Bloglines Gets Key Commands, Hijacks Browsers

UPDATE: Ben Lowery of Bloglines has not only responded promptly in the comments below, but now both problems are fixed. The “unread” display is now also exactly as I suggested. Kudos to Ben and Bloglines! Much better!

I’m a huge Bloglines fan and have used it as my only newsreader for almost two years now. It’s a smart product created by an even smarter person, Mark Fletcher. Almost every single feature Bloglines has added since launch has been implemented with the utmost of care and has improved my experience on the site incrementally. Yesterday, however, the site added two features which are in need of fixing. In their announcement about the feature additions, Bloglines asked users to express their thoughts about the changes publicly, so that’s what I’m doing.

Problem #1: Keyboard Shortcut Hijacking

I didn’t even know this was possible, but somehow, the addition of keyboard shortcuts to Bloglines has completely disabled system-level shortcuts in my browser. Bloglines, probably in reaction to Google’s new shortcut-heavy newsreader, has added all sorts of key commands to help users navigate through their feeds. Unfortunately, now I can’t hit Command-W to close my browser window. Nor can I hit Command-Q to quit or Command-T to open a new tab. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on, but it’s definitely Bloglines because if I’m not on a Bloglines page, the key-commands begin working again.

My first reaction was that although this is obviously caused by Bloglines, it’s a bug in Safari that it’s even possible for a site to cause such a crippling. But then I switched over to Firefox and the same thing happened! What the hell! Any key-command gurus know what’s going on here? And is this happening on PCs too? It’s very very weird. I’ve never seen a web page that can cripple a browser like this.

Problem #2: Unread vs. Keep New

As part of the feature upgrade, Bloglines added something I’ve been wishing for a long time they had: the ability to differentiate between items that are truly unread vs. items I’ve specifically indicated to keep as unread. The difference here being that the latter are news items I’ve specifically noted as important, but I just haven’t had the time to go through them yet.

So the good news is that this feature has been added. Yay. The bad news is that the interface for it is not intuitive and it’s already annoying me. To the right is a diagram of the current implementation. Notice that some entries have one number and others have two separated by a colon.

Take the Kottke example. “0:9” means that there are 0 items I haven’t read and 9 items that I’ve specifically indicated deserve further review when I find a moment. Other entries, like Meyerweb, have only one number. The “2” means simply that there are two unread items. These numbers change wildly from month to month from me. Sometimes a site like Kottke will have zero “keep new” items and Meyerweb will have four… it just depends on where I’m at in my neurotic newsreading cycle.

The problem with this interface is a subtle one: First of all, colons imply either “time” or a “ratio”… neither of which apply in any helpful way to this situation. Second of all, there’s no intuitive clue as to whether the first number means “unread” and the second number means “keep new” or vice versa. Bloglines is forcing users to develop this association over time and it’s just not very helpful to do that.

To the right is what I propose. Notice the lack of colons. Notice also that the “unread” number is the only number in bold… thus more closely mirroring what Bloglines users are already used to: bold equals unread. The “keep new” number is set in light gray and unbolded to help you establish a quick connection that it represents a totally different thing. Furthermore, it mirrors the mail application analogy that what you haven’t read is bold and everything else isn’t.

So anyway, that’s my two cents about the Bloglines update. Please address these two issues and I’ll continue to sing your praises as the best way to consume RSS on the web.

38 comments on “Bloglines Gets Key Commands, Hijacks Browsers”. Leave your own?
  1. Definatly is an issue with bloglines, disables all keyboard shortcuts in any browser. (OS X 10.4.2 & Safari)

  2. Mark Wubben says:

    You can use access keys, which will override the browser behaviour. And it’s a HTML attribute…. On Windows it’ll probably be Alt+W, but on the Mac that’s Command+W.

  3. That makes a lot of sense, especially for [2]. I use Bloglines a lot, and I can tell it’s a good idea.

    Regarding [1], since I’m on Windows, I haven’t noticed anything.

  4. Sam Hastings says:

    I’m a Windows user and my keyboard shortcuts have been broken by these new changes implemented by Bloglines :(

  5. Lola Lee says:

    Did not they test it in-house before releasing to the public?

  6. Mark Wubben says:

    Things like this, I think they just didn’t realize. “Wow, this makes things so easy! Let’s roll it out!” and then you forget side-effects.

