Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reading on the iPad Part 2: Background

The effect of reading goals and habits

As I worked through the different publications and interfaces I discovered that I had different goals and habits for reading the different sources. The ability of the interface to support my preferred reading strategy and meet my goal was the key to whether the experience was a good or bad one.

With a book, I start at the beginning and read every page to the end. For a time I tried to read the newspapers and magazines that way as well. As one might expect, it didn't work. There are just not enough hours in the day to read every word that comes in a subscription. In retrospect, I'm surprised it took me so long to realize that one has to triage and to become quite discriminating over what one spends time reading.

Theoretically, a good table of contents with well-written summaries would clue a reader into whether or not an article is desirable to read. This does not play out well in practice. Sometimes the goal is to harvest a few key facts either because the topic is familiar and needs only an update or because the details are simply not of interest. Other times the goal is to drill down into minutiae to flesh out a rich understanding. I often scan for the main ideas and viewpoints to compare and contrast it with my own. Most of these activities don't fit with a workflow of reading a summary for a yes/no "go to article" decision. Generally, by flipping every page, my eye, aided by the artful use of layout and typography is able to do what needs to be done to meet my goal.

I'll mention in passing that it seems publishers of glossy magazines of general interest seem to put a lot of effort into supporting the "flip all the pages" approach. Yes, there's a table of contents, but it seems much more like a teaser to get you interested by the time you get to the feature. This aspect came through most clearly when I attempted to read Forbes through the Kindle interface. I believe that the professional societies whose publications I read are recognizing this aspect a little slowly, but acting on it usefully going forward.

To app or not to app?

I've seen a lot of different approaches to online reading in my time. My online reading began with documentation clack-clack-clack'ing out of a Model 33 Teletype® in high school. At MIT, I used Multics, ITS, and early distributions of UNIX™, each with their own unique approaches. I watched as the online reading experience evolved. I remember my excitement when the Apple Macintosh brought to the masses the online experience I'd sampled on the Alto from Xerox PARC and the MIT Lisp Machine.  Later I was a software developer for the Tulip project which was an early attempt to serve technical journals online instead of on paper. Through all that time I watched a cycle from special purpose reader application to generic browser and back again.

For the Tulip project, I' developed an online reader application that could present a new page in what was then a surprisingly quick two seconds. I felt confusion and consternation when my customers abandoned my reader for the much slower generic interface through the Mosaic web browser. For those customers, the added step of installing software trumped performance concerns.

More than a decade after Tulip, I hoped we would understand the reading experience well enough to have produced a generic browser up to the reading task and that a basic understanding of usability would have become widely enough understood to provide a baseline for all reader applications, but no.

On the iPad, I used publication-specific applications, the broader-based iBooks reader which acted as a generic PDF reader, and the Safari and Atomic browsers to operate interfaces through the publisher's web sites. Sometimes an app was best, and sometimes web browser or iBooks PDF reader was best. Here again was a surprising observation: I expected a custom reader would have a richer set of user behaviors and controls that would be the significant differentiator. Instead the following aspects mattered most:
  • Did the reader offer a good, "turn all the pages" interface when I wanted it?
  • Did the publication offer a good table of contents summary and easy fetch when I wanted it?
  • Was the content in front of me when I wanted to read it or did I have to wait?
  • Was the interface familiar, sensible, and obvious?

I use these criteria in my evaluations of the various offerings.

Now, on to the first set of actual evaluations, Reading on the iPad Part 3: My Favorites.

No comments:

Post a Comment