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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Thursday, 15th October, 2009

10 secrets to staying informed about web design

Keeping up in the world of web design is tough. Things move fast and its hard to stay informed. In this post I share 10 ways that RSS can come to the rescue.

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The estimated time to read this article is 10 minutes

Whether you are a designer, developer or website owner there is an immense pressure to keep up with the latest web innovations. With the web moving so fast what is best practice one day is out of date the next.

Worse still, we are so busy building and running websites, that we rarely have the time to keep informed. However, it is not impossible and the answer lies in the clever use of RSS.

Below are 10 secrets I have discovered that allow me to get a broad overview of the industry without wasting hours of my time everyday.

1. Get a great RSS reader

It goes without saying, but the first thing you need is a great RSS reader.

The key thing you are looking for, is a reader that allows you to identify which content is most likely to be of interest to you. There are two ways this can be achieved.

One approach is to use folders. This is the approach I take. I use Google reader and organise the different feeds into folders that help me prioritise. I talk more about how I organise things below.

The second approach is to use an RSS reader that does this prioritisation for you. One example of this kind of reader is Fever. Fever reads your feeds and picks out the most frequently talked about links. What is great about this approach is the more feeds you add, the better fever gets at identifying important content.

Screenshot of the Fever Website

Whatever approach you use, you must be able to quickly identify important stories and avoid feeling swamped by posts.

2. Organise your feeds

If you choose a more traditional feed reader such as Google Reader it is important to organise your feeds well. If you don’t then great content can get lost among high frequency feeds such as Techcrunch.

Everybody will organise their feeds in a slightly different way and I myself have tried several approaches. However, the one that seems to be working best for me is to have the following folders:

  • Must Read – This is where I place feeds that consistently produce great content and I cannot afford to miss a post.
  • Quantity Feeds – These are feeds from sites that post regularly. Sites like the BBC may produce great content, but there is so much of it that it can overwhelm other feeds. By isolating them I can ensure I don’t miss anything important.
  • Links – I subscribe to several feeds that are just collections of links from people I respect (I will talk about this more later). Because these contain no actual content in themselves, I keep them separate for a time when I can hunt through the list for any gems.
  • The rest – These are less valuable, low volume feeds that I read when additional time is available.

Of course just because this approach works for me does not mean it will for you. You need to find the best folder structure that suits the content you subscribe to.

3. Be mobile

I do most of my RSS reading away from my computer. It is amazing how much content I can get through by utilising the spare moments I have waiting for the wife or sitting on a train.

Screengrab of News Stand

Therefore I need a great mobile RSS reader. The mobile reader I have is called News Stand and it syncs seamlessly with Google Reader. This is the primary reason I use Google Reader rather than Fever.

What is more News Stand has some useful features worth noting. From News Stand I can…

I regularly email myself posts if they contain some new tool that I might want to look at in more depth later. I can even add these posts directly to my task list using Omnifocus.

4. Scan, file and read

How you read your feeds is as important as the tools you use.

With so much great content out there you will inevitably end up with a lot of feeds. There is just not enough time in the day to read them all. The emphasis has to be on finding the really good content fast and then reading it later when you have time.

Normally when I launch my feed reader I am pushed for time. I don’t have the opportunity to trawl through each post and read it in detail. The main objective is to scan headlines and see if anything jumps out.

Instapaper for the iPhone

If I spot something I like the look of I add it to instapaper. This will reformat it in a more readable way and save it offline on my phone for later consumption.

An alternative approach would be to simply star it in Google Reader. However, personally I prefer the accessibility and formatting of instapaper.

Then once I have my list of preferred reading, I use longer blocks of time to read through this list. Train journeys and sitting in bed are ideal opportunities.

However, I have also discovered that even driving in the car or working out at the gym (not that I have personal experience of the latter) are ideal times to work through my reading list. The way I achieve this is using a service on the mac that converts text into an MP3 file. The voice isn’t great but it is a very useful way of getting through a big reading list.

So you have a process in place. The next question is what feeds to follow.

5. Follow the big players

As a web designer you need a broad overview of not just the web design world but also the tech world. It is therefore important to follow a number of big players who post regularly and will provide the majority of posts in your feed reader.

