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What Readers Need vs. What Devices Can Do

Rethinking how to pick ebook enhancements

Most ebook experiments do a better job of showing off our devices rather than solving specific reader problems. We get video extras, web links, piped in Twitter feeds. Problem is, these “enhancements” often answer the wrong question: what can we add? In an age of Information Overload, readers don’t need more; they need help. A video of battle footage may be fun to watch, and a simple way to add what’s not possible in print. But what students of World War Two often struggle with is much more mundane: remembering key events for that upcoming test or prepping for an essay they’re writing.

Rather than starting from what the iPad or EPUB 3 makes possible, we should instead think about where print fails to solve readers’ needs. By keeping a simple question in mind regarding any enhancement — what’s it for? — I think we can create digital books that are superior to print in some really tangible ways.

Here are five different areas that offer some reader-friendly opportunities.

Comprehension

When readers encounter terms they don’t fully understand — melody, histogram, mothers-in-law — comprehension suffers. The best solution, of course, is writing that’s clear and engaging. But figuring how much detail to provide is tough. So we often use presentation tools like sidebars and glossaries to aid those who need extra guidance. But think about the distraction we impose on a reader’s flow when a book forces her to leave the main text and go elsewhere. A simple, unobtrusively designed pop-up box is a great alternative. It’s guidance at the point of need. Inkling does this nicely:

Inkling's built-in glossaries

Quick explanations, a tap away, maintain the reading flow.

Similarly, video often gets mentioned as great for topics that are tough to describe in text: rolling sushi, for example. But it’s easy to idealize the power of video, and overlook some fundamental shortcomings: things like scanning to find the point you want and reviewing a clip at your own pace. Re-reading complex text is something we all do as readers. Most videos — or, more accurately, video-playing tools — don’t make it easy to review particular sections.

The app Hello Cupcake includes a really nifty stop-motion control for its visual instructions. Simply trace your finger rightward (to advance) or leftward (to review) and the steps unfurl at a pace that’s simple to follow.

Stop-motion video and a scrubber control

The Hello Cupcake app lets you use your finger as a “scrubber” to slowly review demo steps in this stop-motion video.

Memory

A key part of understanding a book’s meaning lies in remembering what the text says. We draw conclusions and pass judgements only when we’re able to stash away mental nuggets: a character’s actions, events in a country’s history, and so on.

But reading today is fraught with distractions. Maintaining focus and sustaining attention is tough. Even our reading schedules are a problem. We start books, put them down for two days, and then have a hard time recalling characters and concepts when we return. Sure, in an ideal world you’d simply concentrate more closely and take careful notes. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

Why not, instead, think about instrumenting books so they help us remember? A year or so ago I roughed out an idea I called “Character Notes”: brief character summaries, available at a tap and just as quickly dismissible.

Character notes

Short summaries help readers recall a character’s key info.

My design goal was to aid readers of a novel who just need a quick memory jiggle. Amazon has since unveiled a similar service by wiring up many of its ebooks to notes from its Shelfari subsidiary. (Tap the menu icon in any Kindle app and you’ll find this info in the Book Extras section.) The Atavist offers similar help, written by its own authors, in its non-fiction articles.

Is it worth the time it would take a publisher or author to create these notes? I’d certainly pay a buck or so more for the version of any novel that had this built in.

Interpretation

A simple example of baking an interpretive aid into a book comes from the goofily named Shmoop — a small competitor to book summary services CliffsNotes and SparkNotes. Regardless of how you feel about the ethics of these businesses, Shmoop’s implementation is interesting. They bundle the plot summaries and canned interpretations with the underlying original text. In their edition of My Antonia, for example, the reader is a simple tap away from a brief blurb on the meaning of various key passages throughout the novel. Of course, this could be done via foot- or end-notes. But the digital version makes it much easier to maintain the reading flow.

