E-books: an InfoDesign-Café discussion
about their usability potentials and problems

compiled and with comments
by Conrad Taylor

(Also available as a 68k PDF file:
either four pages in A4 format,
or five pages in
US Letter format.

In early May 2001, in preparation for the EPSG conference ‘Turning over new leaves’, I raised a question on the InfoDesign-Cafe email discussion list on the Internet, for people interested in information/interaction design and usability. (See www.informationdesign.org for a link to the list archives and the joining page.)

I asked: how useful might an e-book be, what usability problems need to be overcome, what fundamental limitations might e-books have, and what could they potentially deliver? I also suggested that Cafe-members use their imagination to think beyond current technology.


Readability, resolution and type

Legibility is always a subject of great interest to information designers, so it was no surprise that several respondents had concerns about how comfortable it would be to read from screen. There are two approaches to a solution to this problem. One is to increase the resolution of the screen, and Randal thought:

I assume that as screens improve (I would need at least 300ppi to really be happy reading off the screen) the differences between the mediums will become less and less, till paper- based design will become a quirky luxury item.

However, progress towards affordable higher-resolution screens is moving at nothing like the speed of Moore’s Law! And the display technologies of current computer operating systems are not resolution-independent, so that as the screen resolution gets higher, the screen image gets smaller. Perhaps new devices, dedicated e-book readers, can escape this legacy ?

The other approach is to do the best one can with today’s paltry resolutions. One could design typefaces optimised for the display (such as the fonts on Palm devices, or the ‘Nina’ font developed by Matthew Carter for e-book applications on Windows CE devices). This does tend to mean that the designer/publisher loses the ability to control typographic expression in the book.

Alternatively, one could take existing fonts and improve the way that they are rasterised to the screen, with a mix of hinting and anti-aliasing. The current Adobe version of anti-aliased type (in e.g. ATM Deluxe, Acrobat) is quite horribly mushy, but they suggest their CoolType technology will improve matters — a claim also made by Microsoft for their ClearType technology.

If one is prepared to give up page fidelity and let the type re-flow to fit the width available -rather like the basic HTML kind of approach — one possibility would be to ‘zoom’ the type, increasing the size of type display to compensate for poor lighting or advanced years.

And, if e-books are not going to privilege the display of the word over that of the image, zooming might be necessary in order to see the fine details of images, particularly those which are currently reproduced in print as line art. For example, map books require quite extraordinary detail to be visible.

The illuminated page & electronic paper

The traditional printed book is a reflection medium which allows great contrast provided it is illuminated adequately. Computer displays usually need to be illuminated internally in order to make their pixels visible. This increases the drain on electrical power. Some palm-top devices do have LCD screens that make do without illumination, but this seems only possible for a monochrome device.

If you’ve seen the film ‘The Net’, you’ll remember Sandra Bullock sitting on a sunny beach with an Apple PowerBook. In reality, of course, a sunny day completely washes out the visibility of any back-illuminated LCD display, and makes it unreadable.

Might the solution be to switch to the use of a reflective display ? Deborah Taylor-Pearce reminded us of a recent Xerox development:

Has anyone yet seen/touched the new ‘electronic paper’ developed at Xerox PARC, to be manufactured by 3M?

Consisting of tiny rotatable bichromal beads floating in an oil- filled layer of transparent plastic, the electronic paper is supposed to be as thin as traditional paper, and viewable in reflective light.

At the time of announcement (Sept. 1999), intended use included magazines and newspapers that offer breaking news, even as they’re being read (presuming, of course, that one has the necessary feeds for this and some sort of means for assuring coherence in the information flow), plus whiteboards and billboards which update their content automatically.

Another intended use: some new sort of e-book, the spine of which would hold the electronics that will dynamically alter the content of the book’s e-pages.

On the other hand, some Cafe members thought there were advantages to having books that glow from within. Alison Black said that if she’d had an e-book as a child she wouldn’t have had to take a torch under the bedclothes for illicit late- night reading!

How big is a book?

There’s much debate about how big an e-book should be. For those who look forward to carrying their entire library in their pocket — well, they are obviously thinking small. Other are worried about the limited display-space that a screen would offer.

In the world of print, each book comes with pages that are as big as they need to be. In my collection there are novels that fit in a pocket, DIY handbooks that exploit the display- space of a double page spread 50cm wide by 30cm deep, right up to the Times Atlas of the World that offers a 60 x 45 cm display area.

E-books, in contrast, shoehorn everything into the same display size. This may make them more suitable for texts that do not rely on broad juxtapositions of word and image to make their point.

However, another aspect of ‘size’ is the extent of a text. Commercial book-printing on large presses means that texts are designed to fit across a certain number of press sheets (you can’t have a five-page newspaper!). Sometimes one suspects in the world of computer tutorial publishing that authors are encouraged to be prolix so that the book’s spine will be fatter and more outstanding than that of the competing titles.

Gunnar Swanson pointed out:

...e-books might end the one-size-fits-all idea that a book needs to be book length. In the paper world it’s difficult to sell a book that wants to be 84 pages long. E-books could be any length someone is willing to read without a worry over whether it’s a short story, novella, or novel.

