eTexts and Spatial Disorientation

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(Image Source: UX Magazine)

This seems to be one of my soap boxes lately. Here I am, again… climbing back up to talk about my observations about (and frustrations with) eBooks.

The text I’ve been most focused this past week,  Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, by Janet Murray is rather expensive, so I decided to check it out from the library. A few chapters in, I realized it was probably something I’d want to refer back to over the next couple of years. So I downloaded the Kindle version.

And then a funny thing happened.  I’ve found myself using both copies. I’ll read from the hard-copy book, then highlight quotes on the Kindle version. Or I’ll skim through the Kindle version and annotate some of my highlights, then pull the book out to look at the pictures and read the captions.

I can’t find a comfortable “fit” in either medium.  I’m able to “absorb” difficult information better from the hard-copy format. But since it’s a library book, I can’t make highlights. So I revert back to the digital version.

As I’m reading, I occasionally want to return to an earlier section in the text to re-read something.  This action is somewhat annoying on the Kindle app, because unless I know the exact term/phrase I’m looking for, I can’t really “look” for it. In a hard-copy book, I can usually guess “where” the section is and quickly flip to it. In addition, although the Kindle has a bookmark feature it doesn’t quite have a virtual equivalent that is as effective as sticking my thumb between pages to hold my place as I flip through other sections.

I guess the point I’m getting around to making is that there’s something spatially disorienting about eBooks.

In the section of Inventing the Medium that discusses the spatial affordance of digital design, Murray explains the challenges of how information is organized, categorized, stored, and retrieved–and how this all must fit with user’s mental models in order for the information to be accessibly and usable:

As the digital medium grows we will need more conventions to help us form the correct mental model for where an item is, what it is stored with, and what larger entity we go to in order to retrieve it.

(Kindle Locations 1832-1833)

Murray moves from an explanation of the digital “container-based” model that used files and folders to collect and hold information to the “landscape” model of the web-browser. As we became more familiar with using the Internet our mental models of information began changing to view information as an interconnect web that uses multiple pathways and relationships for retrieval–rather than stacks of folders and contains that hold individual pieces of information.

Murray explains that the landscape model is key to how we internalize and understand information. By surveying the entire landscape, we are able to contextualize information, relying on the relationships between pieces of information to help us make meaning: “Landscapes are a fundamental organizing framework for human beings. The ability to distinguish the visual features of landscapes, like rolling hills and branching trees, seems to be innate to human beings, favored by evolution for its survival value. (1852-1853). Murray also points out that a number of the metaphors we use to help us conceptualize large expanses of information are spatial:

We also use our sense of navigating a landscape to help us cope with large information spaces, like cyberspace, or the the World Wide Web. s. It is not surprising that we bring the same spatial metaphors to our experience of digital artifacts, which offer such a large capacity of storage space and support many forms of spatial navigation. (Kindle Locations 1856-1857).

This sense of space helps us move through information without “getting lost.” Just as we rely on visual cues and landmarks to help us navigate through the physical world, we also rely on similar cues to navigate through the digital landscape as well.

And I think this is where I get stuck when it comes to eBooks. The visual landmarks in eBooks aren’t as effective for me as they are in hard-copy texts. Yet, I don’t find most websites this disorienting–I don’t feel the same frustrations as I try to search a website for information.

Maybe I don’t get as confused with websites because I can “hold my place” by simply opening a new tab. The sense of space within a website’s “landscape” becomes easier for me to hold onto because I don’t have to completely abandon one space (or screen or window) to go to another. I can have multiple spaces open at one time but choose which space to make my center of focus within a particular moment. Or, I can view spaces (or windows) side-by side–like flipping back and forth between sections of a book by using my fingers as markers.  As of right now, there’s no real way to do this with eBooks–we’re kind of in that transitionary state of medium limbo. Murray responds to this by saying:

Media of representation focus our attention with fixed formats and genres, made up of culturally established conventions that allow us to take in new information by expressing it in familiar patterns. New media use old conventions in new ways and they also create new conventions, allowing them to support new cognitive patterns. (Kindle Locations 1811-1813).

I guess the new media of eBooks is still stuck using the old conventions and hasn’t had a chance to develop new conventions to support more effective cognitive patterns and mental models. I know it’ll eventually catch up, but In the meantime… I’ll be here, alternating between writing notes by hand, copying and pasting quotes, and flipping through hard-copy pages of books, while I search for keywords in my Kindle App!

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3 thoughts on “eTexts and Spatial Disorientation

  1. Pingback: eBook Design: Designing for the Media v. Designing for the Medium | Laurissa Wolfram

  2. Pingback: Book Apps: Why are we still calling them books? | Laurissa Wolfram

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