The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Reading vs. Processing

I've observed developer Jared Sinclair via his blog over the past several months. Like many things online, I can't quite recall what took me there the first time, but I subscribed and have enjoyed reading his site. He has a passion for good software and this comes through in his writing.

Over the months, he's been posting about his then-to-be-upcoming RSS reader. That app, Unread, was available last week. Although happy with Reeder, I was interested to see what Jared had come up with.

My Disappointment

Upon seeing Jared's announcement that it was available, I checked the app out. I was surprised to see that it was for the iPhone only. Jared posted shortly after his design decisions for Unread … you read that and I get the impression that he's the type of developer that creates apps I would enjoy.

But as a reader, I only use my phone to read when I'm in between places. And that reading is very shallow, a cursory look at items that would be consumed in more depth at some later time. So I had hoped that there would be an iPad version as well.

My other thought when first looking through the screenshots and reading the app description was that Unread was intended for articles to be read in-app. When I say this, I mean that this particular feed reader is designed in a way where you consume the content in the application. And while I love Whitney and the design is lovely, I've long been of the opinion that an author's works should be viewed in the environment that he/she created.

And so I closed the app store link and went on my way.

What Changed

8 days later, I must say that I purchased Unread and have been very happy with that decision. What led to this change of mind? First, there was the review of my buddy Shawn Blanc. I respect his opinion when it comes to software and he made a few points that kept me thinking about Unread.

It’s not that there’s anything in particular. There’s just a simple elegance to it. The app is well designed and nice to use.

When I finally purchased the app, the first few minutes proved Shawn's points to be true. The app is clean and easy to use. It's a very pleasing experience overall.

But what caught my attention the most was the lack of stress I felt when reading with Unread. Let's be honest; when it comes to reading blog articles, stress seems like an odd word. A feeling that should not apply. But I believe it is a symptom of the environment. In many of my RSS apps, it feels like an inbox, one I need to prune every so often. This amidst the busyness of my work queue, my task manager, Twitter, and IM notifications. I need to get through that list of unread items quickly.

Because of the design, Unread does not have the same feeling. Why? Because Jared understands modern apps and computing environments and did not want to repeat it. In his design decisions article, he alluded to this point:

I think it’s important to reiterate what I wanted Unread to be. I didn’t make it to be a feature-for-feature replacement for an app you may already be using. That would make Unread merely a thin coat of paint on old ideas.

But before that, months earlier, he shared his vision for the app while he was still building it.

Most RSS apps are patterned after email. Noisy parades of dots, dates, and tags trample over their screens. Their source lists look like overflowing inboxes instead of stately tables of contents. Toolbars bristling with options obscure the text. Putting it bluntly, using these apps feels like work.

Well said. And his solution:

I made Unread because I wanted to get back to a more deliberate style of reading. I designed it for times of quiet focus. With warm typography and a sparse interface, it invites me to return to the way I used to read before I fell into the bad habit of skimming and forgetting.

Not Quite Right

In my initial trial of Unread, I was enjoying what Jared was describing (although I had forgotten his words above until I started writing this post). But something still felt off. There was a slight discomfort, like a t-shirt that has a great design, but doesn't fit quite right.

I examined this closely. I had to look at my RSS habits to understand why I felt uncomfortable (beyond the regular discomfort of trying a new app). It became obvious quickly. My RSS feeds have three different types of content; articles to read, items to process, and items of an educational purpose, to be archived for later reference.

The first type work perfectly in Unread, which is, as Jared intended, a lovely reading environment. The second type do not fit well in this app. I'm talking about my Dribbble feed, my office porn, and font examples in the wild. These are items that are, for lack of a better word, processed. They are not read at all and I realized are best handled on my desktop.

The third tend to go to my read-it-later service to collect dust and die … but they simply also need to be processed and handled differently than my articles to read.

Once I recognized the different types of items that I had collected via RSS over the years, the solution was obvious.


And so I now use Unread to enjoy good reading from authors I admire. I will sometimes read the article in Whitney in Unread, sometimes in the built-in browser with the owner's intended environment. Both are enjoyable in the app and I recommend it to anyone.

Just remember Jared's vision if you decide to the $2.99 plunge:

The point of Unread is to give you an opportunity to change the way you read. Its design can only take you halfway there. I urge you to prune your subscriptions down to the writers you care about most.

That's basically what I did. I unsubscribed from items that I was processing in RSS. I still do that, but I simply use a group Bookmark in Safari to run through those every day. And if while using Unread I come across an item I want to refer to at a later date, I add it to Reading List (an in-app option — thanks, Jared!).

Reading in Unread is a joy. I'm glad I gave it a chance.

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