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I use Google Reader for my RSS feeds. As seen in the image, along the left column there are counts for unread items.

My question is this: is showing an unread count a good design decision in terms of the psychology of the user? For myself personally, it reminds me of email, in which I feel that every time I have a number in bold, that I need to get rid of that number by reading emails. That is not necessarily a bad thing for email, but for a reader, I do not know if it is a desirable response to bring to the user.

I know Twitter doesn't have any such thing, and I imagine it could be somewhat annoying if it did. Facebook is a little bit different, in that it has an expandable notification that says something like "7 New Stories."

So my question is, is such an unread count desirable? Is there another alternative that notifies a user of unread items that doesn't produce a sense of urgency? Or is such a notification even necessary? Or am I the only one who feels this way?

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Twitter does have such a thing: it says "X New Tweets" when people you follow post while you are on the home page. But it is kind of annoying. –  tajmo Dec 29 '11 at 21:50
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Good question, I think the focus here lies on the wording. '20 Unread posts' (slightly negative, and demanding action from you. You're behind, read the posts) or '20 new posts' (positive, there's something new for you to read). –  Wousser Dec 30 '11 at 3:02
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2 Answers

An unread count is neither desirable or undesirable... it is in the nature of the sites you are mentioning. If Google Reader, or Instagram, or Read It Later, or Feedly wouldn't have an unread or new counter, the user would have to dig in their feeds to find news and remember which was the last one he or she read.

You can find it annoying, addictive, productive... but without it news aggregator apps would not be fitting their purpose: keep user updated on their reads.

If the app is fitting another purpose, such as streaming headlines like Twitter or nosing on your friend's activities like Facebook, then counters are not necessary. (Note that both Twitter and Facebook do have notifications, but not for each peace of news it is served to the user, just for the ones that need attention).

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"If Google Reader ... wouldn't have an unread or new counter, the user would have to dig in their feeds to find news and remember which was the last one he or she read." I'm not sure I completely agree with that. I think you could separate new from old without a counter, although perhaps a notification of some sort is still necessary. –  Chance Dec 30 '11 at 15:56
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In this there are two obvious stories:

  1. The number of new items in your feed is desirable for those who stay on top of the feed.

  2. For those that would like to scroll around every now and then it is probably undesirable and feels like a weight on your shoulders to read them all.

Because of these two different scenario's i would say a less obvious way to point out the new items would fit.

I personally feel the Twitter way (x new tweets) feels something in the middle for me because it is on the top of the feed, mostly out of sight (story 2). I only scroll up when i want to see if something is new (story 1).

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