Less choice, more power: Zite and Palimpsest

Technology gives us an amazing breadth of information, from email and Twitter to task lists on OmniFocus. Yet the sheer size of what’s out there comes at a cost; the decisions of what to tackle next can be overwhelming, stressful and, given the frequent contextual switches between programs, inefficient.

As a result I’ve lately found myself turning less and less to news sites, RSS and Twitter to catch up with what’s happening. Instead I’m increasingly relying on information sources that eschew decisions, pare down content, and make a conscious effort to slow the user down. Two iPad reading apps fit this goal perfectly: Zite and Palimpsest.

Both apps intentionally limit what’s on screen at once, emphasizing a “lean back”, more methodical browsing pace. Zite packages information from the user’s Twitter and RSS feeds in a magazine like format; each page rarely has more than five or six articles. Palimpsest takes this limitation even further, presenting only a single curated article to the user at a time. The experience is a welcome contrast to the “lean forward”, rapid scanning behavior that predominates nearly all RSS and Twitter clients.

In addition, there’s little user input over the content each app displays: Zite only shows a select number of articles the app deems relevant upon launch. Palimpsest rarely adds more than five to ten articles a day, and once an article is read through or skipped over, it’s pretty much gone for good. Both applications limit customization as well, with only a “thumbs up/thumbs down” option to help each app tailor content around the user’s interests.

Yet it’s the very lack of control and choice in both apps that I find so comforting. It takes me only a few minutes to run through the articles on Zite or Palimpsest and I still have enough trust in the app to feel caught up. There’s no archive or unread messages count to worry about like with email and RSS, nor is there an endless, unfiltered stream a la Twitter. In addition, by presenting a significant portion of each story’s content instead of just the headline or a 140 character snippet, both apps force me to slow down and actually discover interesting content I would have otherwise skipped over.

Overall, I spend enough of my day on RSS and Twitter scanning while yet not necessarily digesting. Both Zite and Palimpsest are an excellent remedy to this problem. Hopefully it’s the start of a trend that will extend to more apps and platforms in the future.