The codex or the scroll?

One advantage often cited for the printed book is that it is a physical object. Apart from factors such as the feel of nice paper which cannot be transferred to the electronic medium, it was pointed out that you always know where you are in a book. Elaine Montambeau:

With a book you always have a good sense of where you are; how much of the book you have read and the physical relation of information and ideas in the book.

Different views were of course taken about whether an e-book should have a scrolling display or one based on a page-turning concept, with some wanting the incompatible requirements of fixed page content/page references, plus their own choice of font and type-size! Ben Hyde wrote:

Page turning should be retained (maybe by a finger flick across the bottom right corner) — and number of pages/size of book/ progress indicated by thickness of pages before and aft...

...but other kinds of progress-indicators could be devised.

Lively links

Gunnar Swanson saw dynamic linking of material and computer rearrangement of text as big potential plusses of an e-book over the printed form:

Rearrangeable: The most obvious is a dictionary. Alphabetical may be the default but the same book could work as a thesaurus, or even alpha backwards for all of those ‘How many words end in "-ough" ?’

Speaking of dictionaries, every book would be accompanied by definitions; no leaving your dictionary at home

[There could be] big footnotes that don’t interfere with the flow of the book unless ‘requested,’ explanations that could expand on request, etc.

Other contributors cited searchability of book texts as being desirable. Some suggested that if linked to the Internet, the e-book would become expandable: ‘downloadable errata, "upgrades" to the next edition, etc.,’ suggested Beth.

Reference books already embody the idea of hypertextual reference, which is currently cumbersome for the reader who has to turn pages to get to the Notes — or else must put up with the distraction of footnotes/sidenotes. Ben Hyde’s suggestion:

Linking and popups could be included — though should be hidable so they do not distract (same goes for footnotes)

Notes and queries

Elaine Montambeau observed:

As far as dreaming about the potential that e-books could provide, I often think it would be nice to be able to quickly find sentences that I have highlighted or notes I have made. With a digital medium it may be possible to create a custom ‘database’ as one make notes and highlights sections of a book. Better yet, it would be nice to have this ‘database’ keep track of notes and highlighted sections of various books and journals so that you could cross reference ideas from different sources.

Some methods of electronically presenting documents do allow the addition of notes, for example Adobe’s PDF with its highlighting and notes windows, but because these are ‘inline’ annotations the file format has to be open enough to permit writing to memory as well as reading from it. This could be seen by publishers as being at odds with protecting their intellectual property through file-locking and encryption.

A more promising idea is that of out-of-line links and linkbases, as pioneered in research at the University of Southampton and further developed as ‘Multicosm’ and ‘Webcosm’. An out-of-line link is stored within a separate file, such as Elaine’s suggested database, and has a pointer to a position or entity in the annotated file, which therefore doesn’t need to be altered when the annotation is stored. The reader software has to access data both from the e-book file and the annotations database to display the notes as a kind of overlay to the e-book.

Out-of-line linkbases could also be shared with other readers in a community of scholarship or study.

The speaking book

Audio was an important part of many people’s fantasies about e-books. Beth Skwarecki:

It would be great if I could just push a button and have the reader read the text aloud to me through a speaker or head- phones — so I can, say, read a book when convenient, and then listen to it when I’m in the car or when it’s too dark or too sunny to read the screen.

This seems to presume computer voice-synthesis, which currently tends to sound more like Stephen Hawking than Majel Barratt (who plays the computer in Star Trek). There is also the possibility of having sampled rather than synthesised audio, for which a number of people could think of applications. Gunnar proposed

A book that will pronounce unfamiliar words...

Those learning foreign languages would surely appreciate being able to hear texts read by a native speaker, perhaps with the words being highlighted as the passage is read. And the bird-watcher is sure to appreciate a bird-book that contains genuine examples of birdsong, not the literary ‘twee-tui-too’ kind of notation we get by with at present.

For some subjects, and if storage requirements were not prohibitive, animated explanations or video clips could add greatly to the explanatory power of a textbook and move us into a new kind of medium.

How fragile is an e-book?

Several Cafe members imagined the e-book as being more durable than an ordinary book; unbreakable, unscratchable. Beth Skwarecki imagined herself going

...tadpole-collecting (or birdwatching or whatever) with my [waterproof] e-reader loaded with a half-dozen different field guides, since no one guide is perfect.

Quite a few people suggested that they’d want to read an e-book in the rain, or in the bath. Of course, there are degrees of waterproofness; will we ever see the Collins Electronic Field Guide to Fish of the Red Sea clipped to a scuba-diver’s belt?

But: just how robust are manufacturers designing e-book readers to be? I have had a Handspring Visor palmtop killed stone dead by just a few drops of rain...

Lending and borrowing books

Encryption schemes supported by most e-book publishers seem to enforce what Polonius merely advised: Neither a borrower nor a lender be. But frequently one does want to lend and borrow books with one’s friends and colleagues.