  7. Zeerus says:

    I’ve never really used Bloglines for anything, but it seems pretyt interesting. I wonder if this shortcut bug is the same across all browsers, or is it Safari only? You can definitely tell these new features were forced thanks to pressure from Google.

  8. James Asher says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but in Firefox 1.5b – soon to be 1.5rc1 – Ctrl keys work just fine.

    Can anyone else verify that?

  9. Scott says:

    I see a bigger problem–some of the characters from whichever font it is that you mac folks are getting on bloglines looks quite similar to Comic Sans when bolded. Truly a shame… If I ever switch to Mac am I doomed to be haunted by reminders of 1998 by this font? :)

  10. neil says:

    Interesting. Not only is Bloglines new hotkeys breaking system shortcuts for me – my Powermate doesn’t work at all.

  11. @James Asher: Yep, Ctrl+T and such does indeed work on Firefox 1.5b. But it’s just one browser out of many, so it should certainly be fixed on the site.

    As for problem #2, while I don’t find it annoying the way it is, Mike’s suggestion would certainly be better.

  12. John says:

    I have unsuccessfully tried to write a greasemonkey script to remove the Bloglines hotkeys. It doesn’t seem like it would be hard to do, but I can’t remove the onkeypress event listener and/or disable the “hotkey” function that it calls. Anyone have an idea on how to accomplish that?

  13. @Mark: Accesskey shortcuts are invoked by pressing Control + Key on the Mac, not Command. In Safari, pressing Command + a number key will load the corresponding bookmark from your Bookmarks Bar.

  14. Paul says:

    It works fine in Camino on OSX, no problems, no ‘hijacking’ of keys. It isn’t an OS issue, it is a Safari BUG.

  15. Mike D. says:

    Scott: Cmon! That’s Verdana, baby! It just looks a little different (better IMHO) on Macs because we have true anti-aliased fonts. ClearType isn’t really true anti-aliasing… it’s more just “smoothing”.

    Paul: Read my entry and the comments. It is *not* a Safari issue. It’s happening on Firefox too, and apparently also on PCs.

  16. Paul,
    Regardless of whether it’s a browser bug or not – thats still how the site functions in safari. So yes, it is “hijacking” my keyboard.

    I’m having an entirely new bug thanks to the upgrade. I’m using safari 1.3 on panther, and now when I log in to my feeds, I often end up on a blank bloglines page with only the vertical dividing line showing. I have to type in the URL of the myblogs page in the address bar to get to it. I don’t know if it is Safari-specific, because the bug does not consistently occur when I use Safari (sometimes it behaves correctly).

    Anyway, even if the site works fine in Camino because that browser functions correctly and doesn’t allow “hijacking” of common OS key combos, it’s still the responsibility of developers to make sure that sites look and behave correctly across all of the browsers they support. It would be like me saying I’m not going to fix display irregularities caused by IE’s shoddy box model because those are IE bugs, not bugs in my code.

  17. Tom Quinn says:

    I am using WinXP and Firefox 1.07, and keyboard shortcuts work fine for me when using Bloglines.

  18. Ben Lowery says:

    Hi Mike (et. all),

    We (myself and the rest of the Bloglines team) saw this post earlier today and have come up with what appears to be a fix for the first issue you mentioned. Please give the site another shot in Safari and let me know what you find.

    Please feel free to contact me at the e-mail address I’ve supplied if you have further problems, or just want to chat about the Bloglines interface. We’re always looking for suggestions and thanks for reporting this issue!

  19. Ctrl shortcuts work fine for me. Definitely something that needs to work properly on the Mac though – and be an option (as it is in Gmail).

  20. Now thats what I call customer service. Works perfectly in safari now.

    Way to go bloglines! You’ve converted me from just being a user to being a fan.

    This makes me hopeful for the power of blogging. Customers can affect change by merely promoting discussion on their blogs.

  21. Yannick says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but in Firefox 1.5b – soon to be 1.5rc1 – Ctrl keys work just fine.

    Can anyone else verify that? – James Archer

    Yes James, in Firefox 1.5 for Windows it works just fine.

  22. Mike D. says:

    Thanks Ben. That seems to have fixed the key-commands in both of my browsers. Cheers!

