Feeds Aren't Interactive

Bill de hÓra just posted a question about mobility:

I'm new to the whole mobile web thing, but it seems to me, on constrained devices like phones everything ends up being a list. Or put another way, all the sites I find easy to use and navigate (like BBC news online) are list based. So, why not just use syndication feeds for everything?

This is a pretty common thought process, actually, for the people coming to mobile from the web. Usually the person doesn't actually do much with their phone, so they can't imagine anyone else doing much with their phone either, so they think all of the mobile web and/or mobility should just be focused on their specific use cases. In this instance, Bill probably reads news on his phone while he's on the go, and therefore thinks, hey, why would anyone want to do anything else?

Well, the simple answer is that feeds aren't interactive. They could be - but as they're designed right now, they're generally static summaries of content that's sitting somewhere else. For a site like the New York Times, you could say that a news feed gives more or less 90% of the experience that the full on HTML website does (especially with the full content in the feed). But for Facebook, a feed provides more like 10% of the functionality. Same for Craig's List. Feeds aren't applications in and of themselves, they augment applications by keeping you aware of updates and changes.

It's easy to think about examples of useful mobile-specific applications that are not "feed-centric":

  • Search - including local search, product search, movie times, etc.
  • Maps and Location - unless you want to put your entire route into an RSS feed before you walk out the door, but even then, most people don't use a map or directions unless they don't know where they are. :-)
  • Messaging - including email, community, forums, chat, etc. - sure you could see new messages if they came in via a feed update but don't you want to respond?
  • Money - Checking your balance? Trading shares? Buying a ringtone of a song you just heard? Shopping for an anniversary gift while you have some downtime? Hard to do with just a feed.

And those are just the big app categories. I mean, personals, real estate, autos, jobs, entertainment, etc. Anything that would need input, present information in a different format or be done in an ad-hoc way requires custom interfaces and design, not just something that fits in a feed.

The lesson to learn here is simply to realize that there are as many use cases for mobile devices as there are people using them. If you hear or read an opinion where the person states that "mobility is about x" where "x" is something like "location" or "feeds" or "search" or whatever, then you know it's just wrong - it's only part of the story. That one activity may be a strong and or compelling use case, but it's hardly the only one.

-Russ

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