Some of the Cafe members expressed concern that if an e-book title is locked to the identity of a particular reading device or computer, what will happen to one’s access to the book when the time comes to upgrade the device, or it is damaged or stolen and needs to be replaced?

A thousand books in one: good or bad?

Several repondents looked forward to the idea of storing hundreds or thousands of books in a small portable reader. Michael Andrews wrote:

I can’t say enough about how my book habit is cramping my life. I’ve shed many books simply because I have no place for them... Books are a delight, but also an albatross. The book- weighted world of information explosion is colliding with our growing mobility.

Beth Skwarecki suggested:

The books that occupy several large shelves in my room could easily fit onto a standard hard drive - and were I an avid reader of e-books I would probably keep the copies on my hard drive (or on CD) and download to my portable reader when necessary

However, Beth’s hope does assume that she will not be prevented by the encryption schemes of publishers from moving her e-book files from one machine to another.

Also, when we think of how we work with books, for example when researching a topic or preparing an essay, it is not unusual to have five or six books open at once, so that we can cross-refer between them. An e-book might not even let us see a whole double-page spread of a single book, let alone six of them. Shall we then need to buy five or six of the e-book readers, at several hundred pounds each?

One solution to this problem might be if the e-book also supports the ‘printing’ of a page so that it could be referred to in connection with other pages, perhaps at an improved resolution. Note that printing might not necessarily be to a sheet of paper : it could be to a cheap supplementary passive LCD screen linked to the main reader by a cable or wireless link, or to ‘electronic paper’ of the sort developed by Xerox and described by Deborah Taylor-Pearce (see above).

Beyond the e-book?

There may be the danger of ‘reifying’ the e-book, so that the only model of it we can imagine is a single reader-device containing an electronically transferred file. But Randal helped to move thinking beyond this when he wrote:

One of the most interesting aspects of the recent Star Trek series has been the thinking which went into developing many of the ‘background’ technologies in the shows... I think one of the main really possible technologies they thought out were the small plastic text pads, which were used in a variety of ways in the shows. Some notes:

They were obviously cheap, and so people would often use them to hold only one or a few documents - keeping some of the quality of a text, being an object rather than merely a file. This also allows you to have several on your desk at the same time so you can glance back and forth at different documents easily.

Sturdy enough to drop on a desk or on the floor. Waterproof enough to take in your bath.

They came in different sizes, but generally were around the size of a paperback book and about as thin as a magazine — which seems logical to me. Tactile rather than screen-based controls at the bottom of the pad. Easy ability to download and upload data to external computers with no physical connections.

In the Star Trek Next Generation and Voyager series that Randal refers to, data is stored centrally by the ship’s main computer, which is ubiquitously and wirelessly networked to all sorts of data-presentation and interface devices.

In Star Trek, there are different kinds of portable devices. Should Captain Janeway want to work on a knotty problem of subspace physics, she’ll have a gigaquad of data loaded into a substantial workstation with lots of interface controls. To read poetry in the bath, she’ll use a simple pad that provides basic navigation only.

Our ship’s computer could be the Internet, with e-book titles being the files that are transferred to reading pads.

Perhaps we may imagine the e-book of the future as a kind of sub-hub device, with its own cluster of peripherals. One would probably want some sort of screen built in so that the unit could be sealed against every kind of environmental insult. But if the device were equipped with some sort of BlueTooth-like short-range wireless networking capability, one could optionally ‘transmit’ pages on a temporary basis to other devices:

Politico-Ethical dimensions

In this paper, I have concentrated on contributions to the InfoDesign-Cafe discussions from people who were broadly in favour of examining the potential and usability problems of e-books as an emerging medium. However, some other contributors expressed a gamut of negative attitudes — from disdain for ‘unnecessary’ technology to suspicious antagonism against the schemes of capitalist publishers.

To pick out a few of the points which impressed me the most, adding some of my own:

Finally, some contributors suggested that it’s not publishing which needs to change, but us. Brendan Atkins wrote:

Uncritically, we’ve been sold the idea that we’re consumers, not readers or humans, and that, like a screaming three-year-old in a supermarket, we must get what we want. NOW. Like many people, I’m happy to wait for a train rather than wait for the traffic to start moving, [and] to use libraries to read more widely than my personal collection.

And James Souttar responded to complaints about print information overload by suggesting that the problem would be diminished if people stopped writing such a lot of trash!

Where I stand

Electronic documents and e-books comprise a fascinating and useful technology, but it doesn’t command uncritical acceptance. Like any other publishing or broadcasting technology, this development alters the balance of power between those who produce and publish ideas and those who want to consider and acquire them.

I believe publishers, and designers who work with them, have an ethical responsibility to uphold and strengthen human dignity and autonomy. Books have played an important part in fostering these values in our civilisation. The more that books become like television, and the more that publishing becomes like broadcasting and Hollywood, the more afraid I become for the future!

But I’ll let Gunnar Swanson have the last word:

The ‘e-book’ might also get issued to every kid in school for textbook purposes and thus be available for comic books, violent video games, and pornography, therefore allowing a renaissance in those forms.

;-)