Sunday, February 18, 2007

RSS Part 2: Taking Stock

The most interesting thing I came across in the study was the degree to which people equated the concept of an RSS feed with that of a "ticker" at the bottom of a TV screen, with stock prices zooming by from right to left. If this is representative of a larger portion of the population, no wonder RSS hasn't caught on -- where's the value in being forced to stare at the bottom of a browser window all day?

The findings and recommendations for content providers are as follows:

  • Finding: Although users continue to employ “hunting” methods most often when checking for added or updated content, certain “gathering” methods (such as email notifications & alerts) are used frequently and provide a sense of value for users (saving time and effort, better organization of important information, serving as a reminder for busy people to "check in" with a site).
    Recommendation: Companies investing in RSS feeds and technology should find ways to incorporate the concept “invisibly” (i.e., deliver the benefits without any learning or undue effort required on the part of the user). Read Gossnickle et al's .pdf, RSS – Crossing into the Mainstream, for more information (Acrobat Reader required).

  • Finding: There is not a high degree of awareness or understanding of the terms and visual targets used to represent “gathering” methods on websites (see Part 1); for those that are noticed, there remains a strong association with delivery via email.
    Recommendation: Aside from direct links to personalized “start” pages (“My Yahoo!", etc.), content providers should devise and use a single, more intuitive means of conveying the RSS feed concept. (“XML” is highly misunderstood and should not be considered.) In addition, differentiation from delivery via email should be emphasized and explained simplistically.

  • Finding: Understanding of the RSS concept (as a “gathering” method) can be improved by exposure to a well-written description; however, understanding of the implementation/delivery of information continues to be a problem.
    Recommendation: Short-term, companies need to make the required use of an RSS reader/aggregator more understandable to the general public, in a positive way that eliminates any association with email notifications or content “crawls” within browser windows. Descriptions and definitions of RSS require clear, plain English -- technical-sounding phrases such as "XML-based format" and "aggregating Web content" are big no-no's).

  • Finding: The already recognized benefits of “gathering” methods (time savings, organization of information, etc.) are enough to encourage further investigation of using RSS feeds. Concerns about information overload, management, privacy and technological conflict (can it lead to viruses and/or spam, etc.) can discourage investigation.
  • Recommendation: Further promote the “gathering” concept within all references to RSS on websites, while directly addressing the areas of concern as noted.

My sincerest thanks for those who took time out of their busy schedules to speak with me. Please leave a comment if you'd like more details about the study.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

RSS Part 1: Hunters & Gatherers

If you check in frequently with a news, sports or blog site, chances are you've seen them and wondered what they mean:

The Internet world remains largely one of “hunters” rather than “gatherers” – that is, we tend to actively seek out additions and changes on web sites, rather than having them come to us. Think about your favorite news website -- if you want to see what's new, you probably access the site by typing the URL into the browser's address window, selecting the URL from the address drop-down menu, or choosing it from your Favorites menu, then browse the pages "hunting" for the new, updated, or changed content.

Compare that to signing up to receive an "alert" or notification about updated content (new headlines, shopping deals you might be interested in, etc.) that comes to your email inbox. In this instance, you'd be "gathering" the new, updated or changed content before acting on it.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is the next step in this "gathering" concept, and it offers enormous opportunities for Internet users (and content providers as well, but that's another story). Its major selling point for Internet users is in saving significant time and reduced effort, by driving the content that matters most to a central viewing location automatically.

Providers of frequently updated content (news, weather, blogs, etc.) have been quickest to implement RSS strategies – for example, 76 of the top 100 U.S. newspapers offer RSS feeds on their websites. User adoption figures are far less precise – in a Pew Internet Project survey, only 9% of Internet users say they “have a good idea” of what an RSS feed is. Another study concluded that 27% of Internet users receive content driven by RSS without ever knowing it, via personalized “start” or “home” pages (My Yahoo!, My MSN, etc).

At first glance, it's another great concept that is slow to catch on. But if at least some subsection of Internet users is using RSS without knowing it, that first glance may be misleading. My questions were:
  • How well (if at all) do people understand the "hunter" vs. "gatherer" approach?
  • How much (and in what ways) do they value their "gatherer" instances?
  • Do people notice icons lie those above (or their clickable text equivalents), and do they have any idea what they represent?
  • How well can non-users grasp the concept of what RSS is? If presented with an definition and explanation, how well can their understanding be improved?
  • What would encourage people to investigate using RSS feeds? What is discouraging them?

To get some answers, I performed a very small pilot study, using semi-structured phone interviews with 7 people to try and flesh some of these perceptions, motivations and attitudes out.

Findings will be posted in Part 2 -- suffice to say that content providers need to start paying attention to their users before widespread usage of RSS can be realized.

Friday, February 02, 2007