Digital Reading: Users’ Habits Should Inform Design

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

They research, analyze, present, advise, and inform. And, oh yes, they also read.

While publishing professionals have been struggling to transmute print books into e-gold in the marketplace, these digital professionals, academics and consultants have been looking at books and seeing ways it might be done better.

I talked to Steve Portigal of consumer research firm Portigal Consulting in Pacifica, California about the research project he conducted in the summer of 2009, called “Reading Ahead,” on individual reading habits. Portigal’s project, which can be viewed here, presented some compelling arguments for serious and expert research into user habits and preferences.

As the summary states:

  • Books are more than just pages with words and pictures; they are imbued with personal history, future aspirations, and signifiers of identity
  • The unabridged reading experience includes crucial events that take place before and after the elemental moments of eyes-looking-at-words
  • Digital reading privileges access to content while neglecting other essential aspects of this complete reading experience
  • There are opportunities to enhance digital reading by replicating, referencing, and replacing social (and other) aspects of traditional book reading.

We discussed what’s happened in the months since the project ended more than a year ago. It takes a long time to stop seeing the objects of the study through a researcher’s analytical lens, said Portigal. Although the study gathered great feedback from individuals and professionals, he still doesn’t see a lot of people trying to really rethink what it means for “analog activity to become digital activity.”

Still, the primary goal of digital-book development should be creating good user experiences: creating things people can use that don’t disappoint on some social, physical, or conceptual level that the designers and manufacturers hadn’t known about or taken into account.

There exist, of course, basic principles, but Portigal notes that “we’re at that inflection point where we bring our analog expectations to digital. It’s hard to adopt new technology if it’s not done really well, and we don’t have a model for a digital reading exerience.”

Show Readers What They Could Gain

The iPad is a big cultural story, said Portigal, because it changes our reading behavior. It is innovative and digital, but it isn’t a book.

“New behaviors are emerging as a result of digital experience,” he explained. We can handle operations that change—for example, that have preference settings—and there are actions that are moot now (for example, removing the jacket from a hardcover book before reading). But there’s so much potential for new functions and innovations; are readers ready for that? They lose something from not having the physical book, but don’t yet know how much they may have to gain.

E-book designers and developers have to show it to them. Editors should “look for ‘plus-ones’. What are some ways to do a value-add for the existing experience? Something provocative, but something that can be turned off!”

Portigal suggests we tease and challenge the reader to learn more about what a digital reading experience can offer, and then let us know how they like or dislike a feature. Maybe readers will be able to navigate content based on reading expectations: What kinds of books do people read in bed? before sleeping? In transit? Readers may want to choose their content based on feeling, word length, density of prose, device and platform, for different situations and activities.

After the study was published, Portigal and the design magazine Core 77 co-sponsored a one-hour design challenge that drew provocative and boundary-hopping entries (view the winners here) that may, a year later, still inspire professionals to think outside the rectangle.

Open Standards Encourage Innovation

Open standards offer the greatest opportunities, in Portigal’s (and others’) opinion. Allowing developers to innovate with widgets and plug-ins has sparked great feature delivery for mobile and web consumers—why not in e-books?

For his own reading (he’s a Stephen King fan), Portigal still favors print. He was recently introduced to the iPad and liked it: “The most virtual-reality [device] I’ve tried: quite exciting and seductive.” He’d like a lower-than-hardcover price for a digital experience (audiobook versions just won’t do; “it must be through the eyes,”), but more convenience still isn’t enough to convert him to digital. And he likes the shareability of print books, a feature that e-book producers will be wrestling with for some time to come.

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group specifically for editors working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.

2 thoughts on “Digital Reading: Users’ Habits Should Inform Design

  1. Jeff Kittle

    I’m an avid reader and am currently trying to write a novel, being a writer has always been a dream of mine. I’ve been following the e-book trend and at frist I was not getting jiggy with it, I like to read real books. But you can’t fight progress so with that said I feel one possible experience enhancing addon/plugin for an e-book would be the ability to have audio clips or maybe even a complete sound track for the book. I listen to music when I read, I’m sure I’m not alone in that. How about animation? I can see using animated images in some situations, but no images of characters. I believe people read because they like to use their imagination, don’t take that away from them.

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  2. Pingback: All This ChittahChattah | Steve interviewed in Digital Book World

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