Intuition and craftsmanship must return from exile

I love the idea of reading books on my tablet. But in general, the experience is poor. It’s a great solution for travel, reduces clutter, and helps readers save their dead-tree budget for books that are valued as art objects just as much as they are for their content. But there are two problems that scuttle almost every book-on-tablet experience.

Let’s revisit the definition of interface for a minute. If you’re like me, you spend so much time working in and/or consuming content via digital mediums that you rarely take the time to consider what these mediums really are, and how and why they came into being. The best definition I’ve seen for interface comes (appropriately) from my laptop’s dictionary: “A point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc., meet and interact.” The idea of meeting and interacting via some kind of plane or window, or “where two entities act in such a way as to have an effect on one another,” is worth considering. It’s a conversation with reciprocal impact. Our interfaces inform us, and we inform them in return. I arrive at the bottom of a page in a printed book, and flip to the next. The book responds by bending and revealing the next packet of information, i.e. spread. I scroll to the bottom of my screen, click a link to show whatever comes next or browse to another story, and my interface reacts accordingly.

Problem one: Bad user experience design

People have been working to create the ideal reading interface for centuries. After clay tablets, the scroll became a preferred medium in literate (chirographic, i.e. pre-typographic) cultures. But eventually some crafty, slightly disgruntled scribe got tired of the unwieldy rolling and unrolling business and made the world’s first bound book. Bound books were far more convenient, portable and easier to navigate. The concept of pages as discrete packets of information is taken for granted now, but before books such a concept didn’t exist.

When Apple and Amazon introduced their first tablets, their reading apps seemed to be built upon two curious assumptions: first, that people wouldn’t know how to navigate a reading interface made for screens, and therefore needed a bookish paradigm to figure out which end is up. Second, and related to the first, we touch and swipe the pages of a book to interact with it, and therefore the ebook-on-tablet experience must be similar. These assumptions are surprising to me, especially coming from Apple. This is a company that is renowned for eschewing the wasteful expense of focus groups or the pitfalls of groupthink in favor of scratching their own itches and acting on intuition, ingenuity and empathy. The fact which has become increasingly obvious is that devices with screens are not, never have been and never will be books. Screens have no use for pages. Tablets have bookish proportions because centuries of experience have helped us fine-tune the best range of size and weight for portability and enjoyable reading. But the resemblance ends there.

Pages as content containers were invented within usability constraints imposed by physical books. They are fixed and determined by typography, page size and margins. Thanks to mass production, they mean something. Page numbers in my collector’s edition of The Hobbit are exactly the same as yours. Contrast that with most ereaders, where pages are meaningless because the reader can control orientation, typeface, size etc.

In the days of scrolls, entire stories were contained in single continuous sheets of papyrus. But as I mentioned above, they were unwieldy. Now that passages of content can traverse a fixed screen, with the befores and afters tucked neatly out of sight, scrolling makes sense again. Web designers have known this for a long time. And yet the designers of iBooks, Kindle, Nook et al chose to ignore this simple fact (iBooks, at least, provides the option to scroll instead of paginate — but it’s treated as an alternate paradigm, which seems completely ass-backwards to me). Instead, they imposed a horizontal, page-based navigation that feels like looking through a keyhole, lacks aesthetic craftsmanship, and is useless for reference or research. We’ve been given the wrong tool for the job.

Problem two: the exile of craftsmanship

In our electronic age, it’s easy to forget that books have always been made by people for people. For the sake of readers, designers carefully select fonts, line length, spacing and margins. White space at the beginning and end of chapters is adjusted so that nothing looks awkward or accidental. A professionally-designed reading experience is virtually invisible. As Robert Bringhurst says, “Good typography is like bread: ready to be admired, appraised, and dissected before it is consumed.” The letters disappear in the reader’s mind, and the story advances unhindered. This is why you’ll never find a solitary word at the beginning or end of a printed chapter. But lonely words and awkward typesetting are pervasive in ebooks. The result, whether readers are consciously or subliminally aware, is that reading in the popular book apps feels terribly cold and lonely. Clichés around the inhumanity of electronic devices are reinforced yet again. It’s the picture of default: Copy, paste, publish, done. It’s a quick-fix solution that allows people to deliver content to market with little expense. The model is particularly attractive if someone has already spent time and money on a print edition. The people who promote such experiences assume that readers are content to wade through the digital dumping grounds of literature. Not only is this assumption inconsiderate; it’s uncreative. I think there’s a solution that allows for rapid deployment, profitability and comfortable reading all at once.

