Notes that don't break the reading flow

The flexibility of the digital page offers considerable promise for notes.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder’s Guide to Digital Books.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)

Footnotes have got to be one of the more frustrating aspects of ebooks today. For starters, woe to the fat fingered among us who read on a touchscreen device. Even simply tapping the asterisk takes a couple jabs. Once you hit the tiny target, off you go to Footnote Land, the return from which depends on how well you understand your e-reader’s “Back” button system.

Even in print, getting readers to shift their attention from body text to note is a tough sell. Schlepping to the bottom of the page — or worse, the end of the book — takes time, disrupts focus, and offers rewards that appeal mainly to the PhD set.

Now, of course, dedicated readers are perfectly capable of taking these kinds of excursions and preserving their attention. Heck, nursing mothers plow through War and Peace amidst interruptions. But the point is: in an age of ever increasing distractions and info temptations, we need to minimize obstacles to good reading flow — especially those that occur within the document itself.

The flexibility of the digital page offers promise.

The Shakespeare Pro iPad app offers one nice approach:

Embedded glossary in the Shakespeare Pro iPad app
Click to enlarge

The dotted underlines signal which words have available definitions. It’s noticeable but unobtrusive; nice. (The same couldn’t be said if instead we saw the classic blue web page link; the implicit message there is “I am a path to another document”). Having a touchscreen device is, of course, a key part of this design’s success. Assistance is provided, at a tap, at the point of need. Clearing the note requires as little conscious thought as blinking; tap anywhere outside the box and it goes away. And a one-touch icon (the slightly open paged book in the upper-right corner) lets readers toggle the links on and off.

I might quibble with the decision (a business one?) to cite Shakespeare’s Words in each pop-up box. Reasonable people might also differ on the positioning of the box (why not scooch it over into the empty margin? Perhaps, but move too far and you risk replicating the print page’s attention zagging layout). All in all, though, it’s very reader friendly.

Some notes are too long to fit easily in a pop-up window. More than a quick translation, these are brief extras in which an author or editor wants to provide background or commentary. In print, these items have traditionally been relegated to foot- or endnote status. The dynamic nature of a digital page — its ability to temporarily change what appears on its canvas — offers a chance to innovate.

Take a look, for example, at how the University of Virginia Press handles the transcripts of Lyndon Johnson’s secretly recorded White House phone calls. (The material is password-protected, but you can sign up for a free trial.) The text of each conversation appears, when you first load the page, just as it might in print:

LBJ transcript, embedded notes not showing
Click to enlarge

Each time the editors wish to add a bit of extra background info — who George Reedy was or why the Gulf of Tonkin was important — they stuff that material into a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t part of the page canvas. The signal that extra info awaits is the universally recognizable plus sign, which morphs into the minus sign when the note text is onscreen.

LBJ transcript, embedded notes showing
Click to enlarge

It’s an elegant, efficient, and unobtrusive way to offer this kind of background matter. What’s the difference, you might ask, between this presentation method and the more common approach to linking to extra content at the bottom of the page? They both require the same number of clicks or taps: two. But the UVA Press’s system offers a number of benefits.

First off: better continuity. Consider the jarring effect of being whisked to a different part of the page or a new page entirely. Whether it’s print or digital, when you move away from the passage you’re currently reading you lose your connection in a very literal way to the text. The state of immersion we all strive for as readers is both powerful and tenuous. No matter how strong its force field, it can be punctured easily: the phone rings, the baby cries, you realize you just missed your exit (kidding!).

A thoughtfully designed document does everything it can to maximize the reader’s focus. Links that whisk people to different parts of a page or some other spot entirely disrupt the reader’s focus. This effect is exacerbated when the reader gets dumped onto a new screen containing not just the note she tapped, but also the note’s neighbors:

Page packed with lots of endnotes
Click to enlarge

Even if you don’t read those other notes, their mere presence distracts. UVA Press’ expandable page layout avoids such problems. You stay directly on the page, in the same location. It’s even better than a print book’s footnote, which requires you to shift your attention from the body text down to the bottom margin and you have to squint in most cases to read the extra info.

It’s sweating the little stuff like this that’s gonna turn ebook readers into ebook lovers.

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