Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Reading: Interface and Design

Good design, good interface, you can call it whatever you want. I think one of the biggest hurdles of eBooks and its acceptance (even as I’m struggling myself with the idea that a “book” doesn’t need to be one in print) lies with how we interact and utilize it.

Let’s start with what we know—the printed book. Now books in general are hard to classify under one design philosophy. The problem is that they come in various sizes: a book can be as bulky as an encyclopedia, or as tiny (and unreadable) as a keychain. Layout-wise, the content will similarly be different. A children’s book will have lots of illustrations and minimal text while your “regular” novel will be on the opposite side of the spectrum: little to no illustration and lots of text.

Yet for some strange reason, we’ve managed to classify these printed products under one name: books. And what comes to mind when I hear the word “book” is “reading”. In a certain sense, books as a reading tool works. I mean I don’t usually associate anything else with books aside from reading. It’s totally unexpected for people to say “I smell books”, “I taste books”, etc. Of course part of it, I think, is due to the fact that the idea of reading books was forced upon us by society. Schools, for example, reinforce the idea that if we want to read, we should read books. We adapted to the medium rather than vice versa. I mean reading books isn’t the only way to read after all—we can read from signs, from a screen (be it a television or a computer monitor), or even magazines.

Books aren’t necessarily the perfect medium for reading but I’ll admit, it sure beats reading from a scroll or worse, stone. Of course having said that, books are a partial failure when it comes to enticing people to read. I mean I’m a bookworm and even I am intimidated when I see certain thick and heavy books. Imagine what the common man feels when he sees a thick paperback book. Do you think it motivates him to read? Compare that to say, a magazine or a comic. Now those are things people read (even if they’re not necessarily willing to pay for them). In fact, those are the material of “bathroom reading”. And bathroom reading I think is special—it’s when we’re most vulnerable, when our pants are literally down. Yes, I know people who read books when they’re in the bathroom (unfortunately I’m not one of them… I don’t want to accidentally drop the book I’m reading into the toilet). However, they pale in comparison to the people I know who read magazines and comics in the toilet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not critizing the format of books. All I’m stating is that there’s room for improvement. Just as scrolls evolved into books, hopefully something else will prove to be a worthy successor.

The eBook format appeared to be just that. Much like any new technology, it’s being met with resistance. And that’s understandable. People need change yet they don’t always welcome them. I’m not saying that eBooks is the perfect successor to the book but it is an alternative that’s being touted.

So why doesn’t it work? I attribute it to two things: interface and money. The latter is the easiest to explain yet problem isn’t the biggest issue. A book costs a few dollars. In order to read an eBook, I’d need to invest in a few hundred, whether it’s purchasing a desktop, a laptop, a PDA, an eBook reader, or if you’re in Japan, a mobile phone. So far, cheap, disposable eBooks haven’t been invented yet. Maybe if an eBook and an eBook reader would be sold for under ten dollars, we’ll solve the money issue. But even then, that doesn’t address what I think is the heart of the problem: interface.

A book, despite the fact that it may come in various sizes, is read in two ways: either left to right and top to bottom, or right to left and top to bottom. You can hand a person any book and they will know how to utilize it. Whether they actually will is a different matter entirely but you get the point. Reading books is almost intuitive—that’s the mark of good design. eBooks, on the other hand, has been inconvenient to say the least.

The first problem is the format—there’s tons of them. And unlike music which has various formats, the output isn’t the same. When you play a music file, no matter what format it is, it comes out in an aural medium that can be heard and appreciated. Not the case with eBooks. I mean depending on the file format, the screen resolution, and the device I’m using, an eBook appears different. I could be seeing an entire “page” on my computer screen, or a single paragraph in my PDA. The interface is simply inconsistent and doesn’t always motivate me to read.

Of course inconsistency is the least of our problems. Even if all eBooks came out in the same format and appeared identically no matter what device you’re using, the problem would be determining what the optimum appearance will be. And that’s the second problem: what’s the best way to deliver text via a digital screen?

I mean people are used to reading from their computer screen but using different applications. They might be comfortable reading from their favorite word processor but word processors have a zoom in/zoom out function so determining what the perfect scale is impossible. I’m used to reading web pages but I’ve also attempted to read a novel in one huge web page and it simply doesn’t work. One of the issues I had was finding chapter breaks and continuing where I left off. Perhaps we can settle for a PDF but the problem with PDF’s is that you’re essentially making a carbon copy of a printed book and transporting it into your computer screen, instead of maximizing the medium on its own. The Japanese make do with mobile phones but then again, Japanese language is comprised of Kanji characters—characters which take up little space compared to words formed from the Roman alphabet (in other words, it won’t work with English).

The perfect solution for me was PDA’s and eBook readers which could display several sentences at once. But using such a device is not without its learning curve and technology still has a long way to go to make it more efficient (i.e. being able to read it without the light reflecting off the screen) and affordable. And just because I’m used to it doesn’t necessarily mean other people will.

That’s not to say there is no solution the eBook interface problem. There probably is, we either just haven’t found it yet or can’t make up our minds which one to settle for.

The third hurdle lies with the social consciousness. As kids, we learned to adapt to books. As adults, on the other hand, we’re resisting eBooks. We grew up with books and the simplest conclusion to make is to stick to the one we know. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is an aphorism that supports that line of thought. But just because someone isn’t broken doesn’t mean we should stop innovating. There’s always a better, more efficient way to do things. That’s the logical side of things but we’re only human and we’re prone to be swayed by our emotions (especially us bibliophiles who often get nostalgic when it comes to books). And that’s the problem now with eBook design: growing pains on both the creator and consumer side of things. Perhaps in a couple of decades, people won’t distinguish between a book and an eBook: it’ll be part of the same package (i.e. homework!). But before that time, eBooks needs to work on its PR as well.

1 comment:

Ivan said...

I think you nailed all the important points of why ebooks have not been widely accepted.

We're trying to address two of those factors, cost and ease of use, with Wattpad. You can use your existing mobile phone, so special hardware purchase required. You get the book by opening an SMS so no fiddling with different formats. In the end, you're still reading on your phone's screen, which admittedly is very limited, but from our user feedback so far, there is definitely a practical use case for this type of reading.