Books and Interactivity Redux (Samovar Edition)

Last year, when I wrote about the future of the interactive book, I had read books on smartphones. But now I have an iPad, and it’s been an entirely different reading experience.

Man, do I love it. The Kindle may be light, use e-ink, and have insane battery life, but the iPad feels like something that Captain Picard might carry around:

or something that could accompany me to Jupiter to investigate strange phenomena:

But it’s not just the futuristic form factor that keeps me coming back. I love the user experience of the iBooks app. One feature I’ve especially appreciated as I read are the contextual tools, especially in the iBooks app. The ability to highlight, comment, and the ability to look things up in the dictionary feels intuitive.

Recently I read Hadji Murad, Tolstoy’s final novella, in iBooks. The story, about a Chechnyan rebel, is filled with unfamiliar words. I was able to quickly get definitions without getting pulled too far from the story. I don’t have to put the book down and pick up a dictionary, yet I am assimilating the information. And there’s nothing in the way of my enjoyment of the text: no tags, no footnotes. This isn’t about convenience — it’s about keeping what’s so great about the user experience of reading books in the first place, and that’s the feeling of immersion.

One downside to this opaqueness is that there’s nothing to tell me when there’s no available information available. Often, I’ll check for a definition to find that there’s nothing in the dictionary. That’s because right now, the available data is severely limited. I want more.

For example, I could imagine, in a translated work, being able to quickly see the original text.

Or, I’d love to see quick images of specific references. Or: at the beginning of Hadji Murad is a long passage about different kinds of flowers. Probably Tolstoy’s contemporary readers were familiar with them, but I wasn’t. He may tell me that the scabious is red and yellow, but what does it look like? (Here’s a pink one…)

Scabiosa_columbaria_pink_mist

photo by Stan Shebs

Consider the samovar. Throw a rock at a Russian novel from the nineteenth century and you’ll hit a samovar. But none of my friends have a samovar. My dinner parties are sans samovar. A reader of Tolstoy might imagine a stone bowl or a statue sitting on the table in the place of a huge teapot. With a quick video, photo or diagram, with scale, the reader gets a much richer experience.

The idea of all of this extracurricular information raises a lot of questions for literature. You could argue that the writer worked hard to make the language right, and should be able to control what information you get. It’s a fair point, but on the other hand, if this was in 1985 and I was 13, I might have stopped reading, gone to my World Book Encyclopedia, and looked up the samovar anyway. So why not make the interruption quicker and maintain that immersion? When it comes to history, science, or really any kind of nonfiction, I see no possible valid objection. Anything to help visualize the world, the better.

Again, we’re going to use tools to get more information, so often the best thing is to make those tools unobtrusiveness of the tools. There’s a lesson to be learned in developing any user experience that we should always ask ourselves what the user should be focusing on at any moment, and avoid excessive visual flare or unnecessary tech-complexity. Good user experience design should strive to provide depth and breadth when needed, but not at the expense of the story.

—Scott Smith, Content Strategist

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Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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