  23. J. J. says:

    Hmm, the key-commands may be fixed, but Ben totally ignored issue 2. Oh well, 1 for 2 isn’t too bad!

  24. lr says:

    Amen to all… along with never clearing the cache. (Notice that? Old feeds from a year ago still cached after web site/software/hosting changes.) Hmm…

    Bloglines still has what I’m basically looking for: Simple categorization without “tags”, “folksonomies” and all the other (already old) buzzwords of late. Otherwise, I’d be on rojo.

    I just want my news! Can’t anybody let me do exactly what I to do with it and anymore?

  25. Ben Lowery says:

    JJ: Rest assured that Mike’s proposal has not been ignored. :)

  26. Dave says:

    did not even realise point one but will now check, thanks mike

  27. Paul says:

    I like the concept, but I have 2 issues

    1, I don’t understand the logic of the choices of keys.

    It seems more logical (given their layout on the keyboard), that “j” would be used to go to the previous article and “k” would be for the next article.

    2. For me, in Safari 2 and Tiger 10.4.2, using “s” to go to the next sub actually skips a subscription. If I have 7 subscriptions, while viewing the first sub, pressing “s” goes to subscription 3 and pressing “s” again goes to subscription 5.

    –>Paul B.

  28. Happy Steve says:

    @Paul: The keys are based on the text editor “vi” which uses “j” to move down one line and “k” to move up. Gmail also uses these same keys to move down and up the list.

  29. Al Abut says:

    Nice writeup, Mike, I had the same mixed reaction to the (unread:saved) feature debut and instantly groked your take on how it could be better. That’s the small but important difference between just complaining and providing useful feedback – hope they use it just as is.

  30. eston says:

    This makes me hopeful for the power of blogging. Customers can affect change by merely promoting discussion on their blogs.

    Maybe so, Rob, but you’ve got to have a fairly influential one first. :P

    Maybe I’ll try Bloglines for once after all. I rarely use RSS feeds; I find it easier to just open a ton of Firefox tabs in the morning.

  31. Josh says:

    I just hit refresh on bloglines, and saw your excellent suggestion take effect. sweeeet. I was starting to go cross-eyed w/ the old design.

    (Editor’s Note: Awesome. Just noticed that myself as well. Big ups to Ben and Bloglines!)

  32. Jason Jang says:

    Yea! i saw the changes as per your suggestions too! Much better!

  33. John says:

    Now THAT’s the power of the lazyweb – you blog about something, and it happens! I must agree with your point 2, I hated the previous way they displayed the new vs. marked for later posts, and now they’ve changed it! good call!

  34. Al Abut says:

    Now that I actually see it in action, I think it’d be even better if the unread and saved indicators were separate links, so it didn’t clump everything together when you’re reading. It’d be the equivalent of looking at the front page of the newspaper versus in your personal reference file.


  35. Mike D. says:

    Al: I think that’s a good idea, but the way it is right now doesn’t bother me too much. Unread stuff is on top, marked stuff is on bottom.

  36. Chris Tucker says:

    Wow… Since you have the power, wouldn’t it be better if a particular feed was in bold only if there were NEW unread items. That would make it much easier to scan down the list for items I haven’t actually read (vs things I just marked to save for some reason)

  37. Al Abut says:

    Mike: Agreed, it’s already a huge improvement over the ratio-looking display of before and doesn’t bug me. It’s more of a “well, now that I know they’re responsive and we’re already noodling on this…” kind of thing.

    What you describe about unread items sinking to the bottom is only true when you read feed by feed, but not when you click on an entire folder, then it’s all munged together and you have to skip over big islands of saved items to get to the new stuff. The needle hunt for the one new entry can be pretty annoying sometimes. Folders are how I primarily read updates most of the time and bloglines’ folders were the main thing that made me happily switch away from netnewswire lite, so I definitely think separate links for new vs saved posts could be an improvement.

  38. Ben Lowery says:

    Hi all,

    Just checking in. I’m glad that the overall response to our response seems to be pretty positive. We are certainly listening to all the comments that come in about the Bloglines interface and user experience, and expect to keep seeing new stuff coming.

    Rather than hijacking Mike’s blog (thanks Mike!), there are also forums at If folks want to post suggestions and comments there, we’d really appreciate it.

    Thanks, –b

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