Little Orange Icons

XML StandardThe world of XML syndication is still a soup of acronyms and counter-intuitive terminology — RSS, Atom, XML, feeds, aggregation, ’casts, etc. — but at the very least, we’re inching towards visual standardization in how we represent it iconographically. Microsoft, in an uncharacteristic but laudable show of cooperativeness, agreed late last year to adopt Firefox’s orange RSS/XML icon — a rounded little square with featuring what might be best described as ISO-style broadcast waves — for its Internet Explorer 7 browser.

I like this icon, but it has its shortcomings: First, it too neatly sidesteps the issue of what flavor of XML feed it’s representing, which would require, in some instances, that it be accompanied by a text label. No standards or guidelines exist for such text labels, as far as I know. And second, even with a text label, it can be fairly diminutive on a page, causing it to get overlooked easily.

Embrace and Extend… Nicely

XML Icons

At the Times, we’ve been playing with a modified form of this iconography for possible use on certain pages where we need to present a multiplicity of XML feeds, like this one. Right now we have kind of a mess of buttons — one from iTunes, another from My Yahoo, and one rendered in a generic ‘badge’ style, circa 2002.

That last one happens to be the object of my continued annoyance, if not outright scorn. I’ve never been a particularly big fan of this rather pervasive button style, and so I’m keen to replace it with the new Firefox/Internet Explorer 7 standard. Nothing’s been decided yet, though, as this older style does have its proponents.

If we’re going to make this switch, we’ll need to address the two problems that I mentioned above: labeling and visual prominence. One of the very talented designers in my group came up with what I think is an excellent extension of that icon, which changes the chiclet-like bug into a full-width, capsule-like button.

Personally, I’m very fond of it, as I think it does a good job of staying true to the original visual language while addressing our particular needs, too. But I’m also a little leery of prematurely creating a new variant on an emerging standard, especially in an arena like syndication, where there’s already no shortage of confusing variants on emerging standards. What do you think?

  1. I found myself in agreement with Nick Bradbury on this one:

    I keep running across sites that offer the same exact content as an RSS feed and an Atom feed.

    What’s the point of this? Making readers choose a feed format is like asking them to choose between an HTML and XHTML version of your site – technically there are differences, but end users shouldn’t have to care about this. They just want to subscribe to your words of wisdom without having to deal with the plumbing.

    Even worse, I often see RSS and Atom feeds which contain the same content yet identify posts differently (i.e.: the GUID for a post in the RSS feed is different from the ID of the same post in the Atom feed). As a result, feed search engines show posts from both feeds as though they were different, which to end users looks like duplication.

    So, if you currently offer multiple feed formats, may I suggest that you stop doing this? Just pick a format – any format. If RSS does what you need, stick with it and dump your Atom feed. If you need the extra features that the Atom format offers, dump your RSS feed. Either way you’ll be fine, and your readers will be happier.

    And if you’re just starting out, pick one format and forget about the other one. It doesn’t matter to your readers which one you choose, so there’s no need to agonize over the decision (and you can always switch to the other format later on).

    Via Sam Ruby (with more commentary there)

  2. isn’t the point of the icon to get away from the nomenclature of “xml” or “rss?” i mean, what person outside of geeks and early adopters know what xml means anyway? i understand the tendency to add a descriptor, but i don’t think that’s the solution.

    the icon by itelf is a ubiquitous statement of “this item can be subscribed to.” why would the user care about the format? i don’t.

  3. “… it too neatly sidesteps the issue of what flavor of XML feed it’s representing, which would require, in some instances, that it be accompanied by a text label.”

    One of the great things about this icon (and certainly one of the reasons we’ve fully adopted it at FeedBurner) is that it’s purposefully format-agnostic. Nick Bradbury is right — your subscribers don’t care what format your feed is in, as long as it works. (And currently, the percentage of feed readers that support only Atom or RSS is laughably small.)

  4. They look great. Personally I like knowing ahead of time what kind of feed I’m subscribing too.

    Really though, so long as the icons are orange… that’s all that trully matters to me.

    I can’t stand the fact that so many of us have adopted “it’s OK for it to be hot pink and lime green so long as it has the broadcast icon” line of thought.

    The color orange is the most memorable and should be the most consistent feature of the “Feed Icon”.

  5. Yes, the icon was developed to do away with the differences. In fact, the first reason given on the Feed Icons site is:


    By adopting this icon as the identity of syndicated content, you’re helping to…

    * Eliminate confusion brought on by acronyms.
    * Break down the international barriers.
    * Bring feeds to the forefront.

  6. First off, I’m a fan of the design as well. I think it’s functional and succinct.

    In regards to that, if you are confident with the design, don’t be afraid to support it. Albeit on the existential side, think of how much great design would’ve never influenced our culture if no one developed, believed in, and used it.

