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Reading Ahead: A Research by Portigal Consulting August 29, 2009

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Ethnographic Research, Innovation, Research, Trends.

Investigating the “reading experience” and “physical versus digital books” has to be one of the most interesting research topics available out there. Reading is one of the deepest experiences we have with “things” / “content” and it is presently facing (and resisting still) the new technologies available and other tensions that could entirely change that experience.

Steve Portigal and Dan Soltzberg from Portigal Consulting just released the findings from a really interesting research study they performed on the topic called Reading Ahead (study performed out of their own interest). I strongly recommend checking out their different blog posts about this and especially listening to their findings presentation.

Basically it is so good it got me to post again after such a long time away from my blog…

Note: I won’t summarize the study here as my post is already pretty long, so to fully put my reflections below into perspective, it’s better to look at their slides and listen to their presentation first (the presentation lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes).

There are several thoughts that came to me as I was listening to the presentation. Let me try to structure a few below.

Device Integration: Loss of Important Emotional Stimuli
Steve and Dan go through a lot of impacts arising from going towards a digital reading experience. One impact they mention is the loss of a direct link between the object (the book) and a set of memories or emotions. A book is a physical object and it ages. When you see it on your shelves or take it in your hands, it will automatically trigger specific memories (when you bought it, where you read it), specific feelings or moods. Taking an ebook reader in hand, will stimulate an emotional response as well, but using a single device for reading will make this response much shallower and less rich, as the response will mostly be linked to the device instead of the individual book.

As I listened to the talk I thought about a similar revolution that happened in the past when emails appeared to replace normal mail. Letters are single objects in themselves and are directly attached to memories, moods and other people. In the past, we were free to store these letters in different places according to the emotions they would trigger. Now, with emails (and this is re-inforced by the huge quantity of emails we receive), this link has totally disappeared. Going back to our archive in our email client and digging an old email will not have by far the same effect as reopening a box where we stored all our love letters. And this leads to a different type of emotional attachment, where users are attached to the device (the email client or the eBook reader) rather than the actual content (mails or books).

A changing world: Speed Versus Reflection
Right after listening to the presentation, I read this article from the Los Angeles Times called “The Lost Art of Reading” by David L. Ulin. This article strongly reinforces the insights extracted from Steve and Dan’s research to show how deep the reading experience is. It also highlights a very important fact which is that books are not only fighting a war against technology. They are also fighting a war against our changing way of lives.

As the article discusses, we live in a world where speed is of the essence – where we need to react to information we gather in the next second in fear of losing our edge. Books are all about a different way of life. Books can take years to write and for the most part could not care less about current events happening on the day you read them. Books are about unplugging (term used in Steve and Dan’s study) yourself from the world. Books are about reflecting on things. And these are less and less tolerated in the world today… but I am wandering off topic here (as I usually do), as this concerns the future of reading books in general and not the tension between physical and digital books.

Design Opportunities: Giving Life to Notes
Steve and Dan at the end of their report go through some opportunities that digital books’ designs can integrate to make the digital reading experience a stronger contender against the traditional reading experience. One that they do not discuss (unless I missed it) is notes. I would split notes into two categories in the reading experience: notes from the author and notes from the reader. Both of these categories of notes could be revolutionized by the advent of digital reading.

What would added interactivity do to author’s notes for example? What if you could click on a referenced article the author mentions and read that article the next second? Or even get a review/summary and ulitmately purchase another book the author also happens to cite? This would add a new depth to books and provide an exceptional experience to the reader (not to mention a great marketing opportunity for publishers). As Steve and Dan discuss in their presentation, this can of features would have to rely on a great ecosystem to provide this integrated experience. That’s something not in place at all today (especially outside of the US).

The other category of notes is user notes and this is where to me there is an even greater opportunity. Right now, you can highlight things in a book or put sticky papers on pages you think are interesting. What about searching for a term you saw in the book after you finished reading or looking up all the pages where another author is referenced? What about building yourself a set of quotes and comments about the book that you typed as you where reading and that are organized and retrievable anywhere after you’re done reading? What about co-reading even? See what people felt or commented as they read the book you are reading. What if the digital book allowed you to share your experience with other readers thus giving the digital book a life of its own, turning each book into a vertical social network almost…

As usual, I am just following a spur of the moment to write this post and I ought to have put more reflection into it (sorry… I am a product of the new changing world where speed is everything), but I do hope that it can even so modestly contribute a tiny bit to the discussion surrounding books and the reading experience. I am personally a big fan of physical books, but if the digital reading experience and a good ecosystem were in place, I would definitely juggle between both physial and digital reading (similarly to the way I do with CDs and digital music).



1. steveportigal - September 5, 2009

Nicolas – as always thanks for your engagement and enthusiasm. It means a lot.

I like your riffing on the digitalness of books, with aggregation of content, notes, sharing, looking up, etc. When we did the participatory design activity with people, that sort of enhanced hypertext sort of experience did come up; but as you point out that wasn’t really part of our overarching findings or opportunity areas.

2. Conversations with Dina » Reading Ahead … ethnography on evolution of books and reading - September 7, 2009

[…] from the findings which are interesting, and worth a separate dialogue in themselves, I find that sharing the process of research, as Steve and his team have done, really demonstrates […]

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