Mashable Homepage

My personal suggestions are:

  • Smashing Magazine provides easily digestible content that either inspires or provides practical advice.
  • The Web Designers Depot is similar to Smashing Magazine but seems to focus more heavily on inspiration.
  • Sitepoint provides both blog posts and detailed articles on every aspect of web design. A great all round publication.
  • Techcrunch will provide a broader perspective on the tech world. However, it can be a little focused on ‘the Valley’ for my tastes.
  • Mashable provides some great articles social media and is definitely worth subscribing to.

The problem with the sites above is that they post frequently. Be sure to isolate them so they do not dominate your feed reader.

6. Track the specialist sites

In addition to the big players there are also a large number of specialist web design sites that are worth your attention. These include, but are not limited to:

  • A List Apart was originally the homepage of web standards but is now broadening its articles to tackle a variety of user experience related issues.
  • Adaptive Path is a company who produce some excellent posts on the latest thinking in the world of UX design.
  • Boxes and Arrows is a blog dedicated to information architecture.
  • Ideas on Ideas is a collection of essays regarding design, brand and experience.
  • Customer experience matters tackles as you might expect from the title, customer experience issues both online and off.
  • Konigi is a research community for user experience designers.

Obviously this is a list of my favourites, and so is biased towards my personal areas of interest. However, if you are starting from scratch these are as good a place to begin as any.

7. Remember the individuals

So far we have focused exclusively on web design / tech publications and ignored the blogs of individuals. There are literally thousands of these, but it is important that a good selection can be found in your RSS reader.

The individual bloggers tend to post less regularly but this is where a lot of cutting edge thinking happens. An idea bounced around in somebodies personal blog can quickly turn into best practice promoted by sites like A List Apart.

My personal favourites are…

  • Jeremy Keith, who writes a lot about HTML5, Javascript and Microformats.
  • Roger Johansson, who covers a variety of topics from accessibility to web standards.
  • Bruce Lawson, who focuses mainly on HTML5 and accessibility.
  • Richard Rutter, who will tell you all you need to know about web typography.
  • Sam Barnes, who shares his personal perspective on web project management.

Over time you will build up your own list of personal bloggers. However, always try and keep an open mind to new people. You should always be adding and removing feeds to keep your list current and relevant.

8. Use bookmarking feeds

The same people who have good web design blogs are often extremely well read themselves. Many of them share the content they find on social bookmarking websites such as delicious. It is well worth subscribing to their feeds on these sites.

Delicious

A few of the many such feeds I subscribe to include:

Subscribing to other people’s feed is an easy way of exposing yourself to content that you might not otherwise have found.

9. Leverage twitter

Of course, increasingly people are not saving links to services like delicious. Instead they are posting them to Twitter.

There are a couple of ways of leveraging twitter for great web design content. One way is to use Twitter search. By searching for web design keywords such as “usability,” “web design” or “accessibility” combined with “http://” you will return all links that match those keywords. You can then subscribe to an RSS feed of that result.

Although this is a good way of discovering new content there is no guarantee as to the quality of those links. They could have been posted by anybody including spambots.

A better approach would be to search for links submitted only by the people you follow. Unfortunately Twitter search does not provide that ability. Fortunately a service called Microplaza does.

Microplaza homepage

The service allows you to see all of the links tweeted by those you follow either organised by date or popularity. You can also see exactly who tweeted the link. However, best of all you call subscribe to an RSS feed so it appears in your feed reader of choice.

10. Signup to aggregators

With a good system, reading your RSS feeds does not need to take long. However you may conclude that this is not something you have time to setup.

If that is the case you could get somebody else to do the hard work for you. There are a number of news aggregators out there, which collect the best of web design news and feed it to your news reader. For example Boagworld runs its own news aggregation service that you can either follow on Twitter or subscribe to via RSS.

Conclusions

As I said at the start, we work in an extremely fast moving industry. There are new innovations on a daily basis and what is best practice today might be replaced tomorrow. It is important to stay up-to-date. However, finding the time can be difficult.

This post demonstrates how I have solved the problem. However, that is just my personal experience.

What about you? How do you stay on top of web design news? How do you remain current and do you think RSS is the answer or has it be surpassed by Twitter? Post your thoughts in the comments.

If you recognise that the mobile web is important and you need help deciding on a strategy, then book a mobile consultancy clinic.

Book a consultancy clinic or contact Rob about a more in-depth review.

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