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Designing with Code: RSS

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Kris Hadlock, author of Ajax for Web Application Developers

In this column, I’m following up Robert Hoekman’s Designing the Obvious Clinic on RSS. In his column, Robert does something a little different than usual by measuring an entire technology against a few of the principles that are covered in his latest book, Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design.

Robert always seems to keep me on my toes when it comes to following up his columns and this week was no exception. The good news is that there is a great solution to the design dilemmas that are faced when adding a subscription process to your web site or blog. In this column, I take his discoveries and provide a solution to the non-intuitive process of subscribing to RSS feeds.

Subscribing to RSS

As Robert has pointed out, the RSS subscription process is flawed. It’s not intuitive for the average user, leaving many to wonder how this new technology benefits them at all. RSS can be a powerful and free promotional tool, but it’s important that this service is utilized by as many relevant web users as possible.

As web designers, it’s our job to hide the processes behind the scenes and to make tasks extremely apparent to the user through thoughtful placement and design. Luckily, there are options that are easy to incorporate into your web sites and blogs. The solution that I will cover in this column is a service called AddThis.

AddThis not only allows you to provide a single button solution for all of the major RSS aggregators, it does the same for social bookmarking. It provides a single source for all of the top online aggregators such as Bloglines, Google, Windows Live, Yahoo, and Technorati as well as the top desktop aggregators including FeedDemon, MY AOL, and Newsgator. You simply add one subscription link to your bog and anyone can click the link, proceed to AddThis, and choose his aggregator of choice.

This service offers a great design solution for blogs, which are often seen with a laundry list of aggregators’ subscription buttons to choose from. AddThis is a graceful solution that makes your page look cleaner while at the same time making it easier for the user to locate and ultimately subscribe to your feed.

Using the AddThis Service

To use the AddThis service, start by signing up for an account. Once you’re logged in, click the "Get the code for your button!" link at the top right of the page. This link will take you to the Button Builder to construct your own custom subscription button. The Button Builder is a wizard that walks you step-by-step through the process of constructing your own custom subscription URL. You select from a number of buttons that vary in design and then have the option to add free statistics to see how many users have subscribed to your feed.

Now, the button is not only useful to your users, but it also provides you with statistical information to track your subscriptions. After you’ve created the button, you simply copy and paste the code into your blog or web site and manipulate it if you feel the need to provide additional customization.

If you do not want to use a design that AddThis provides, you can simply replace the img tag with a button of your choice or add text as a hyperlink to the subscription page. As an example, I don't like to use too many graphics on my web site, so I decided to replace the img tag with a piece of text that simply says Subscribe to feed.

Adding a single button to handle all RSS subscriptions is a great solution to streamlining the process for your users, but sometimes the subscription link alone is not enough to provide the user with the information he needs to understand why he should subscribe to an RSS feed. In these cases, you can incorporate the subscription link that we created today with instruction or even explanation text, as Robert stated in his column.

Moving Forward

Now that we’ve covered this simple subscription process for RSS feeds, you can easily use the same button builder process to create bookmark links for your other content. Take a look at the bookmark page to view a list of all the services provided.