My wife has always had this curious habit when reading a book. She enjoys listening to the audio version of a book, but will rarely purchase the audio version opting instead to borrow it from the library and listen to it during her daily commute. Some weeks she commutes more than others and will often not finish the audio version before having to return it to the local library. In those instances, she will pick up where she left off in a printed version – either at the bookstore or borrowed, yet again, through the library. Sometimes she will simply purchase the print version if she can find it at the right price and will often go through different published versions of a book before finally finishing the work. I always found this interesting – this idea of switching formats in mid-read.
Recently, Amazon released Kindle Unlimited supporting Whisper Sync for Voice across devices. This program allows you to borrow over 700,000 titles and the Whisper Sync for Voice function (which is also available independent of the unlimited program) updates your place in a book across all of your devices. This allows you to switch between reading and listening. Amazon has essentially solved a problem my wife has had for years – a problem I would assume other readers experience as well. Of course, the only difference is there is a cost to the service, but it is rather inexpensive at $9.99 per month.
With the different tools and mediums at which we can consume reading material today, it is no wonder solutions like this are emerging. The greater issue is in how we design multi-channel experiences. Channels are the pathways allowing us to consume content such as our tablets, phones and desktop computers. Using each of these “channels” poses a problem when we are consuming the same content across devices. Amazon, of course, has taken a step in the right direction. But, this is still a ripe market for development with web articles, PDFs, magazines and books that are not available through their new program and are difficult to consume across devices.
The cloud has helped solve a lot of these problems with tools such as Pocket and Instant Paper for web articles. iBooks and Kindle allow you to import PDFs. But the search interface for both of those apps is considerably lacking. And, should you want to annotate a document not natively supported, neither the Kindle app or iBooks will allow it. You’ll need another app for that and then will be relegated to importing the document back to the original app – a clunky process. Finally, PDFs don’t allow paging as a normal eBook does. They are essentially flat documents and don’t render very well in most readers.
Beyond simply consuming, syncing or editing across devices, there is also the issue of the medium used to deliver the content. The medium must suit the content. Though reading an eBook on a mobile device is becoming widely accepted, longer pieces of prose are not always suited for reading in a web browser. In a recent presentation given at Web Visions Chicago, Andy Crestodina underscored this stating he rarely writes a paragraph more than four sentences for web copy and keeps the writing at an eighth grade reading level. This poses a problem for long works of writing on the web.
The concept of making web-based writing more user-friendly has merit. Nicolas Carr’s landmark article in The Atlantic theorizes online reading is changing our behavior such that we no longer have the ability (or patience) to read long pieces of work either on the internet or in print. And, recent research indicates online reading is becoming more of a challenge for us resulting in lower comprehension rates. Part of the problem is the distractions we encounter when browsing the web while another part is the very design of a web browser and how it offers less navigation options to readers in addition to lacking a proprietary format.
Perhaps the largest part of the problem with digital mediums is a lack of spatial awareness when print formats are abandoned. I have written on this topic before. A book and print material allow for intuitive navigation. That is, you can flip back and forth to sections of the work, know where you are in terms of finishing the work and more accurately form a mental map of large books or works. Until recently, this was not able to be replicated on a digital device. However, the KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence has developed a solution – a “smart e-book” that allows you to flip multiple pages, see where you are in a book and can scan 20-3 pages quickly. This is truly a step in the right direction and comes very close to replicating a printed book. Now if they can only make your digital device smell old and musty when you open the digital version, libraries across the globe could truly be in danger.
The medium we choose to consume content is often based on the type of content itself. Thus the readability and usability of a written work will hinge on how we choose to format and deliver it. A decade ago, we were severely restricted in our choices to deliver content. However, the lines between print, digital and audio content are blurring as new technologies emerge allowing you to not only consume them when and where you want but across devices as well – even allowing you to switch back and forth without missing a word.
The book emerged somewhere between the 2nd and 4th centuries and has been relatively unchanged for at least 1,600 years. It is hard to imagine any design lasting that amount of time or one that has lasted as long being surpassed with a better design. But it appears as if we are, indeed, inventing a better mousetrap.