A much more intriguing idea comes from media designer Brett Victor. One of the essays on his must-read site (worrydream.com) is called “Explorable Explanations”. In it he demonstrates three different ways that interactive documents can help readers analyze an article’s key points. In one example there’s a passage on the revenue that vehicle license fees would generate for California state parks. At first glance it looks like the same kind of prose you’d see in an opinion column or a textbook. But thanks to some underlying JavaScript, you can use your finger or mouse to adjust some of the main assumptions…and then watch, live, as the changing base values affect the conclusions later in the piece. Neat.

An interactive document that lets you change the underlying assumptions

Change some of the text's assumptions, and watch the author's analysis update, on the fly.

Relevance

Print books — and their digital replicas — are designed as “one size fits all” products. But not every reader needs the same serving size. A traveler to Brazil in the fall doesn’t need a whole chapter about February’s Carnival. And a vegetable hater reading Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything ends up with many recipes he rarely consults. My point here isn’t to eliminate these irrelevant sections. After all, when a meatatarian’s vegan sister visits she might want to borrow his iPad to cook. Instead, think about how a digital book can highlight and even internally promote some material more prominently than other. The iPhone version of Bittman’s book moves in this direction by using its start screen to showcase seasonally relevant recipes:

The changing TOC on an iPhone cookbook app

When summer arrives, this cookbook app changes its start screen to highlight grilling recipes.

It’s also worth thinking about designing books that expand and contract in response to how much time a reader has. In other words, think about providing an executive summary for readers who want a quick take versus the unabridged edition for those ready to do a deep dive.

For example, what if I’m interested in Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. But if the full book requires something like 15 or 20 hours of reading, perhaps that’s time I don’t have. Here’s where a book that presents multiple versions of itself could be really useful. Startup Semi-Linear is taking a crack at that concept with its Citia line of condensed editions. (Disclosure: I’m working with them on editorial development and product design.) The idea with Citia is more than simply shrinking the big book down into some kind of Reader’s Digest edition. Citia extracts a book’s key concepts and uses a nice visual layout to let readers explore the work in a way that interests them. So now you’ve got a chance to get to know Kevin’s ideas in something like two hours. Plus, you can navigate through his book-sized thoughts in a way that isn’t constrained by the linear path of sequential pages.

A visual of the Citia version of "What Technology Wants"

The Citia version of “What Technology Wants” offers a shorter, non-linear alternative to the full edition.

Extraction & Action

Reading a book and using its guidance are often things that want to happen in very different places. Maybe you browse a cookbook at night, in bed, for ideas. But when it’s shopping time the recipe’s ingredient list would be much more helpful at the grocery store. Especially with reference and how-to books the ability to export key nuggets is a huge advantage that digital books can offer.

Email-ready ingredient lists are by now a pretty familiar feature in digital cookbooks. The How to Cook Everything apps add a nice twist. Many recipes come with a bunch of variations built in: use zucchini or summer squash or eggplant.

The iPad app edition of "How to Cook Everything"

Decide which ingredient option you like and the choice ends up in your portable shopping list.

Little radio buttons next to each of these choices let you pick the option you want. The ingredient you choose is what gets dispatched to your emailed shopping list. Nice.

Jamie Oliver’s cookbook app, Jamie’s Recipes, has a nice feature for iPad-using cooks when they’re in the kitchen. There, your hands are often greased up or wet, making it tough to swipe or tap the screen to move through a recipe’s steps.  The app’s solution is a little mic icon which, when tapped, lets you say “Next” or “Previous” for hands-free operation. It’s super useful.

Another example in this category comes from the iBird line of apps. These field guides have a wonderful collection of bird vocalization recordings. This audio does double duty: helping at-home browsers study up on what’s out there, and serving as a lure out in the field. The app is both teacher and tool, helping attract the attention of birds you want to photograph.

So. Five different ways that digital books can address specific reader needs: comprehension, memory, interpretation, relevance, and extraction/action. If you think about the Kindle’s success, a big reason is how the device and the buying process solve a very specific problem for serious readers: having something to read when and where we want it.

Why haven’t enhanced ebooks taken off in a similar way? I think a big barrier lies in the way we’ve approached this whole question of what to add. It’s time to stop thinking about what our devices make possible and instead focus on what readers need.