    An “emerging standard” is just that, emerging. It is expected to go through changes, adaptations, and developments before a final constraint is reached (no matter how close or far it is from such finalization). If put into effect, I doubt your team’s contributions to such a standard would go overlooked in the least bit. Especially since it may be a viable solution to these “confusing variants.” If it were me, and I had created that design and had the ability to introduce it like you do, I wouldn’t be worried about the other variants. If they are perceived as confusing, and your design is not, why second-guess yourself?

    If you choose to go forward with this, I wouldn’t be suprised if a movement towards adaptation and support started within the realm of syndication as well.

    Finally, it may be far fetched from the realm of busines your team at the Times deals with, but have you thought of presenting your design to Microsoft/Firefox for consideration in finalizing such a standard? It may be very (or too) late in Microsoft’s development process for this…but it could be worth a shot. You never know until you try and all that jazz.

  7. Good point, John — this still an emerging standard, and as such, we should expect a certain amount of thrashing and various course changes along the way.

    Separately, I am reminded that the orange feed icon is not particularly well-suited to representing podcasts or other rich-media feeds. So, while the technical format may not matter, I can see how it’s a bit one-dimensional in that you don’t know what kind of content the icon represents.

  8. Those are the most elegant feed icons I have ever seen. I’d consider one generic one that was just the icon + “RSS”, since that seems to be the emerging lingo for all things Feed, and do away with the “XML” and “RSS 2.0” jargon.

  9. I agree, those icons are excellent. You’re dead-on in saying that the small, square icons aren’t prominent enough; the candy bar style solves that shortcoming very well.

    I also agree with others on the one icon/one feed format ideology, and I think that “feed” has become the adopted standard label (or maybe “text feed”?). So on that note, an orange icon labeled just “feed” would be fitting. But John Z. also brought up a good point that I’d like to reiterate: what of a standard icon for podcasts? Say you were to take your designer’s icon, change the color to blue or green, and label it “podcast”? Then you have two flavors of subscription—one aural/visual and one textual—both with similar but identifiable icons and associated colors.

    We’re still laying down the standard for feeds, but I’m very much in support of this style over the tiny square box at for the very reasons you outlined above. At the same time, I’m wary of going any further than the “text feed” and “podcast” designations… Remember sites that would catalogue all the variations of those pixel buttons? There were thousands (!) and they were all ugly!

    Anyway, long post short, I like ’em!

  10. Just forget about the jargon, “RSS” or “XML” or “Atom”, the poor user had troubles to learn acronyms (worst if the user don’t know english). What is all this about? a “feed” or maybe “news”, but I think with “feed” is enought.


  11. I agree with Trevor, a generic title on these buttons would be best – either ‘Feed’ or ‘Text Feed’ as he suggests. The user should not be concerned with the format the feed is presented in.

    I also like the idea of a ‘Podcast’ button in a different colour, to symbolise the visual nature of such a feed.

  12. I mocked up something very similar to those capsules for a site design a while back, but I ended up not using them for reasons similar to what’s been mentioned here.

    As a user, I prefer Atom feeds so I look for labels like this. But as a designer I think the simplicity of providing One True Feed for all users outweighs the “advanced user” like me being able to choose a format on I’ll admit fairly arbitrary grounds.

    I do like the features that Feedburner provides to translate a feed on the fly to a different format if an aggregator doesn’t support the native one. That feels like a better compromise to me — choose a format and deliver alternates dynamically as needed.

    We don’t ask users if they’d like to view our sites as HTML 4 Strict, XHTML 1 Transitional or XHTML 1 Strict, why should we make them choose between formats that we as developers can often barely tell the difference between?

  13. Those icons look nice, but the text just serves to confuse the mainstream user. Why not do something like this instead:

    [icon] Subscribe To News
    [icon] Subscribe To Blog
    [icon] Subscribe To Video


  14. y’know… I like the orange square icon, and I like the extensions you’ve presented, but I also agree with all the discussion about users not caring about the format they’re subscribing to.

    Would a possible compromise be using a similar visual representation as you’ve presented, but instead of using words like XML or RSS, using words like, SUBSCRIBE, or READ, or WATCH… At least these words are closer to the experience the user is looking for, rather than words they probably only have a limited connection to, at best.

    Better yet, what if you had the one square icon with a flyout menu of subscription options to select from (again, using “experience” words, as opposed to technologies). Then the orange icon means “subscribable content on this page” rather than the type of feed that it is.

    Just a thought.

  15. While I think the design is slick, I agree with those who say that the acronyms can be confusing for the user. “Feed” or “Text Feed” seems to make more sense to me.

    Here is another thought: Maybe you could have just the square icon there until someone hovers over it; then on hover, swap out the image with one of your capsule icons that also says “Feed.”

  16. One format doesn’t do anything for people who don’t know what a feed is, let alone that there are different types. I have a subscription somewhere in NetNewsWire that starts downloading podcasts and it drives me crazy because that’s not what I wanted to do.

    Until an application has been written or a process invented that helps average users distinguish between a text, audio, or video feed I think attaching common labels is a great idea.

    Besides, the design kicks ass and is a nice extention of the work Matt has already done.

