Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Tablet Still Is Not a Book ... Not Yet

Reading on an iPad, or a tablet, just isn't the same as reading a book. And for me, it's not better. Even though I was, of course, excited about the prospect of an infinitely accessible library in a carry-on form, the fact is that when I try to read on the iPad, I'm doing so reluctantly, and I get through far fewer pages in a sitting than I'm used to.
In theory, I have thousands of paragraphs in that aluminum-and-glass enclosure that I'd love to get to, but in practice, it feels like a chore. Sure, I'm in the minority here, but I know I'm not the only one: Researchers from Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies) to Margaret Mackey (Literacies Across Media) have explored whether and how the growth of digital reading has changed our reading behaviors. In my case, it has—for the worse. But why?

Black Marks on a White Page: The Physical

We have intense emotional reactions to books as physical objects. We turn books over in libraries and stores; we smell them and suddenly it's Proust with a cookie (being anosmic, I cannot address this directly); we schlep boxes and boxes of books each time we move; we browse them on shelves; any single one may instantly remind you of a particular time or relationship. And this physicality, along with the haptic nature of page-turning, has real effects on the cognitive act of reading.
Research has shown that the physicality of books is linked to comprehension and memory. A 2005 study by Thierry Morineau et al. found that readers link, at deep levels of the brain, the physically and functionally "unitary object" of a book with the text content; much as repeating something out loud helps us memorize it, this sensory-motor experience reinforces focus and comprehension. In e-books, though, the connection between the text and material is at a remove that removes this reinforcement.
That haptic problem may not be avoidable with today's technology. We can, however, look at a few more immediate issues that I, and others, have with reading on an iPad. We can look at why they're issues, and what can be done to improve the experience.
Putting a Gloss on Things
The glossy, reflective screen of the iPad can be seriously distracting—sometimes it's a physical strain, sometimes it's a mental strain, but both degrade the reading experience. As a graphics professional friend of mine pointed out, you have to adapt to the iPad in ways you don't have to adapt to a book. He then demonstrated the not-quite-graceful pose he had to hold when he last was on a plane to keep screen glare to an acceptable level. Maybe it's an unintended consequence of my screen-cleaning OCD, but this happens a lot, and makes sitting with an iPad often less comfortable than sitting with a nice, matte-paper book.
The second problem with Apple’s glossy screens is that I often find my eyes refocusing to bring the reflection in the screen into focus (I'm not vain, I'm just always there). This is a physical strain, but more importantly it takes me from reading the words on the screen to "reading" the image that's suddenly unavoidable. Once this happens I have to take action to refocus my eyes and my attention, just to get back to what would have been uninterrupted on paper.
This is forcing the user to task switch. Task switching, an active concept in psychology since the 1920s, is when we have to change our attention from one thing to another. It's important to realize that each time you ask a user to task switch, there is some switch cost; the best-known contemporary research shows how talking on the phone impairs driving performance. These costs may be large or trivial, but I think we can all agree that any cost can totally ruin it when the user's goal is to concentrate on or "get lost" in, say, Twilight fanfic.
Full piece at UX Magazine

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