Outlook vs. the River of News

May 20, 2005 15:33 · 485 words · 3 minute read

Dare Obasanjo and Dave Winer are both talking about the problem with Outlook-style (3-pane) aggregators. I believe that Dave is generally right about the River of News: clicking on each feed and then clicking on each item is a drag. Thankfully, most aggregators seem to have moved past this. Even the built-in aggregator in Safari lets you view all of your feeds together.

And yet, even though the aggregators offer other views that are more River of News-like, that’s not the default view. Imagine for a moment a newspaper that had a front page like this:

The Daily Press Gazette Morning News

  • Stories by DPGMN reports — page A2
  • Associated Press stories — page A3
  • UPI stories — page A4
  • Stock information from Bloomberg — page B1
  • Comics from King Features — page C1
  • Comics from Joe Random Syndicator — page C2

So, you flip to page A2. And you see this:

  • Area man charged in robbery — page A9
  • Girl sells “best cookies in town” — page A10

This is essentially the presentation you’re getting in an Outlook-style aggregator. Granted, it’s quicker to click something on the screen than flip a page, but you get my point. Readers are more interested in the story itself than they are in the source of the story. Sure, the source of the story makes a difference in credibility and likelihood that the story is something interesting to you, but driving the user experience based on the source just seems wrong.

When I went to his conference last year, Edward Tufte talked about quality newspapers have been doing their thing for 100 years and more. Though the internet certainly changes things, that doesn’t mean that the lessons of the print papers are invalid.

After that, you won’t be surprised to hear that Zesty News is a River of News-syle aggregator. My early mockups were very newspaper-like: multiple columns, bigger headlines for bigger stories, etc. After some experience using the software that way, though, I realized that software has a big advantage over a print newspaper: unlimited space. Print newspapers use the format they do partly for readability and compactness. When moving to feeds on the screen, however, multiple columns are a lot harder to scan through than a single column.

I can prove it, too. Go to Google News and first scan down the column on the left, looking at the headlines as you go. Then, go back up and try to scan both columns. With a single column, your eyes can move just a little bit to read the text. With two columns, your eyes have to dart left and right to scan. It may be a better workout for your eyes, but it’s not an easy way to get through a couple hundred items in a day.

I’ve got more to say about getting through those couple hundred items, but I’ll save that for another day.