Brief Thoughts: Activity Stream Scanning Affordances
What, you want more yammering on activity streams? My friend, look no further.
I got to thinking: what is the scanning behavior for users looking at an activity stream? More specifically, when scanning a stack of activity feed items, what visual cue is the user looking for to indicate that a certain feed merits more attention? And what does that imply for how activity feeds should be designed?
If we’re to go by the current trend in activity feed designs, author, or, more specifically, an iconographic depiction of author, is most important. The designs of Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook feeds all feature a profile photo prominently on the left-side of each activity feed item (and remember, the eye scans left-to-right, so the picture is what people see first).
This makes sense for these apps, since the content of these feeds is mostly homogeneous. With Twitter, merely status declaration. With MySpace: Same. Thus, one can scan and select to read based on how much one actually cares about the author of the activity bleep.
With Facebook, though, it’s a little more complex, as users are also posting links to images, Websites, and whatnot, in addition to simple declarations of status.
That heterogeneity of content starts to make the feed more visually confused and difficult to scan. In fact, I would argue the various graphics and links start to overshadow the simple status declarations.
Which brings us to Friendfeed. When it launched, FriendFeed’s design implied that it was actually the originating application that was most important. You could scan app icons for Twitter, or del.icio.us, or whatever, and then read title and author if the application was something interesting to you.
But now FriendFeed has switched to be more Twitter-like, with author images as the key differentiating aspect of each activity bleep. The originating app is significantly downplayed.
What’s interesting here is that the implication is, again, I only really care about the author of the bleep, and much less than in where that bleep originated from.
Alright, back to our questions. “When scanning a stack of activity feed items, what visual cue is the user looking for to indicate that a certain feed merits more attention?” Well, in FriendFeed or any other heterogeneous activity feed, I would argue that the reader is equally interested in: author, originating application, and title of the bleep.
This would go doubly in, say, the enterprise context, where I might be much more interested in seeing all activity from, say, a wiki, and filter (in my mind) next on author or title.
Next question: “What does that imply for how activity feeds should be designed?” Well, a good design would be able to allow users to self-select what they’re scanning on, any of those three characteristics, and allow equally easy scanning, depending.
What would that look like? Well, uhhh. Here’s a quick stab at redesigning the FriendFeed stream to allow users to scan on any of those three characteristics.
Essentially this design makes the following arguments:
- The mind will still scan primarily on author icon. The embedded originating-app icon will give a bit more context before the user scans the item title.
- If author icon and app icon were enough to pause the reader in his scan, go straight into the item title where user can get full information.
- Note that author name is significantly downplayed (in gray at bottom rather than large link in front of item title). This assumes that once you see the icon, you know who the author is, and repeating it just gets in the way of the scan.
Not sure it really works, but I do think that depending on the intent of the user, it’s difficult to say categorically that author or originating app or title is most important, so a good design should be able to communicate all three. Thoughts?
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