Book Apps: Why are we still calling them books?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear “e-book” I automatically think of something that can be read on a Kindle or Nook (or on one of their associated iPad apps). Basically, text that was written for a print medium and slapped into a digital format. Yeh, they’re convenient (I can download one in minutes), they’re cheaper (though only marginally), and they’re more easily accessible (who wants to carry around 50 lbs of books?)… but they aren’t exactly innovative.

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eBook Design: Designing for the Media v. Designing for the Medium

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how eBooks can be disorienting for the reader (and by “reader” I meant me.)

I have a difficult time “finding” my place when I’m reading an eBook. This isn’t really a problem when I’m reading a novel, but it becomes very frustrating when I’m reading a textbook or doing research. When I read a novel, I usually read from the beginning of the book to the end. I don’t flip back and forth. I don’t refer back to an earlier section. It’s a very linear expereince.

When I’m researching or studying, however, my reading practices are very different. I read a section, make highlights and notes, put the book aside. Pick up another text. Highlight. Take notes. Put my reading materials away and try to write for a while. If I get stuck while I’m writing, I pick my reading materials up again. I’ll flip through the text, looking for a quote that seemed important.

None of these “reading” (I use scare quotes because I’m clearly doing more than just reading) practices translate very well to an eBook.  The navigation on an eBook is clunky. It doesn’t really use the affordances of the technology. As the reader, I can progress forward one page at a time, as fast as my finger can swipe across the screen (which isn’t all that fast). Or, I can click on chapter or section links from the Table of Contents, which is really only useful if I know the exact chapter or section I’m looking for. And even then, this only takes me to the first page of the chapter. From there, I’ll have to start flipping pages again…

Annoying, to say the least.

Well, the folks over at KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence are prototyping an eBook design right now that certainly expands the navigation experience of the eBook. (Thanks, John, for sending me this video.)

While I am over-joyed that someone is working on improving eBook design, I’m also a little discouraged. I can appreciate that this design solves the page-flipping problem. But it feels like a band-aid solution to a gaping wound. And I have to question whether we are wrong in trying to fit an old technology form into a new medium.

It’s like the Romans saying, “We don’t like the codex book because we can’t roll its pages up like a scroll.”

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eTexts and Spatial Disorientation

You Are Here Comic
(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.

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What Do Roast and Designing for Digital Mediums Have in Common?

Pot Roast
(Image Source: My Recipes)

Over the past four weeks, I’ve read About Face (Cooper, et all), Design of Everyday Things (Donald Norman), Designing the Obvious (Robert Hoekman), Designing the Interface (Jenifer Tidwell), parts of Simple and Usable (Giles Colborne), and I’m a few chapters in to Inventing the Medium (Janet Murray).

I won’t lie, the volume of information, though incredibly interesting, is a bit overwhelming.  These texts’ publication dates span across the past decade (well, past couple of decades if you take into account that the first publication of Design of Everyday Things was in the late ’80s). If read chronologically by publication date, each successive text introduces new terminology, slightly adjusts key definitions, offers more comprehensive explanations, and provides newer examples.  But, putting all of that aside, one common theme comes up again and again and again–the importance of affordances.

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Steps Toward “Legitimizing” Digital Publications?

This morning, inside Higher Ed posted an article titled “New Seal of Approval,” which announces new possibilities for digital humanities scholars: Anvil Academic. The platform is a team effort from the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and the Council for Library and Information Resources (CLIR), who hope Anvil Academic will give scholars researching about and with technology an outlet to publish their scholarship in away that is as acknowledged and legitimized.
Despite all of its affordances for creating texts that present information more dynamically and in greater detail or depth that more traditional publications, digital publishing still seems to struggle with gaining widespread disciplinary recognition.  One of the problems is that, as of yet, there isn’t a peer review process that can vet digital works in the same ways as traditionally published texts. Anvil Academic seeks to remedy that:

“One of Anvil’s goals is to build a peer-review infrastructure for research that cannot be easily represented in text. While the digital humanities are widely considered an important frontier, tenure and promotion committees still have trouble evaluating the work of digital humanists because the format is often so unfamiliar.”

I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Alternative Textbooks

I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz lately about universities

Temple University recently piloted an alternative textbook project, where faculty abandoned the traditional text books in favor of building their own. The experiment provided 11 faculty each with $1000 to create course texts using their own materials, primary archival sources, and free online sources. From reading the article, it seems like the project was considered a success by both the faculty involved and the students.

I thought one of the comments made in the article by a first year writing professor was particularly intriguing:

Last semester, the majority of students needed a lot of assistance with their first paper. . . This fall was exactly the opposite. They still did a lot of reading and researching but (the alternative textbook) created a facility with language and research that they didn’t have with the regular text. It’s added a dimension as well as being a substitute.

I hear the common complaint that students don’t know how to work with various texts. They don’t know how to approach them, read them, analyze them, interact with them, or evaluate them. Well, how will they if the are only exposed to the standard course text and anthology that’s become to traditional “textbook?” If we take our reading day after day after day from a textbook, we shouldn’t be too surprised when first year composition students freak at the end of the semester when they have to write a final paper.

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Mobile Devices and Education: Consumption v. Production

Images of different mobile technologies--iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Nook.

Designing the Obvious (2010) author, Robert Hoekman adamantly encourages developers to design with mobile applications in mind. While mobile devices, such a the iPad and iPhone can be limiting to expert users who need more intensive tools, these devices do all the tasks that most people need from their technology:

And while many people in the tech industry still see some of these gadgets as luxury items—often even wondering what on Earth they would do with a tablet—these devices are designed for the other 99 percent. They’re designed for that large segment of the population that uses computers for paying bills, social networking, making plans, watching videos, checking the news, listening to music, digging up recipes, learning new skills, creating spreadsheets for work, writing memos, and of course, checking email. These people use computers primarily for media consumption, web browsing, and basic document-creation. And that’s exactly what the iPad and other tablets are designed to do best. (Kindle Location 156-1490).

The last part of that quote made me pause: “These people use computers primarily for media consumption.” What is the relationship between media/information consumption and production within the context of the college classroom–more specifically, a classroom within the Humanities?

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Anthologize: Turn Blogs into eBooks

Screen Capture of Anthologize home page

Anthologize – Interesting app developed at George Mason University that lets users grab content from WordPress 3.0 blogs and compile them into an book.

Content can be saved and published digitally in PDF, ePub, or TEI formats.

I read about it in an article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on the Challenges of the Digital Humanities. The article was a response to some of themes being discussed at the recent 2012 MLA conference.

About Face (Part 5): Using Idioms to Re-envision How We Understand and Interact with Texts

This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin. This is certainly the logest of the five-post series. Apparently I felt strongly about the topic!

What is the balance between meeting user’s mental models and creating new idioms?

There seems to be a slight (but necessary) conflict between two key principles mentioned throughout About Face.  The first half of the text strongly reinforces the idea that programmers and designers must work together with users to understand users’ mental models.  Software should match how users think—even if this contradicts the “logic” within the code.

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