The ereader incompetence checklist (for discerning consumers, editors, publishers and designers)

— October, 2010

Translations: Italian

I repeat the same conversation over and over again. It starts:

"You don't like the Wired iPad app? Why? It's so [positive adjective]."

"Well, for one — It's not even text ..."

"But it looks just like the printed copy!"

At which point I then dive into my spiel1 about artifacts and digital text and what we should expect from our digital reading experiences.

The bottom line is: most of our ereading experiences are pretty bad. And many of us don't realize it.

iPad is still a baby — barely six months old! — so we're clearly still in a developmental and experimentation phase. But I feel like many readers, authors, editors and publishers simply don't know how to assess their digital reading experience. I always like to follow up spiels with URLs, so consider this the followup URL to my ereader spiel if we've ever met in person.

In order to assess something we need a rubric. Criteria. Standards. Metrics. A baseline. So let's set one together. (Please add your metrics in the comments.)

For me, the first question I ask when trying new ereader software is:
Is the reading experience 'better' than reading in a browser?

In a rush to invent new containers for reading on tablets, we seem to have forgotten that browsers are pretty damn good at text. Thanks to accessibility and standardization efforts, they're capable layout engines.2 And the typography is getting better by the minute. 3 Reading a webpage on a tablet computer may not be perfect, but you'll see that it fulfills almost all of our baseline digital reading experience and accessibility metrics.

Which begs the question: If most ereading software doesn't offer a better experience than simple HTML and CSS, why are so many publishers reinventing the wheel? 4

The incompetence checklist:

Grab your iPad, open your nearest ereader/magazine/content focused application and ask the following question:

  • Am I reading text? If the text in your ereader isn’t text but is instead an image (.jpeg, .png, etc) then, by golly, your ereader's incompetent.

Everything else builds off of this.

  • Does my ereader make the text less accessible to the visually impaired? If so, then sorry, my friend, your ereader is incompetent (and an asshole).
  • Can you copy text? If you can’t, your ereader's incompetent.
  • Can you resize text? No? Incompetent. (See accessibility)
  • Are you a text-heavy publication such as The New Yorker? Is a single issue of your magazine gratuitously large (500mb+ per month)? 5 Lazy incompetence. 6
  • Does a PDF export of your content provide a basically identical reading experience as your ereader? Would a PDF actually provide a better reading experience (zoomable, searchable, real text)? Then your ereader's plagued by confused incompetence.
  • And, once again, would reading this content in a web browser with well considered margins and font-size provide a better, more accessible, more linkable reading experience? If so, then why isn't the content delivered that way?

As a bonus, I think the following metric will become steadily more important in our ereading experience:

  • Is there a publicly facing pointer (URL, etc) by which you can reference the content in your ereader?

Many of these metrics are accessibility related. It's scary that most of the highly-praised ereaders (such as Wired / New Yorker / Time magazine's apps) eliminate the inherent accessibility of digital text. Of course, this is a transition period, but why not start off on the right foot? Digital text isn't the same artifact that printed text is. Let's not treat it like it is.

Until things improve, I'll be reading those excellent long-form New Yorker pieces in Instapaper,7 thanks.

What do you look for in an ereader?

  1. Dictionary says spiel; Twitter folks say schpiel; when you do it, it feels like a schpeel — like sliding down a verbal schp on a banana peel.
  3. Typekit for iPad
  4. Before you bite my head off remember I'm simply suggesting ereaders be built around an open platform like webkit. Which is not the same as saying all ereading should happen on a web page. Instead of rolling your own layout engine — which tends to feel like a broken PDF viewer or something made with Adobe Director — build atop the high quality of what's out there. All the heavy lifting's been done for you! And you can still package and sell the finished product. Enhanced Editions is a great example of an ereader that does this.
  5. Condé Nast’s iPad Apps Are Too Portly. Blame Adobe. — Peter Kafka, September 28th, 2010
  6. Digital text is light. Highly compressible. In other words — transportable. More than video or audio or pictures. Most consumers would rather have giant supplemental videos streamed from the cloud instead of eating precious space on their device. (And for $5 a pop, we’d hope that the issue cost would more than subsidize the bandwidth of a few inline videos.)
  7. Instapaper is probably my favorite digital reading experience. Simple, clean layouts. HTML based, resizable margins, leading and font-size. All content built off of webpages to which you can link! It's lovely and a great baseline to which other ereaders should aspire.


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