There are quite a few attractive web-reading experiences and apps these days (Three M’s come immediately to mind: Medium, The Magazine, and Matter). But nearly everything I’ve seen is focused on shorter-length content, i.e. articles or essays. Instapaper is a nice tool for saving web pages for offline reading. But by and large, if you want to read an entire ebook regardless of whether you’re on or offline, you have to find it in somebody’s app store.

Inkling is the only book reading app I’ve found that gets it (mostly) right. Content is navigable by vertical swiping, with a two-tiered hierarchy of chapters and subsections called “cards.” Now, before you say that scrolling in this setting must feel like a bottomless pit, Inkling has dealt with that very issue in a smart way. When you tap the bottom of your screen, it jumps to the next discrete view. Tapping the top jumps back a notch. You can easily bookmark your spot for later. The end of a card or chapter never feels accidental: it automatically snaps to fill the screen in a way that feels intentional. While Inkling works with designers to craft their image- and diagram-heavy books, the overall system only had to be designed once, thanks to smart use of technology. This gave them the freedom to constantly iterate and improve the medium, rather than getting in the weeds with the content.

I see two issues with Inkling’s app. First: most of their books are hella big. The downloads are almost as large as some of the more bloated digital magazines one finds these days. Why the megabytes? I guess much of their focus is on creating a rich experience with plenty of extras (are they all necessary?). Take The Magazine for comparison. Each issue weighs in at a svelte three megabytes, give or take. That’s the difference between a few seconds and up to 20 minutes to download an issue, depending on your internet connection.

My only other quibble with Inkling is one of navigation. It seems counterintuitive to swipe L > R to call up the menu of cards or subsections, and to swipe one more time to bring up the list of chapters. A more intuitive navigation might be one that advances to the right by swiping R > L for the next card. Readers would still advance to subsequent cards or chapters from the right side of the screen (or go back from the left). They could also navigate the list of cards and chapters from a menu that can be hidden or shown by tapping, rather than swiping. But this is a relatively minor gripe. I’m sure their team will keep hacking and improving.

Another nice thing about Inkling: It’s blissfully free of analog nostalgia. Gone is the gimmicky page-flipping animation found in iBooks or Kindle. iBooks goes a step further down memory lane and shows me a near-photographic linen cover that peeks from behind my stack of virtual pages, shading and all. (If this feature drives you nuts too, it can be disabled under Settings > iBooks.) And of course my books are neatly arranged on what appears to be pine shelving from Ikea. I can see the merchandise, right under a 16th inch of glass. I can even manipulate it like some kind of marionette. But I can never touch it.

It’s like going to the museum and seeing King Tut’s sarcophagus just inches below your nose. You’ll never find out what it feels like.

The use of photorealism in digital settings was a fun trick that has become widely abused, kinda like drop shadows or bevels. It’s everywhere from calendars to cartography. I know many people are passionately in favor of it. Subtle photorealism, or rather skeuomorphism (the use of analog metaphors in digital environments) can at times be helpful. For instance, if an interface involves a toggle state with two or more options, it’s helpful for the user to encounter them as active or inactive buttons. But in general, I think skeuomorphism is going away (if Apple’s Jony Ive has any say in the matter), and rightfully so. People are starting to talk about The Internet of Things – i.e. interaction through a host of dimensional, tactile objects. But for now, the world in which we read is still 2D. After years of trying to feel the leather or linen between our thumbs and forefingers, more designers and users are embracing the fact that we’re still living in a glassy flatland.