Thursday, April 14, 2005

Rethinking The Interface

In an earlier post (Training I - do your users think in ink?) I talked about the need for users to learn new skills that seemed disarmingly like skills they had already acquired--but which were decidedly different. This unexpected difference makes for a longer learning curve and can result in a higher frustration level, and potentially even with rejection of the Tablet by users. The proverb of old wine in new wineskins comes to mind.

Another area where I see this proverb as applicable is in application interfaces. There are a lot of obvious ways that applications need to change to work really well on Tablet PCs, most notably the appropriate support of ink. There are lots of other fairly obvious issues that application designers need to consider: the potential for portrait mode orientation, the difficulty of hitting small screen widgets (scroll bar buttons, title bar buttons, etc.) with a pen, graceful recovery from stand-by mode, etc., etc., etc. I am pretty opinionated on this subject and as I am in the process of reworking an internal application to work well with the Tablets I am dealing with this regularly and probably will have more to say in the future.

For now, though, I want to focus exclusively on the problem of reading on a Tablet, apparently one of the less obvious issues judging by past efforts, and give kudos to a group that I think is getting it right.

Reading on a computer has never been a particularly pleasant prospect for me until I had my Tablet. The application that finally made it work is Microsoft Reader. (This isn't the group I mentioned, but Reader is an appropriate segue to talking about them.) In a nutshell, Reader has very successfully replicated for me the feel of reading a book on my Tablet. Some of this is due to the slate mode of the Tablet, as keyboards are in the way when reading. But Microsoft also made some very sound design decisions that, and this is key, went against conventional wisdom and Windows application design standards. They didn't let the current interface paradigm dictate how they approached the reading problem and as a result found an elegant solution to it. I talk about this in quite a bit more detail in a posting on my other blog, The Pew Tablet. While that blog's focus is on how Christians can use Tablet PCs, this particular article might be worth reading regardless of your beliefs if you are interested in this subject.

I mention in that article that while MS Reader (and to some extent Adobe Acrobat Reader) has greatly improved reading books on PCs, reading magazines on Tablets still doesn't cut it. One of the first things I did when I got my latest Tablet was to remove Zinio, a magazine reading application that came preinstalled. Like all efforts I had seen before, the magazines that were published in Zinio looked like the publisher had tried to shoehorn pages from their print editions onto the Tablet screen. A paradigm that works well (in most cases) in print just doesn't cut it at all for me on the Tablet. Nor for that matter do web-based magazines in many cases. In the former, the strengths of the old paradigm mostly don't translate well and in the latter too many of those strengths are thrown out completely. As a result, I simply haven't found reading newspapers or magazines on a computer worthwhile. The Web is great for getting a single article, but that isn't reading a magazine and that is the experience that I have been missing.

However the Missouri School of Journalism and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute have been collaborating on an experiment with a bi-weekly electronic edition (called EmPRINT, for Electronic Media Print) of their newspaper, The Missourian. Their experiment seems to me to be very successful so far. Once again, they appear to have thought outside the existing paradigms and come up with a new one that preserves the linearity and perusal capabilities of paper but doesn't tie you into flipping virtual pages or throw you into hyperlink purgatory where you have to use the back button to retrace your steps when you inevitably get lost.

When one loads an EmPRINT edition of The Missourian, a very newspaper-like page appears, but with only a few stories and pictures under the banner. Different sections of the paper are displayed as tabs on the right side of the page so one can quickly jump to a section of interest, but there is also the ability to browse through the edition page by page. An index brings up a detailed listing of the contents, something print papers don't do, but which is very useful. Stories are usually continued on later pages, but the links to go there are attractive and contribute to the newspaper-like feel rather than detract from it. It is a wonderful, wonderful way to read a newspaper on a Tablet and I hope it is a harbinger of more to come from other print media.

My description doesn't really do this justice, so I recommend that you go to the EmPRINT site and get a copy for yourself. You have to register to download the editions, and part of registering is agreeing to supply feedback to them. I have gotten one survey per edition and there is usually only one question per survey, so this isn't an onerous requirement. But their experiment ends on May 8, so you should hurry if you want to see this in action. Here is the registration page. They do promise that if the results of this field test are favorable, they will continue to publish the EmPRINT edition. I certainly hope they do.

I also hope this way of rethinking the interface represents only an opening salvo. Those of us in education really need e-books and e-magazines and e-texts that are something more than just web or Acrobat copies of the paper book. Publishing houses, are you listening?


  1. I also hope this way of rethinking the interface represents only an opening salvo. Those of us in education really need e-books and e-magazines and e-texts that are something more than just web or Acrobat copies of the paper book. Publishing houses, are you listening?

    I second the motion!!! What publishers really need to do is design the text/magazine/content for a tablet from the ground up -- a simple re-hasing of content through acrobat is good, but not good enough! If they were to actually desing texts with tablets in mind, I suspect that the content would be transformed in ways similar to the differences between books and the best web pages out there.

    I expect that I would be "blown away" by something like designed for a tablet from the start. there's a killer app!

  2. the school should get e-textbooks and send us e-newspapers....i think more people would be more adept to reading the text books...i know i would.

  3. I am certainly trying to find sources for them, Rick. I spent dozens of hours last year working with the vendor who produced the Java programming book we used. While they worked hard with me, in the end they just weren't willing to risk having copies of their book spread around. Either digital rights management has to be made to work (and inexpensively at that) or vendors have to just trust their customers more than they do.

    We are trying to get some e-book samples from Thomson Publishing, but they haven't come up with any yet.

    Wouldn't it be cool if we could publish our own newspaper along the lines of the U of Missouri paper?

  4. DRM is a real problem. Some companies get aroudn ti by having their digital text on-line, where they can control access.

    I wonder how they would react if you bought the physical texts for your school, cut one up, scanned it into a .pdf, and made that .pdf available to the students? (How quickly would their lawyers descend upon you?)

    What if a student did that on their own? ...and shared their file with others?

    ...and they think they have a problem with Xerox machines!

    They (publishers) need to come up with something soon or they're going to end up in the same boat that the music industry is in. Soon.


    Publish a student newspaper! What a great project that would be for your journalism students!