NetVibes has some very serious user experience problems, ones that I would hazard to guess they’re unlikely to fix. The solutions would undoubtedly domino into major changes and cannibalize other “features”, so I’m not going to presume to suggest solutions here. So why rant if I know it won’t result in improved future versions of NetVibes? Two reasons: 1. to raise expectations for web application user experience and 2. to blindly offer some free consulting to a team whose product I actually *really* want to use and would like to see succeed, but that i don’t use, can’t use, because the UI drives me f-cking insane. It’s been a bad day so I may rewrite this later when I’m in a better mood. without further ado:

Boxy Layout Forces Frantic 2-D Hunting for Content and Read-Counts

Eye Tracking analysis

While the Netvibes layout is slick and visually clean, my eyes have to scan 2-dimensionally across multiple boxes to just to read my news headlines. It’s pretty but doesn’t work well for speed-reading news. Flock, Vienna, Bloglines, et. al. align the unread counts for all feeds vertically so i can the list once in one direction and know instantly what’s read / unread. i don’t have to scan the whole page amidst icons, headers, tabs, boxes, etc.

“Shelves Not Tags” Prohibits Filing Feeds Under Multiple Categories

Ow. i can’t have a feed in two categories at once? Do this really need to be a feature request for a web app in 2007? Sometimes I want to read blog entries about SF. Sometimes i want to read blog entries about software. Quick, which shelf do i place Buzz Anderson’s blog on? BZZT. FAIL.

Multiple Unread Queues (1 per tab) Informationally Fatiguing.

multiple, visually separated I operate my feed-reader (and my inbox) like a queue of hot potatoes. read, read, delete, delete, delete, delete read, QUICK IS MY QUEUE EMPTY YET? OK DONE, WHEW. With Vienna or Flock, I have ONE total unread count to whack down. When that number reaches zero, I’m done. If I get tired, I click mark all read, and I FEEL done – I have beaten the feeds. But in NetVibes, it’s difficult to beat the feeds. For example, I have 7 unread queues to work against. My finger is already tired. This is a more subtle problem but still a grave one. If your program exhausts users, they’ll give up.

Information Hiding Causes Hunting for Content

I don’t want tabs that hide my feeds list. It’s my feed reader, and so seeing the contents of any feed should be no more than a click away. Despite NetVibes’ slick AJAX article previews, if I can’t SEE the feed because it’s in another tab, then the preview is for naught. (Suggested solution: Persistent feed list on the side. I’m sorry, I hate the tabs. can you tell yet?)

Ephemeral Mark-all-read Buttons.

The # Unread button that marks a tab-full of stories as Read only works when the tab is front-most, which is confusing. This feature can’t be for safety (preventing me from accidentally marking feeds in another tab read) because there’s already a (fairly annoying) javascript “Are You Sure?” confirm warning on the mark-as-read button.

Inconsistent Buttons

which leads me to the last user experience hole in NetVibes:

No Undo Function.

This is the KILLER. Users make mistakes. Users click things to see what they do, then they expect to be able to undo those things. This is native apps 101. PLEASE support undo. Build it in from the start. This is huge. Google does it.

Undo in Gmail

And please don’t tell me how hard it to implement undo in a stateless web-based app. As an engineering manager, I know, and it hurts my teeth to even think about coding it. But as a USER, I don’t care about your engineering challenges. I expect undo to work, at least for simple operations like marking feeds read. NetVibes primary advantage over native apps is that their data store is up in the cloud – Great, love it. But building a network-backed feed-reader with a native UI or even a native-FEELING UI shouldn’t be this hard, especially for a team who built such a robust and complex application. Speculation: From their growing list of widgets and whatnot, it appears to me that maybe NetVibes is less interested in RSS feeds (geeks) and is more interested in web desktops/widgets (geeks), so maybe they don’t care about the user experience of their feed-reader. – jm3 the pissed-off bug-reporter and angry web-app user


Netvibes’ lead designer responds: “Netvibes is not just a feed-reader.”

Designer responds

[edit:] I want to make one change to this article clear: When I first posted this I used the word "Usability" several times instead of "User Experience", and I've changed that. I used "Usability" because in consciously trying NOT to overtly slag on the NetVibes guys' effort, I let my empathy with the developers dictate my choice of words -- developers say "Usability." But "Usability" is a poor standard for anything. Usability means "a user experience that just barely doesn't suck." Apologies. I've updated the article to remove the word.]