Maybe no one understands reading

As regular readers know, I love my iPad. What I like most about it is how easy it makes reading. Books have clear nice pages that can be flipped and navigated. Children’s books are even better making the words and pictures come alive. And just the generic digital stuff like email, webpages and pdfs; it is so nice to have it in your hand but not in miniature. That said, I have yet to come across a Feed Reader that does the job. Nonetheless, Instapaper is a good substitute. When I encounter an article I want to read later, I click a button on my browser and the text — not all the other gunk — is sent to my iPad. It makes reading articles book like and hence, a pleasure to read.

But there has been this undercurrent of interest in bringing print media — most notably newspapers and magazines — to iPads with advertisements intact. Personally I would happily pay for The Economist and New Yorker in this way — or at least I thought so (as Instapaper is a pretty good substitute). So today when Wired released its long awaited app, I decided to pay the $5 and see how it all went. And the answer is terrible.

Now, this is not for want of trying. The iPad app is a better version of the print magazine and has some smooth interactive bits. But it is 500MB (not great if you are on an Australian download cap) and, because it was not constrained by paper, highlights exactly what is wrong with paper. First of all — and this is fixable — when you read a magazine you often encounter full page ads but they effectively take up half the reading space — you know, per flip. On the iPad app, they are a whole page which means you have to flip past them. That makes reading an article somewhat annoying although articles flip vertical so you can get around this. But I found a whole page ad taking up my view confronting. Second — and this also fixable — there is no way of ‘saving’ articles and coming back to them easily let alone sharing them. On web pages, I like to do that. I know I can’t do that in print but once you are digital being without that function is a pain.

But the big problem is that it isn’t fun to read this way. And the reason for that is that it isn’t fun to read print magazines. They have columns and ads and pictures which are nice for browsing but when you want to actually read — you know, the text — it is a big pain. When I think about it, it is pain to do this in print — the text is too small, you have to search for the next bit of the article, etc. For some reason we put up with it, but we know it is bad. That is why some cruder electronic media actually work out better. Crikey, for years was an unsophisticated long email. But you know what, it is was easy to actually read. You got to an article and it was an article. And they all were the same. I knew what to do with it. But with magazines that is never the case. Same with newspapers. We put up with small columns to save paper but really, do we have to have the same when it is all digital?

This isn’t Wired’s fault. They were leveraging off what people seemed to like in terms of reading and they did it well. But I think it highlights exactly how far we have to go. Put simply, someone has to work out what the best way to reading is. I think Instapaper is a good place to start but there is a ton more experimentation still to come. Until then, the spectre of doom over the news media wont go away.

7 thoughts on “Maybe no one understands reading”

  1. A similar problem exists with academic papers. I am certain that almost everyone accesses journal articles in electronic form now, yet the pdfs provided are replicas of ye olde print journals. Reading them on most computer screens means scrolling up and down and up and down, for reasons of simple inertia. I’m so very glad economics doesn’t use footnotes!


  2. I played around with it, but passed on the purchase (mainly due to its ‘first gen’-ness and my general risk aversion).
    I am curious though, what’s your posture like when you’re using it? In the few minutes I spent test-driving it, I couldn’t find a comfortable position for sustained reading. I read the entire LOTR trilogy on my Sony Clie (Palm OS) but I couldn’t imagine doing that on the iPad.


  3. Josh,
    One of the reasons newspapers and magazines use text in columns is, far from simply making layout easier, that it actually reflects how our eyes operate.
    When we read, our eyes don’t move continuously from one side of the page to the other: they jump, in little steps — mostly forward, but sometimes backward. With each jump, the eye takes in the text surrounding the precise point it’s looking at. Having narrow columns allows us to read quickly, as our eyes don’t need to spring backwards and forwards as much (counter-intuitive, but true), instead just moving from top to bottom.
    Leaving the other issues aside, the presentation of text in columns may not appeal to you, but it’s very much been thought through.
    Addendum: one of the common practices for speed reading is to train your eyes to traverse a page more smoothly, and to process larger blocks of text. Once your brain can “read” the width of a normal page in one glance (like most people can “read” one line of a newspaper column in one glance), you can just read from top to bottom at speed — like you would with the newspaper.


  4. Take a look at a magazine, that is not how they lay it out. There are interruptions all over the place.
    My problem is not with the columns but with the interruptions.


  5. That’s a fair criticism, though it wasn’t clear from your original post and has little to do with narrow columns: plenty of website plonk ads in the middle of their (full page) articles.

    Most likely the magazines’ practice is combination of deliberately placing ads there so you’ll look at them, lack of care, and ineptitude.


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