjoy the benefits that a website offers: images, elegant text styling, javascripty goodness, comments, and just plain sexiness.

  10. The idea that feeds are a threat to design on the web is a little bit alarmist. XML feeds (such as those in RSS format) allow true separation of content and design.

    Take a look at the specs for XSLT and see how an XML feed can be styled using a basic transformation language and CSS. The ultimate result is similarly formatted content becomes easier to style for designers.

  11. When you are using the internet for learning and documenting so the content is all that matter. Unstyled feeds allow you to look beyond the “wrapper”(the nice look) of a “product” (the article).
    I disagree that they will stop coexisting. People tend to visit 5-10 sites all the time (not web developers).. they will use feeds as “reminders” and visit the real site .. where style takes the crown.

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