    So when can we start using these Khoi?

  17. It is interesting to read your thoughts on this. With your new position in the industry your choices will eventually affect the industry. My papers, for example, are under a redesign and these buttons come up. My thoughts on these little buttons (so many variations of “standard”) are irrelevant – it’s just nice to see that someone is putting thought into it!

  18. User test it. I mean the purpose is to make it easier for people to discern right? Put both ATOM/XML icons up and get some good metrics on which people choose. What if like only 0.5 % of people (sorry, Times Online Users ! ) use Atom?

    I agree on that button (I call them tchotchkies) style. It’s certainly not so “usable” to be worth overriding whatever styleguide any individual site is working from.

    Interesting point Greg brings up: What if I don’t know what .)) XML even means? I don’t know anything about the Times online demographics, there’s something to be said for what happens after I click the button as much as what the button says. One thing I love about those buttons is if I click on it I get an XML page… What percentage of Times users know what to do with that page?

  19. I agree that putting RSS/RSS2.0/ATOM/XML in the icon is defeating the icons purpose, but I think the distinction TEXT, AUDIO & VIDEO would be useful.

  20. Until an application has been written or a process invented that helps average users distinguish between a text, audio, or video feed I think attaching common labels is a great idea.

    Just simply label it a podcast feed or a text only feed or a video feed. That’s completely separate from Atom/RSS/RSS 2.0, etc.

    I’m all for good labeling of feeds, but please just label them with something that is meaningful to the user. And RSS/Atom are not meaningful to most people, I’d say.

  21. Given the audience, I think labels are helpful. As designers and developers we get the whole concept of XML/RSS/Atom, etc. One centralized feed makes sense. But John Q. Public probably doesn’t know what the crap XML or RSS or Atom is. He’s probably seen the little orange icon in other places, but didn’t really know what it was for. I think labelling the icons to better describe the content that is available through those feeds is a good idea. Yes, it breaks from the “standard” feed icon, but it does so in a way that will make sense to the average user.

  22. John Fairley said: I agree on that button (I call them tchotchkies) style. It’s certainly not so “usable” to be worth overriding whatever styleguide any individual site is working from.

    I prefer to call them “flair”. 🙂

  23. I like the idea of the capsule button. It grabs attention, more so than tiny text next to the standard feed symbol, and is intuitively easier to use.

    The problem is, as you’re dealing with, extending this ease of use to a real-world scenario where there are tons of applications that people use to consume this media you’re pumping out. There are tons of different media parsers (for lack of a better term) like iTunes and feed readers that are proprietary.

    Maybe what needs is its own little proprietary implementation of what FeedBurner provides. That way you won’t have a page full of redundant chiclets confusing your general media-consuming audience, but an interface through which they can learn about and begin to use this great syndication technology we all know and love. Something saying “want to stay up to date on this program?” or “want to take this home with you?”

    Baby steps, Bob, baby steps.

  24. The chicklet icons look cool and while it maintains recognizability of the original icon and I like the design, I am about certain that these variations would be preffered by only a certain portion of power users.

    Having so many versions of the feed icon is IMHO no ways good as it would equate to increased visual clutter hence confusion for the general user beating the purpose of creating a single icon in first place.

    Instead, again IMHO it would be far more practical to fulfil your intended goal by specifying the type of RSS feed in plain text placed next to the icon. It serves the dual purpose of letting the standard icon stay as is and in case the user is interested in knowing what type of feed it is specifically, he/she is informed through the text next to it.

  25. In general, I was wrong to show multiple flavors of standard XML feeds — RSS, Atom, etc. — as in most cases the Times offers just a single flavor. Mostly, we need the lables to distinguish between video feeds, text feeds, audio feeds, etc.

    That said, for those who suggested just adding a text label to the right of the icon — I’m not sure that will do the trick for us. In fact, I’m almost positive it won’t; the icon doesn’t look actionable on its own, at least not on our pages, and it gets easily lost.

    Anyway, stay tuned. If we go ahead with these, I’m hoping to post PSD templates for folks to download and use, too.

  26. Have you noticed how the latest version of Firefox ( uses a new symbol for feeds? I can’t understand why they would use something different… especially after Microsoft agreed to use the symbol they previously established.

  27. Great idea using an image that almost universally says “WiFi”, the fact you’ve had to attach text to it proves how much of a terrible icon this is and not a solution to the original problem at all.

  28. It’s not about putting an icon on your site, which will make people use RSS. It will fall into the realm of browsers/client software to automatically detect if your site has RSS.

    As of October 12% of web users are familiar with RSS and only 4% have knowingly used it:

    The only people who care about a button is people who really know web (like everyone here), every other normal person will rely on their software to do everything for them.

    Remember people just want stuff to work, not everyone is as curious about web as us web designers.

  29. apologies for the (now) quite stupid remark I made earlier about firefox using a new icon. False alarm… for some reason when I updated, it also updated a plugin, which engaged a theme…. thus, changing the icon for the feed.

    disaster averted.

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