Google Reader alternatives for Firefox

If you use Firefox and need an alternative to Google reader, Feedly isn’t the only option.

First, you can try the live bookmarks feature that’s part of Firefox. Here are instructions on how to use it.

Second, there are plenty of extensions available for reading web feeds. I used to use Sage. Other popular ones:

Third, if you use Mozilla Thunderbird, the email and newsgroups app built on Mozilla, it contains a great rss reader.  For instructions on how to use it visit Thunderbird support – How to Subscribe to News Feeds and Blogs.

How to disable new tab page in Firefox

Sometimes people complain about Firefox lacking a feature that is already there, but they didn’t notice. A common one is the ability to prevent Firefox from displaying thumbnails of websites you often visit when opening a new tab.

I thought most people knew how to do it, until I saw one of the Firefox developers not know about it!

Here’s how to disable it:

Just click on the tile icon in the top-right corner of the new tab page.

Need help with Firefox in Toronto?

If you need help with a Firefox problem and live in Toronto, send me an email and I can meet you in person at a public place to help solve your Firefox problem.

I’ve been wanting to put together some sort of system to allow support community members to schedule in-person sessions with nearby users at either public places or Mozilla offices. The biggest barrier of quality for online support is communication. We rely on the user to describe their problem through mostly text, and they usually don’t give all necessary info. That’s why we try to use screenshots and videos. Being able to provide in-person support not only eliminates that barrier, but it showcases the power of community in a big way that creates a great support experience.

There’s no system like that for Mozilla, but that doesn’t prevent me from doing it on my own. 🙂

You can now set the URL Firefox goes to when opening a new tab

In my last post, I talked about Firefox now indicating which feed items are unread. In this post, I’d like to post expert picks about the other change I think people should be more aware of – you can now set the URL Firefox goes to when opening a new tab.

This one’s pretty simple.

  1. In the Firefox location bar, type about:config and press Enter.
  2. Click I’ll be careful, I Promise!
  3. Search for the preference: browser.newtab.url

  4. Double-click on it, and set the value to whatever URL you want.

The default value is about:newtab.
If you want to set it to open the default home page, set the value to about:home.

Live bookmarks now indicate which items are unread

Firefox was updated this week with a new home page and new “new tab” page, but it also contains a couple of new things that I really think people should be more aware of. I’ll spend this blog post telling you about the first one.

Since the first version of Firefox, it has had a feature called live bookmarks, which are bookmark folders that load web feeds. It’s a nice technology demo, but I have trouble finding a practical use for it. As I said in 2005…it does not indicate which RSS items I have read, and which ones are new. I don’t want to have to reread through the list of items on every RSS feed to see if I recognize the titles.

In the latest update, Firefox now indicates which feed items are unread!

When the feature landed on the beta channel, I decided to try switching from my current feed reader to live bookmarks, and so far it hasn’t been bad. I set up a folder in my bookmarks called “Web Feeds“, put all my web feeds in it, and hovering the mouse over a feed makes the list of items load.

Tips on how to deal with disgruntled users

This is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. In many community driven support venues, I see some bad patterns in the way users are treated. People who may be knowledgeable about Firefox end up giving bad user support, because they’re not being empathetic or approaching support with the intent of helping users.

Reasons for this?

  • Even with real names, many people behave less empathetic on the internet. It’s too easy to compare home insurance companies and forget that the person you are talking to is a real human.
  • The people helping are mostly volunteers, who don’t feel obligated to be nice, or represent Mozilla.
  • Also with volunteers, many are involved in support simply because they know the technical solution to some issues, and have no formal training in support.

Those factors tend to create a community of geeks lacking the social skills to help novice users. Most people in the community just haven’t considered this. If a fellow user is being uncivil, it’s natural to flame back.

It’s important to remember:

  • Empathy: If you have a problem with your cable, and call your cable company tech support, how would you like to be treated? They would never say “PEBCAK” or “RTFM“.
  • The user is having a problem with Firefox, and it’s obviously of some importance to them, because they made the effort to find the support venue, register, and post about it. If they’ve gone that extent, we should expect a level of frustration. It would be nice if most users posting in a support forum were calm and civil, but that’s not the nature of the beast.

