Take Two on the Future of the Book

Co.Design recently posted two articles within a few days of each other which play off each other in an interesting way.

The first argues for new user interfaces to be designed as something new, without relying on old metaphors. An e-book should function differently from a classic book for example. It comes down to a call for new tech to behave like new tech by working within its own inherent logic. The article goes into a Windows Metro love fest (which I feel is mostly unwarranted after using the Windows 8 preview), but it is still a good read. It is also a good introduction to skeuomorphs.

The second features an e-book interface from KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence.

The interface attempts to imitate the use of a physical book. It looks great and a vast improvement over the interfaces we have now. For example, the e reader of choice for me is RepliGo for Android.

The RepliGo app has really intuitive (and usable) features for highlighting and commenting, but its page navigation is cumbersome. You can only flip one page at a time, and the scrolling thumbnails at the bottom only lead to overshooting and getting lost. These limitations are especially annoying when reading something nonlinear like a textbook or research paper. An improvement is welcome.

There is a catch though. As the second article points out, the KAIST interface imitates the real world fairly well, but you still have to learn a new language of interaction. You really get a sense of this when watching the video. All those options and gestures made me wonder how long it would take for them to become natural (even with all their “naturalness”).

That language is bound by rules and limitations that the developers define – not by your own interaction with the interface or by the ubiquitous rules of the physical world. So in the while in the real world you can pick up a book and grab a hunk of what feels like twenty pages to go to page twenty (and it feels so good to see you actually hit page twenty) – with a digital interface you need to relearn how that interface will deliver twenty pages. This could be easily be accomplished by an adequate “go to x pages later” feature, but most apps and programs already have a terrible time even implementing a simple “go to #x page” anyway. Who wants to load an e-book, select menu, select goto, type page twenty, and then finally get to page twenty? The hunk method is quicker and also potentially much more satisfying.

Where do you abandon past metaphors and when do you create new ones? That is the point of presenting these two articles. They both come at this question from two different angles; the first is a little more extreme. If you are going to cause someone to relearn something, why teach them how within the limitations inherent to an old metaphor? Why not make a new interface with new and appropriate inherent limitations that help you accomplish the same task? In the example I keep using here, we just need an easy and convenient way to fly between one narrative element to the next.

The KAIST example tries to help us fly between one element to the next by giving us a choice in how we move about, but it is still lacking that something which will allow you to pick up a hunk and turn to about page twenty or so – which was sort of the point wasn’t it? The basic task can be defined as a way of intuitively grabbing the number of pages between you and where you want to go and throwing them out of the way.

Why not treat a book like Google Earth treats maps? It’s not like Google tried to emulate a drawer full of flat maps. You can zoom in and out on a geographical point of interest and flicking distances feels intuitive. Pages are forgotten in favor of best displaying a connected narrative.