Thoughts on Unread for RSS Reading

Unread was first released back in February, and while I wasn’t ‘in the office’ during that time, I couldn’t use the app given the lack of support for Fever. Recently the app updated to version 1.2 and I was able to give it a go as it added support for a lot more RSS services…

Unread was first released back in February, and while I wasn’t ‘in the office’ during that time, I couldn’t use the app given the lack of support for Fever. Recently the app updated to version 1.2 and I was able to give it a go as it added support for a lot more RSS services (including Fever, obviously). Without a doubt the design philosophy behind Unread, and the way that I use RSS, seem to be polar opposites.

Unread is the type of app designed for people to spend a long time in the app. It’s not an app made for popping in and out of. It’s not an app made to get through RSS quickly.

It’s an app made to read your RSS articles, in the RSS apps.

While most RSS apps try to make it efficient for the user to send stuff to read later, Unread is designed for you to read the goods now and is very blunt about telling you that. (Though there is copious ‘read later’ support.)

I was concerned about this philosophy since I subscribe to 748 RSS feeds. Hmm.

What I found in Unread was not only a beautiful app, but a highly functional app — even when asked to do something it does not feel it is explicitly designed to do.

I sent over a few questions to the developer of Unread, Jared Sinclair, to quiz him about some decisions made in his app. Specifically, I wanted to know more about this ‘philosophy’ he is pushing in the app. I wondered, that if Unread is designed to be enjoyed slowly with an iced cold Pepsi (or hot Coffee… I guess), then why truncate the posts in the main list view instead of just showing everything right there ready to read? ((Note: All of the responses from Sinclair are shown in their entirety and un-edited by me. I’ve re-phrased my questions to fit the flow of this article.))

Sinclair: The word I use when describing how most other RSS apps are used is triage. I don’t mean this as a pejorative term. Some users have a lot of feeds and use RSS as a staging area for articles they’ll read later with something like Instapaper. I think this is a totally valid use for RSS, but it’s not the way I want to use it.

Even though Unread is a destination and not a staging area, readers still need to be able to pick and choose what to read next. A good example is a blog that mixes linked-list posts with original articles. I may not have time to read an 8,000 word post on iOS 8 predictions, but I might have time to read a few short link commentaries.

Finding the right balance between usability and aesthetics was a challenge. Unread’s article summaries are short enough to allow an overview of what articles are available to read, but long enough that they don’t look like email inbox items. Here’s a link to a visual history of my Photoshop sketches for the article summaries:

I’ve never been one to read a blog directly on the web, always through RSS, but I can see the reasoning for allowing the user to decide if they have time for something right now. To that end, adding in reading time estimates would go a long way for helping with that decision.

One thing that has really surprised me about Unread is that even though I subscribe to more than 400 active RSS feeds (748 total if you include those listed as “Sparks” in Fever), I am still perfectly able to use this app that seems very much not designed for a ‘triager’ like me.

I asked Sinclair if this was intentional on his part.

Sinclair: I have strong opinions about what I think is the most satisfying way to use Unread, but it would be foolish of me to think that my opinions are a good fit for everybody. Unread needs to strike a balance between novelty and utility, if only so that it can appeal to enough customers that I can stay in business. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well-received Unread’s opinionated choices have been, things like the long article summaries or the lack of buttons and toolbars. Perhaps I had underestimated how many people felt like me and wanted a more relaxed reading experience.

In other words, sage advice: don’t cut your customer base to a dozen people if simple choices mean you can have a customer base of hundreds of thousands of people.

Since many have talked about Unread before, I thought I would just point out somethings which I noticed:

  • The app is what I call quasi-fullscreen as it does not forgo a status bar at the top, but otherwise acts like many apps that are fullscreen by not showing navigation buttons. I really wish that status bar was gone, and I am not sure the reasoning on keeping the status bar in the app. It adds very little value, and seems to keep you one set away from full immersion into the app.
  • Along the bottom of the screen is what I will call a section header. So when you tap on your RSS account it will display the account type (for a Fever account, the bottom is labeled ‘Fever’). What’s odd is that when you move into your unread items list, the title says ‘unread’. Which is logical, and helpful, but when your app is also called Unread, well, you can see where the confusion is. Is that a label for where I am in the app, or a reminder of the app I am using? This drives me nuts.
  • The main screen of the app is really odd. It looks like a promo/tutorial/setup type of screen, yet it is to be the top level screen for the entire app. I just don’t get it, nor do I like it. Sinclair said it is based off of table of contents.
  • That said, one really great touch is the inclusion of today’s date on the screen. I have no clue why I like that so much, but I really love it. I asked Sinclair about the decision to include the date on this screen.

Sinclair: Thanks for mentioning that. It’s one of my favorite parts of Unread, too. Unread’s home screen is inspired by tables of contents from literary magazines like the New Yorker. Those kinds of magazines often place a big masthead and publication date above the table of contents. Putting the UNREAD word mark and today’s date on the home screen sets the tone for the rest of the app: this is for reading, not for rushing.

  • The app has some great themes, but does not automatically switch from light to dark based on the lighting conditions around you. This is a pet peeve of mine as I believe all apps should do this now, but to be fair, Unread is setup to allow a user to quickly and easily change the theme without losing their place in the stream. The actions for doing this (pulling the screen from right to left) is something I think more apps should employe as it is a lovely experience.
  • On the topic of themes, I feel the dark/night theme is very hard to read when there are a lot of links in a post as the links are red and underlined. Many things I’ve read lately talk about how highlighting links makes for a very distracted reading environment. So, once again, I asked Sinclair what his thoughts were on the link coloring and underlining in Unread.

Sinclair: Good question. Early on I tried using just an underline, but it created problems. I stumbled upon an observation that now seems obvious: links are two things at once. They’re text but they’re also buttons. The usual typography guidelines don’t entirely apply. Links need to look tappable and be easy to spot. The best solution for Unread is a combination of a different color and an underline. Here’s my rationale:

  • If they were only underlined, then they wouldn’t be distinguishable from underlined text that isn’t a link. The same would be true of making them boldface. 
  • If they only differed from normal text by their color, then they wouldn’t be easy to spot by users with color blindness. 
  • If they didn’t use color, then they would be hard to spot in complex areas of text. Think of a bulleted list where each item contains a mix of typographic styles (boldface, monospace runs of code, italics). This kind of thing has a lot of visual activity and is not uncommon on technical blogs. Color helps cut through that noise.

The combination of both color and an underline is usable by the greatest number of people, and for a wide variety of content, but without resorting to non-typographic elements like roundrect borders or a solid color background.

  • Even though it isn’t in-line with the philosophy behind the app, it drives me nuts that it requires so many taps and holds to send an article to a read later service. To me this is an action that should always be able to be performed quickly.
  • My last complaint is very minor, but seems like the most unfinished part of the app: the release notes. It is great that the release notes are in the app, but why just shoot out to a web view instead of loading in the release notes and styling them to fit the app? Again, seems like an oversight in an otherwise well polished app.

At the end of the day, Unread has won me over, as it is just too pretty to not use. Watch your back Reeder.

Unread is currently $4.99 on the App Store, and worth every damned penny.

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