Sometimes the questions are as enlightening as the answers

10 digital book questions worth pondering.

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.)

Kindle with question markNow that I’m well into this book-writing project — Breaking the Page — one thing’s clear: the questions I’m jotting down as I write are sometimes as interesting as any answers I, or anyone else for that matter, have come up with.

Put another way: we who work on the forefront of the transition from print to screen should operate with a certain mindfulness that frequently we have, um, no idea of what we’re doing. And that in addition to experimenting vigorously we should bear in mind that the simple act of saying I don’t know sometimes is the best way to figure where we need to turn our attention.

So, with that in mind, what follows are some of the questions I’ve been chewing on and plan on tackling in my book.

What kinds of new forms will digital books lead to?

The prevailing “shape” of a print book is linear. The writer writes 384 pages, the reader reads 384 pages, one after the other. In formal terms, I picture that as a straight line — maybe a curve if you want to think about the narrative arc (introduction, exposition, conflict, resolution, denouement). The path is fixed by the author who himself is working within the limits imposed by the paginated, bound book. And while all that is possible on a touchscreen display, none of it is necessary. You can mix & match horizontal panning (across a timeline, say) with vertical scrolling (in-depth looks at specific timeline events); you can create a series of hyperlinked pages, which a reader can click across & explore as she might on a website, visiting some (but not necessarily all) of the pages in whichever order she likes; you can construct a twhirlable geometric object, each side filled with text, audio, video or any combination thereof. It’s gonna be really interesting to see if and how writers experiment with all these different options.

What happens when you introduce movement onto a page?

I’m not talking about video or animation, at least not the kind we tend to associate with cartoons or Pixar movies. I’m talking about the new kinds of messages authors can deliver when doing things like bullet points or whole paragraphs that slide onto the screen in a sequential manner. How does the reading experience differ compared to a “normal” page where all the items show up as soon as the reader turns the page? Or, consider: what would happen if a footnote suddenly broke free from its page bottom station and burrowed upwards, through the body text, challenging some point made by the author? Would that be the most annoying development in the history of human communication? Or would it be the kind of maneuver that appeals to the next David Foster Wallace — if only she had a tool that made these actions easy to compose?

And, on a related note …

What would happen if, when the reader swipes or taps the right side of the page (signaling he’s ready for the next page), rather than the next page showing up, a monocle appeared on the screen enlarging a particular passage — turning it into a kind of pullquote, around which the author added some new commentary. Something like: “Reader, friend, countryman: I’m begging you … this point is HUGELY important. If we cannot figure out how to teach our parents the difference between ‘Save’ and ‘Save As’ this country will continue to lose billions of dollars in productivity.”

How exactly do you integrate, rather than just add multimedia to text?

Virtually all the authoring tools we use today offer no guidance on this front. In fact, programs like Word and WordPress tend to encourage a seriously fragmented presentation. It feels to me like we’re still in what might be called the Ingredient Phase of digital publishing. We encourage authors to present all sorts of digitized goodies — text, links, videos, and so on — but don’t spend any time helping them think about how to combine all this stuff. Is it any surprise, then, that readers complain they have a hard time focusing? How would your stomach react if you were asked to:

  • <first crack and eat two eggs>
  • <now drink a cup of milk>
  • <slice off 2 tablespoons of butter; let it dissolve in your mouth>
  • <wolf down a cup of flour>
  • <jump up & down to mix thoroughly>

So: how do we weave various media elements together so they work together in the service of the author’s message rather than present a mish-mash collection of disparate objects?

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What is the cognitive purpose of the page?

The obvious answer, for me at least, is that each page divides a book’s huge volume into smaller, more manageable parts. In the same way that hikers and long distance runners often focus on shorter-term, interim goals — get to the bridge; cross the bridge; etc. — readers benefit from the short span of pages & spreads.

But it’s interesting to consider: since the human brain can only scan and process a few words at a time, you could theoretically present readers with far fewer words than what typically appears on a page. All the stuff that comes before the target area, and everything that’s on the horizon is, in some respects, superfluous. We’re not reading any of it, so: why is it there? Obviously, one big factor is the need to turn pages, be it in a physical book or on an electronic device. Even as these actions become automated & natural, they still impose an administrative overhead — a slight distraction. Who’d want to flick forward 20 times when you can get a tablet screen worth of text that’s easy on your eye to move through?

What is the purpose of blank space on a screen?

And: when is empty space useful for an author to shape his message, and when is it useful for a reader to formulate, and maybe even jot down, his reaction?

How do you design documents so that they look & “work” differently based on what they contain … and what readers expect?

Here we enter territory where we need to start thinking about the different mental states of readers as they engage with different kinds of content. Someone reading a novel has a different mindset than someone learning how to scrapbook. A student facing a stack of books, preparing to write a research paper, is thinking “one-night stand;” a book lover facing that same stack is looking for a long-term relationship. Should we design more interactive features — sharing tools, discussion boards, character dossiers — for topics that aren’t particularly immersive?

In an age of info overload and fragile attention spans, do books need to change to better address the mental state of their users?

For example, could you design a book so it comes packaged with different versions of itself: executive summary, key takeaways, smorgasbord-style “pick what you want” edition?

How do we design friction- and distraction-free reading experiences? (Or at least limit these intrusions.)

One of things that reading researchers have made clear is the enormous benefits enjoyed by so-called fluent readers. These folks rarely have to puzzle over vocabulary and concepts; as they power their way through the text, they not only ingest the author’s message, they have room enough to host their own reaction to it. For them it’s not simply a matter of understanding Malcolm Gladwell’s point in Blink; advanced readers move onto some deep-tissue thinking about lessons worth applying to their own personal or business lives. How do we design documents that help readers at every point on the reading skill spectrum? What do we do to help those with impairments (either cognitive or visual), those who are skilled but still advancing, and even those who consider themselves experts at print books but may be having a hard time adjusting to screen reading?

How do we make sure the “reading path” is clearly visible?

I think of the reading path as the order in which the author wishes us to consume her content. Even individual pages present some kind of consumption order. In a print novel, it’s simple: start on page one at “Once upon a time …”, keep turning pages till you reach “The End.” Things get more complicated, quickly, as books and other digital documents incorporate hyperlinks, audio & video, and motion. How do authors make sure that readers:

  1. follow the presentation in the “correct” order (if there is one)
  2. if there is no single path through the content, how do you make each path similarly satisfying? (Think about a well-designed newspaper page layout; readers can read the pull-quote or view the photo-caption pair and read the associated article in any order they like and it all adds up, more or less, to the same article experience.)
  3. don’t have to worry that there’s stuff that they’re missing. Reader confusion and anxiety (where should I click next?) are hugely under appreciated obstacles.

A wave of abandoned shopping carts in the late ’90s caused web designers to focus on so-called usability. Word wranglers and other document producers need to acknowledge a similar kind of viewer bail out. It’s happening, we need to realize, everywhere. And while lousy writing and uninteresting messages remain the biggest culprits, we now have to acknowledge that navigational difficulties can be part of the problem. Alternative reading options exist at the tap of a finger. How do we keep readers engaged?

Just because you can link to Wikipedia and other online sources should you? When? Why? Why not?

Avast!, as Melville liked to write in Moby Dick.
I will stop with the questions — for now — and continue my hunt for answers.


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