Icon Do It

Feed IconFollowing up on a May blog post I wrote about revising our feed icons at NYTimes.com, we’ve since implemented the slightly altered version of the emerging standard for the visual indication of XML-based content subscriptions. They’ve been propagated to many areas of the site, though not all of the old ones have yet been removed.

Though it’s not clearly in evidence, I actually did take to heart some of the feedback garnered by that post which suggested that NYTimes.com should be looking to simplify our feed offerings rather than continuing to provide feeds in multiple, potentially confusing flavors (e.g., Atom, RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, etc.). Ideally, we’ll soon do a bit of fine-tuning for our entire RSS/XML offering, but that’s a discussion for sometime in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

The New New Icon

My immediate concern was replacing the old icon style with a new one that’s more in keeping — however imperfectly — with today’s visual language for this kind of content. However, we just couldn’t get around the need to append some sort of label to the buttons, and to call more attention to them than the icons are able to do on their own. So we went with this modified version.

I’ve been thinking about whether to offer a downloadable ZIP archive containing the template for these icons, and I’m on the fence about it. On the one hand, I think it’s only appropriate to make these icons available for others to use because all we did really was modify an original that’s in the public domain.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I’m a little uneasy about the fact that we essentially modified something that, by its nature, isn’t intended to be modified. In some sense, you could argue that we’re doing a disservice to the whole effort behind these icons by modifying them. To then distribute a template for that unsanctioned modification seems like it would do more damage… Am I just overreacting here?

  1. Yup, I actually do think you are overreacting. The main form of the feed idea is still intact, the radiating waves. I think as long as that remains, any extension only helps to strengthen the idea. The fact that we can get everyone starting with the same language is what’s important.

  2. I’m with Jason on this. I was actually about to work up my own similar version (feed icon w/ a label) for a project-in-progress for the exact reason(s) listed above.. but would be happy to spread what you’ve produced in its place.

  3. Honestly, I think that there are values to both sides of the argument. Sure this could dilute the “unified” message that the standardized icon is trying to produce, but at the same time, NYTimes.com can’t drastically change things without confusing a large number of people. I see this modified icon as a middle point. It aligns what was previously there with the standard icon, and as people become comfortable with this tagged icon, eventually NYTimes can move to the standard icon, and people will still recognize it for what it is.

  4. I think the real crux of the matter is why you altered the original icon. You altered it because it provided insufficient information. Standards are a Good Thing, but frankly, all the icon says is “Something emanating from somewhere.” Whether that “something” is Wi-Fi, sound waves, or RSS, is totally unclear. I understand your wish to stick with a emerging standard, but if you needed to alter it, maybe it’s because it needs to be altered. Just thoughts.

  5. Being a visual standard (as opposed to technical, like a protocol), I think there’s some wiggle room.

    I would argue perhaps the whole effort is a bit short-sighted; if it was so obvious and everyone knew what the icon meant you wouldn’t have to consider this issue in the first place.

    If at some future point the icon is as widely-recognized as the “print this” and “email this” icons (which actually are often accompanied by text) you can easily go choose a candy-colored icon from “the effort”, no? My guess is that will happen once IE7 is widespread, and then it will be the result of people clicking the FEED button integrated in the browser, not finding it on actual pages.

    Also I think this poor server is getting crushed; I hit “Preview” before and it never returned… now I’m just banging “Post”.

  6. Hey, Khoi. Why don’t you just contact Matt Brett and see what he thinks about adding your version to the Feed Icons site. It would seem to me that it would make sense to have a purely graphic version as well as a graphic + text version be the standard. And then you wouldn’t be doing a disservice to the effort to standardize if your version became part of the standard.

    Or, to say the same thing in painfully fewer words, why don’t you just try to get your modification sanctioned?

  7. Your icon definitely keeps the old one visible, while providing a better cue as to what it is. Get in touch with Matt Brett (www.mattbrett.com), he’s the guy who runs feedicons.com, I’m sure he’d be happy to add that icon to the list (I believe he’s working on a new version as well, so all the better).

  8. The spirit of the original feed icon remains, as does the willingness to adopt this burgeoning “standard,” which is great.

    Most important, methinks, is the desire to disambiguate the content (continually update feeds) from the technology (RSS or XML or ATOM or Podcasts). The variety of formats, for what are all essentially the same thing, just confuses users. Don’t be surprised when some of your competitors (ahem) soon follow suit.

  9. Something that quickly occurred to me after scanning your homepage. Has there been any thought over possible confusion between the Times Select icon (a small orange square) and the feed icon (a slightly different small orange square).

    On quick scan, the two look remarkably similar.

  10. I agree that you’re overreacting on this, and I think it’s a great idea to add this to the stock of feed icons available to the public.

    Anyway, you wouldn’t want every feed icon looking _exactly_ the same. Then we’d have the same problem as when those antipixel badges were getting totally overplayed.

    This is exactly the sort of thing we need: something similar enough to be readily identifiable, yet different enough as to be… uhh… different.

