What I expect from a feed reader

July 08, 2013

With the recent shuttering of Google Reader (my thoughts on the announcement in March) there’s been no shortage of competitors jumping into the space, hoping to gain just a small slice of the RSS pie. The interest I’ve seen in new RSS readers and services has really surprised me, especially the interest shown by “normals” who maybe followed 10-20 sites and used a browser to interface with Google Reader.

In the past few months I’ve tried most (all?) of the “main” players in the after-GReader market, and have been mostly disappointed, particularly by the mobile clients, which disappointment kind of compelled me to write this post. Please understand that I realize many of these operations are very small teams (some are just one person) and that this post is in no way meant to belittle what they’ve accomplished in the past few months. But, the fact is, I’ve (we’ve) come to expect a certain number of “core” features when it comes to my precious feed-reading rituals, and there’s just no going back. (I’ve no doubt that given enough time, the majority of these new guys will incorporate most or all of the features listed below. Fortunately, most best-of-breed clients already talk to many of these new services, and so much of this is a non-issue if you know which clients to choose.)

Before reading the below list, keep in mind that I do 99% of my feed reading on iOS devices, and because of that I’m just not too concerned with the desktop/mobile browser experience. That said, most of the things listed below should apply to those mediums as well. Also, these features mostly are concerned with user-facing clients and not backend systems, so I’m not getting into syncing or anything else like that–those things are givens.

Features I've come to rely on

I’m fully aware that some of these may seem a bit trivial, especially when considered individually, but when taken together over a large number of feeds, they make for an incredibly powerful–and efficient–skimming/reading experience.

Mark-as-read-on-scroll (in a multi-item view)
I’ve written about this many times in the past, and it’s still one of the first things I look for in any new aggregator, and am always surprised when it;s missing. It’s especially handy for high-volume feeds, where without it you’d have to scroll through every unread item before being able to move on to the next feed/folder, because only then would you feel comfortable marking the feed/folder as read.
Offer multiple ways of moving to the next item
When viewing a particular item, moving to the next item should always be possible by swiping up when at the end of the item. Additionally, there should be an on-screen control for this sort of thing; this is especially useful when dealing with full-content items, where, in the case of long items, getting to the next one may require a lot of scrolling before being able to transition to it using only the swipe-up gesture. (Mr. Reader goes a little further in this regard, and lets you move the on-screen controls to any of four areas of the screen, which is great when you’re holding your device in an odd configuration, or you're left-handed, etc.)
Ability to turn off animations
Animations can been pretty, and fun, but when done a hundred times a day they can start to feel “heavy” and inefficient; sometimes it makes more sense to just turn them off completely. This should be configurable.
Save items to a read later service (e.g., Pocket, Instapaper, etc.)
I’m pretty sure all clients support this sort of thing these days, but I’m including it here for completeness (and to setup the next couple of items).
Act on feed items without having to jump into them
Here I’m referring mainly to the ability to save an item to a “read later” service while scrolling through a multi-item list. Often as you’re scrolling through a list of feed items you can tell whether an item is something you want to act on without having to actually jump into it. In Newsify, for example, if I want to save something to Pocket while scrolling through a list, I simply long-tap the item (no matter the layout mode) and it gets shuffled along.
Save internal links to a “read later” service
How often are you reading an article and want to save to a “read later” service a link you come across within that article? Most clients offer the ability to act on the link via the system-wide iOS dingus, but only a few let you send the link to your “read later” service of choice. If the “read later” option isn’t available, I usually have to open the link in Safari, and then use a bookmarklet to send it to the service I want. That’s crazy, and about 10 steps too many.
Show thumbnail images if available
I realize some people don’t like thumbnails in their feed readers (especially given the propensity for some writers to add images to their articles that don’t necessarily inform the reader, because they know that articles with images tend to get more views), and want to see only the title and maybe a line or two of preview text, but I find that my skimming usually is much faster when thumbnails are shown; it’s much easier for me to determine at a glance whether the article is something I want to see more of. This is especially true for particular feeds; for example, I have a feed that’s focused on car news, and because of thumbnails I can blaze through its unread items incredibly quickly.
Offer multiple layout modes
There usually are two that are most important, namely a list view where each item is presented in a uniform size, including length of title, number of preview lines, etc., and a newspaper-style view where the width (and sometimes height) of the “box” in which an item is presented can vary based on, for example, whether that item has any images associated with it, etc. This should be configurable (and, ideally, on a folder-by-folder and feed-by-feed basis).
Show only feeds and folders with unread items
This one seems so obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many apps out there force you to scroll through your entire list of feeds/folders, despite there being something new in just a few of them. Silly. Hide that shit.
Show oldest items first
Again, another thing that you’d think couldn’t be more obvious. I want to view articles in the order they’re published, not the reverse.
Never require mark-all-as-read confirmation
Ever.
Show read/unread progress when inside a feed or folder
There are certain feeds or folders of feeds that I always run through item-by-item (e.g., my folder of individual bloggers), and it’s nice to know how far along I am in the list while in the process of going through it (e.g., display “3 / 8 articles read” above the current article).
Offer options when finishing a feed or folder of feeds
Some clients jump right into the next unread feed or folder, others bring you back to the main list of feeds/folders. This should be configurable.
Customizable "Services" menu
The client should support as many services as is practicable, and the user should be able to choose which of those appears in the services menu.
Switch easily to a web-based view
99% of the time I’m fine with being shown a “sanitized”, content-only version of an item’s corresponding web page, but it should be very easy to view the page “natively” in an in-app browser. Which of these to show by default (i.e., sanitized or in-app browser) should be configurable (and, ideally, on a feed-by-feed basis).
Filtering at the item level
Frankly, I think this is something that should come with anything you use to consume any type of content, but it rarely does. In fact, I’m not aware of any major RSS client (for iOS) that lets you hide some of your feed items based on constraints you specify. I’ve been using Yahoo! Pipes for this sort of thing for years, and while it’s a little clunky, it works great, and lets you use regular expressions, which is always a plus. (Yeah, I’m aware that Feed Wrangler offers filters, though I don’t think at this point they’re too robust (e.g., no regex, etc.). I’m keeping my eye on this.)
Site/author attribution in folder view
When looking at more than a single feed at once (e.g., when viewing a folder’s worth of items), it’s nice to be able to see which site and/or author a particular item belongs to, because that information might ultimately determine whether you want to take further action on that item. Same goes for multi-author sites.
Prefetch everything
All feed images should be downloaded when syncing, and not when an item is opened. The last thing you want to do when jumping into a feed item is have to wait for an image to load; do this a hundred times in a row and you’ll understand how truly maddening it can be. There should be an option to turn this off if using a connection other than WiFi, but otherwise you should be slurping down everything at sync time.

So, what am I using now?

To be honest, my workflow hasn’t changed at all since Google Reader was put out to pasture. I’ve long used Newsify (despite it having, without question, the worst icon ever), Mr. Reader before that (my detailed thoughts on this app from a couple of years ago), and Reeder years before that, all three of which now sync fully with Feedly’s backend service.

The Google Reader shutdown simply meant I had to point Newsify to Feedly, instead of Google Reader. That really was it. My experience now is no different than it was two weeks ago, and as I mentioned above, I basically just don’t do news reading on the desktop anymore, but in a pinch, Feedly’s site is fine for me.

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