I’m not saying the customer is always right; I’m saying don’t argue with them. Here are some tips everyone can use when giving technical support:

  • Remind yourself of your purpose there. It should be to help others, not to show off your knowledge of Firefox. Don’t expect to be treated like royalty by users, just because you’re helping them. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” does not fly with software users. If you don’t think you’re getting enough appreciation, let it be known to the forum manager, not the user.
  • Packaging, packaging, packaging! Almost any criticism of the user can be phrased in a way that appears helpful rather than confrontational. If your mind says “How in the world am I supposed to help you, when you provide no details and no URL? I’m not a mind-reader“, then say “We’ll need some more info about your Firefox setup. Here are the details we need and how to provide them…” There’s a big difference between telling a user he/she should have searched the web before posting, and letting them know that they can search the web before posting.
  • You can calm a user down by explaining things. Frustration comes from lack of understanding. A couple of years ago, I went to see my dentist about a pain I was having. He showed me an x-ray of my tooth, explained what the problem was and why it was happening. He then told me what he planned to do to fix the problem, warned me of any side-effects, and told me how much it would cost. I walked out of there feeling much more confident and relaxed about the situation. I also thought “So much of that applies to user support“. Instead of simply giving the user instructions on how to fix a problem, explain what you think the cause of the problem probably is, and what the solution is. Then tell them how to carry out the solution.
  • If you’re not having the same problem as the user, say so. It doesn’t directly help the user, but it shows that you’re making an effort to help, which the user will appreciate. It shows that the problem may not be a bug, which will discourage other users from chiming in just to rant about the product. It encourages people to give details, which a good user support person loves like crack.
  • Act as if you are talking to the user in-person.
  • Don’t get hung up on protocol. This is something I see a lot of in newsgroups. If the user starts a new thread to respond to your reply in the original thread, or puts the entire question in the subject and nothing in the message body, mention it, but don’t focus on it. That takes focus away from the issue they posted about. Better yet, don’t mention it at all until after you’ve solved their problem. At that point, they will have gained some respect for what you have to say.
  • If the user just wants to argue, disengage. Some users just want to rant. It’s good to offer to help and direct them where to submit feedback, but if you’ve already done that and they continue to rant, leave it alone.

Quantity vs quality is hard. With SUMO focusing on making sure every question gets answered, making those answers better quality can take time away from another user getting any answer at all. One good way to solve that is snippets that provide good detailed explanations, instructions, and links. Right now, you can use an extension called Clippings, which allows you to automatically paste canned responses you’ve saved. It works on both Firefox and Thunderbird, so you can use it on web-forums as well as mailing lists and newsgroups. You can find a list of canned responses to use on the Mozilla wiki. Soon the SUMO support forum will have canned responses built in.

What should Mozilla do when a volunteer is not being empathetic?

That’s a natural extension to the above issue. I have some scattered thoughts on that. I still need to organize them, and will probably start a thread in the SUMO community forum to discuss.

If you’ve made it this far into this blog post, thanks for reading.

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SeaMonkey Help is back…with screencasts!

Back in 2007, I stopped maintaining my SeaMonkey Help website. Others took over maintaining the site, but it wasn’t long before they stopped maintaining it as well. That wouldn’t be a big deal if it weren’t for one thing: SeaMonkey 2. SeaMonkey 2 was a huge change, making most of the site incorrect.

I recently decided to revive the website, and at least bring it back up to date. In addition to correcting out of date content, I had learned a lot about technical writing from working on the SUMO project, and wanted to apply that to my SeaMonkey Help site. I also had the tools to make screenshots and screencasts and learned the enormous value they add to support.

As I started looking at all the things I need to do to update the site, it was clear that this was a huge task. For over 200 items, I had to:

  • convert markup to HTML5 (to include screencasts)
  • remove obsolete content
  • test each help item to see if it still applied to the latest version of SeaMonkey
  • fix the text content (and markup)

And all of that was before enhancing the content with screenshots and screencasts.

I was in the shower thinking about how to plan this massive update, when I thought “Why am I even bothering to provide text and images, when I can replace it all with screencasts?

  • Updating the markup is dead easy.
  • The understandability goes way up.
  • I have section indexes, and the page titles are searchable, so finding pages should not be a problem.

For some of the content, text is better, and any css that needs to be copied was added below the screencast, so there are some exceptions. But for the most part, it is a screencast-only help site for best high pressure showerhead

How to make Firefox use DuckDuckGo

Don’t like Google’s new privacy policy?
Want to change the search engine Firefox uses when you type something in the location bar?

Here’s how to make Firefox use DuckDuckGo:

  1. In the Firefox location bar, type about:config and press Enter.
  2. Click I’ll be careful, I Promise!
  3. Search for the preference: keyword.URL

  4. Double-click on it, and set the value to:

  5. Click OK.

For more information, read the Location bar search article in Firefox Help.