Liferea Usability Rant

Another blogpost I wanted to read has disappeared into the ether, and it’s time for another usability rant – this time about Liferea. This is Ubuntu’s recommended feed reader – at least, it’s the only result of a search in the Ubuntu Software Centre for “feed reader” which is in the repository it provides support for. Although when I asked mpt, who works for Canonical in usability, what the official feed reader was, he said:

https://help.ubuntu.com/9.10/internet/C/internet-otherapps.html recommends Liferea. I think that’s as official as you’d get on that subject.

Which is hardly a ringing endorsement. Anyway, I moved to it for half my RSS feeds (the personal ones) to see if anything was better than Thunderbird’s frankly patchy feed reading support.

OK, it doesn’t have Thunderbird’s “thought you’d read this item? Let me give you another, unread copy of it in the feed” bug, but boy – did the developers actually sit down and try and read feeds with it? The usability is a nightmare.

The main way of reading feeds is an Unread virtual folder, which contains all of the unread items. As you read things and move to the next one, they disappear from here, although you can still find them in the folder for the individual feed.

There’s a “Next Unread Item” button, but no “Previous Unread Item” and no history. So if you accidentally move off the item you are reading, it immediately disappears from the Unread view (because you read it, duh) and there’s no way of finding it again! If you can’t remember which blog it’s in, you have to trawl through 50 feeds, looking at the topmost few entries, and see if you recognise it. And, as you start this process, you realise that the next unread item, which the cursor went to when it went off the one you wanted to read and are now chasing, is also now lost, because it got marked as read when it got highlighted and now you’ve moved the focus off that one too. And you can’t remember anything about that one at all.

Basically, they’ve implemented a browsing application without a Back button. Genius.

That’s OK, you think: I can create a Search folder for “all items newer than a week” and sort it by date, and find my lost items that way. Except that “date” is not one of the options in the search builder. You can search by whether it’s a podcast or not, but not when the wretched thing was written. Great. You have to create a folder of everything, which wedges your machine for 20 seconds every time you open it as it loads 5000 items into a data structure using some sort of naive n2 algorithm.

There’s a Mark Items Read on the toolbar. Accidentally click it, and you’ve lost your “to read” queue entirely, with no way of getting it back. And it’s right next to the “Update All” button which is used regularly. “Mark Items Read” might as well be labelled “Cause Me To Scream in Frustration”.

  • You can’t select multiple items. If you try, the first one gets deselected and, because it was now marked as read, disappears from the view!
  • You can never find a feed you want, because the list is in the order they were added, and there’s no sort, only drag-and-drop. Hey, I can practise my manual quicksort!
  • If you decide you want to keep an item in your “to read” queue, and so, having scanned it, press Ctrl-U to mark it back as unread, then Ctrl-N refuses to work. Presumably because it thinks “you’re on the next unread message already, dummy”.

Grr.

6 thoughts on “Liferea Usability Rant

  1. This seems more harsh than helpful. Given that you view your role as in the same ballpark as community manager http://groups.google.com/group/mozilla.dev.apps.thunderbird/msg/15b76890a12d00a0 I think it would be more appropriate for you to either provide constructive commentary or just simplify things down to a twitter style of frustration venting instead. For example ‘liferea feed reading FAIL’ seems to capture the spirit of this message.

    I say this not to try and increase the negative energy, but because as a Thunderbird developer I see a lot of posts like this (usually about Thunderbird :). I don’t find them particularly helpful when I read them about Thunderbird, and I don’t think we want to set an example of these things. Because the potential irony of the situation is always that the reason Thunderbird’s feed reading is poor is because no effort has been given to improving it. And writing a rant any longer than a twitter post seems like a misuse of effort that could instead be channeled into actually improving things.

  2. Well, at least you clearly outlined the issue – not as good as actually providing suggestions on how to fix issues but better than most rants.

    Btw, at one point I was looking into fixing the Thunderbird bug you mentioned. Then I realized that this usually happens when an old blog post bubbles up in the feed due to being updated (many blogging systems consider adding tags an update though). The other scenario is when the post ID changes (some blogs are notorious for doing this). In both scenarios it is questionable whether the current Thunderbird behavior is wrong.

  3. Wladimir, are you saying that we should file a bug with the feed owner whenever this happens in Thunderbird (this seems to happen on the Amarok blog every time they add a post)? This thing has been bugging me for a while now in Thunderbird.

    The ‘reload content completely when switching tabs/messages’ thing it does is also kinda annoying, which means that I have to finish this post right now and can’t check on another message/post and come back to finish this reply.

    Otherwise TB is an excellent feed reader and an even better mail client.

    PS: tried posting this from within Thunderbird, but that didn’t work :(

  4. Andrew: a fair point. In fact, re-reading it, the thing I said which I perhaps shouldn’t was what my generalization about Thunderbird. As Wladimir says, this post outlines the issues with Liferea; but it just takes a cheap shot at Thunderbird. And that probably wasn’t wise. But consistent with that, I would say that ‘liferea feed reading FAIL’ would be far less helpful than the above. If anyone from liferea read it, they would just feel that I’d insulted their software without being in any way constructive.

    The rant is IMO a sort of literary genre in free software. Writing one is a way of letting off steam, and in no way means that one is not open to constructive dialog with the authors of the software in question. Of course, they should not be the predominant form of anyone’s literary output!

    In case it’s not clear, I’d be happy to engage with the liferea authors to help them work on their usability. I do want it to get better :-)

  5. jonne, I don’t see where I said anything like this. If that issue happens frequently with that blog then you should probably first discuss it with whoever is running that blog. Maybe they have some broken load balancing in place and post guids alternate between two variants (or one of the mirrors simply updates later than the other making Thunderbird think that the post was deleted again). Maybe they edit the posts after publishing them and that changes something. Thunderbird wouldn’t show posts twice without a reason.

  6. Thanks for the rant. As Liferea project leader I of course find it interesting to read. You put the finger on some burning topics other users see as problems too, while I personally do not encounter those problems at all because I use the program totally different. Actually I do not care about lost items as I use the news reader to generally skim through a lot of information while opening stuff in tabs/or add bookmarks, so that I cannot loose the relevant content.

    From the developer point of view I can say: none of our developers is missing the feature and nobody ever contributed a back-button in four years. So actually we didn’t implement a browser without a back-button, you just expected one. Our primary use case is a news skimming application, not a full-featured stateful browser.

    Nonetheless to avoid frustration I believe a item selection history is not that complicated and we should implement it in the next time as it allows users recovering from mistakes which is important for usability.