Brought to book: some subtleties of social interaction

It’s a pleasure to see – at risk of sounding like a Key Stage One Literacy Coordinator – that reading is hot right now.

Into this maelstrom come the Mag+ concepts from BERG for Bonnier. If you haven’t seen the video you should watch it now. Beyond the thoughtful work on the interaction within the user interface, I like the thinking about “how the device might occupy the world.”

And separately, Christian Lindholm has some interesting ideas about linearity as a low-involvement user experience, perfectly suited to mobile.

Everyone’s talking about how it feels to be the reader – how he or she will be empowered to enjoy the best aspects of printed and digital media rolled into one wafer-thin device. It’s all very user-centred.

But I think to succeed eReaders must not only meet the needs of the direct user, but also of those around them, the friends and family who may not welcome their loved one’s absorption in this exciting new media. They are the “next largest context” within which the new device must win acceptance.

BERG’s video hints at this with that “how the device might occupy the world” line. Rather than zooming in on the lovely concept UI, I wanted the camera to pan out, or swing round to observe fellow travellers on a crowded train, or a significant other snuggled up on the sofa. I’m not so interested in their initial reactions – the inevitable lookit-new-shiny glances – but more in how reader devices settle into the ebb and flow of everyday sociability.

I mean, as I type this…

My wife is sitting across the room, reading a book.

“What are you reading?” I ask.

She tells me. I glance at the cover for instant visual reinforcement of what my ears just heard, because books are open on the outsides as well as the insides.

“Is it a good book?” I ask.

She answers. We briefly discuss the content.

She goes on reading. There is a stillness. Even the page turns are almost imperceptible.

I watch her face for a faint smile.

Now rerun the scene with a digital device.

The first question is no longer “what are you reading?” It’s “what are you doing?” – a question that somehow already carries a hint of reproach.

Whatever the answer, the hard, blank underside of the device affords no confirmation.

Then, momentarily floored by the multiple possibilities of multimedia, there’s a pause while we establish that a book is being read, and mentally summon the terms in which we discuss books.

And here comes the toughest part, to engender stillness. Where once there was just the flicker of an eye, now there is the jabbing of a finger to exactly where on the page the reader is interacting.

The device may be rejected because it is closed to casual inspection. The lack of a cover to indicate the content makes it an occult thing, excluding observers as printed texts exclude the illiterate.

Yet at the same time, the device may be too distractingly revealing – of exactly where the reader is pointing her attention. An unwelcome disruption of the stillness of being with someone who is reading.

These are the subtleties that make this a more wicked problem than it may first appear to technologists or to publishers. I trust they will be solved, but only by considering all the people who are touched by books, not just the ones who happen to be reading them.

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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

7 thoughts on “Brought to book: some subtleties of social interaction”

  1. Matt – I love the “beyond the reader” framework. You might like to take a look at our Reading Ahead user research project from last year – http://www.portigal.com/blog/reading-ahead-research-findings/ is probably the relevant link but there’s other postings linked to that one – one of our takeaways was the reading experience is not the single moment when your eyes regard the words. We extended it to span time and place, but of course, spanning individuals is extremely important for this reframe.

  2. Wow, thanks very much to Tom for linking to this post, and to Steve for taking the time to comment. BERG and Portigal are among the leading thinkers in this space. I’m really looking forward to seeing where these ideas all lead :) Matt

  3. Kicker Studio’s tweet brought your thoughtful blog post to my attention. I recently got a Kindle, and now my husband won’t try to go to sleep if I’m going to be reading it in bed. Why? It makes a relatively quiet but definitely noticable “click” sound every time you press the…NEXT PAGE BUTTON. How often does one press the next page button? Yes, all the damn time.

    I was in love with this awesome device, a Christmas present from my husband, until I learned of his feelings about the click sound. It’s a tragic example of not respecting the reader’s context when designing the device.

  4. Hi,

    I’m writing a post about your brilliant commentary right now, and then I noticed your remarks apply most perfectly to *multipurpose digital devices* (say, iPhone) used as e-book readers than to dedicated devices (i.e. Kindle). In the second case, the visual social signage is still pretty much present (minus the cover to glance at) and the ambiguity doesn’t manifest itself so clearly.

    I still think your point pretty much applies to multipurpose devices that can work in a variety of modes and don’t really communicate which other device they are substituting for in any given moment. Maybe a “vocabulary” of sorts, using subtle cues, visual or otherwise? (think your ‘magic phone’ emitting a dim colored glow that changes hue depending on their use, green for reading, blue for camera, red for browsing, etc.)

    You’ve provided a lot of food for thought. Thanks for sharing :)

  5. Thanks Mort! You’re right to draw a distinction between “multipurpose” devices and “dedicated” readers, but I’m not sure that the boundary can hold for long. Once everything’s reduced to bits and bytes, the lines inevitably become blurred. For example, the Kindle can receive documents by email and has an “experimental” web browser so it’s already more than just a book reader. Even my basic digital camera came as standard with a voice recorder. It may _look_ like a camera, but sometimes it’s a dictaphone. I think digital convergence presents experience design opportunities and challenges for even the most specialised device categories. The visual cues you propose are certainly one way of making their use more open and more acceptable.

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