  11. I think the icons needed a little more in the form of a label in certain circumstances, also sometimes a design would look better with rectangular icon as well.

    Instead of thinking that you are going against the effort to standardise I think this effort compliments it perfectly and should be a part of their offering. I would submit it to them and see what they say 🙂 You keep the core of the design which is the important thing and you dont have any silly terms like XML on it.

    Either way, I would like to use these icons on my site so if you are still up for distributing them, please e-mail me them (you should have my e-mail address from this comment).

  12. You still have the icon itself intact – the text only aids people who are new to XML-syndication, and helping people can’t be a bad thing, now can it? That’s all what designing user interfaces is about, after all 🙂

  13. Khoi, I’m more okay with what you’re doing with the icon than I am with what is proposed on the feedicons site – suggesting people change the orange color if they want something different. The combination of the orange and the “wave” is what gives the icon it’s visual identity. You haven’t altered either of those core elements, so I think what you’re doing is fine. Now, if it was pink… well, that might be going too far.

  14. Khoi, I love your feed icon (now that it says “feed” instead of “RSS” or “Atom”), and if you did make it available for download, I’d certainly push for it to the be the standard we use on all of our newspaper sites at World Online. Not that that’s a big incentive — but I would. 🙂

  15. Thanks, Jeff and everyone for your responses. Just so I’m not taking credit for something we haven’t yet done: there are plenty of icons throughout the site that say “RSS” and “Atom,” and none that yet say “Feed.” This is something I’ll push to change over to as soon as we can, as I do think it’s confusing to over this alphabet soup of acronyms. We’ll get there.

    In the meantime, as I get ready to release the templates, there’s no good reason why others can’t use “Feed.” I encourage it. Stay tuned.

  16. It seems everyone is pretty much on the same page about this. I believe that this illustrates a weakness in the original icons. Perhaps a version combining mark and type should be created, similar to what you have. It gives some more wiggle room, solves some potential issues and saves people like us some headaches.

  17. The weakness with the original icon is that it has very little ‘information scent’. Only people who are highly familiar with ‘RSS/feed’ technology will know what it does. And let’s not forget that these people (us) are still the early adopter minority. The vast majority of people are still unaware of ‘feed’ technology.

    Khoi’s new icon has much stronger ‘information scent’. This is because it contains words – not merley an abstract icon. So more people might have an idea of what it will do.

    Creating strong information scent is why many ‘print’ and ’email’ icons also have supportive text. However, I would argue that in these cases the icon creates ambiguity and should be removed, leaving only the link.

    In the case of ‘feed’ technology, I think that ‘feed’ is still ambiguous to most people. ‘Feed’ what? Feed my dog? Perhaps the link/icon needs to be in context with the user behaviour e.g. ‘keep me updated on this story’ etc.

    Research we’ve done shows that RSS is still a very inaccessible technology.

    Find out more about information scent and how people look for information:

  18. Did you guys have any discussion about how close in shape and color the feed icon is to the Times Select icon? Was there any concern that people might think the a “feed” required a subscription fee? Seems at first glance there is a lot of room for confusion there.

  19. We did discuss that a bit. In part, it influenced our decision to add the label to the standard feed icon, rather than just letting it exist on its own. Aside from that, yes, there could be some potential confusion that might lead a user to think a feed is a paid subscriber-only product, but we try and keep the feed icons away from the Times Select icons.

    One solution might be to revamp the TS icon, but a lot of time and effort has gone into building that brand so it’s not a course we’re likely to pursue. The other solution would be to alter the color of the feed icon itself, which would deviate it further from the accepted norm.

    So we decided to live with it and see exactly how much confusion it causes. If we get a lot of user feedback to that effect, we’ll come up with another plan, but so far I’m not sure we’ve gotten very much if any at all.

  20. With the exception of a few points from the preceding comment, I think most of the comments from this post have missed the point.

    Debating the merits of the original icon’s design is a waste of time because it’s already been designed and it likely won’t change. The icon itself is not the point. If it looked like a piece of spaghetti and enough people recognized and made the connection it would have served its purpose. As a visual cue, to represent syndicated content, it looks fine to me. Appending “feed” doesn’t add any useful context to what it’s supposed to represent. Furthermore, it just contributes to the pool of competing standards.

    “Information Scent” as the previous commentor described is nothing more than “Branding”. Standards aren’t adopted based on the superiority of the proposed standard or by some governing committee. They are adopted based on popularity which encompasses many factors including educating the public as to what the hell a “feed” is to begin with. This ultimately boils down to some form of marketing.

    If the NYT wants to impose yet another take on what has yet to become a standard, they certainly have the resources to take the cause upon themselves. However, if they think that just changing it across their sites is going to impose their will to the community at large, then Khoi should be prepared to change it again and again at some point in the near future.

    Take a look at what Apple did with Safari and their blue RSS icon. We’ll see how long that lasts.

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