The Problem with Digital Reading is Paper


A few weeks ago the Washington Post ran a great article by Michael Rosenwald about millenials’ preferences for print over digital books. It’s an enlightening read. A lot of people over thirty-five tend to think they prefer paper books/documents because they’re old. They may see digital as being better in some abstract way and, with a tone somewhere between apology and lament, see themselves as too old to get on board. The beauty of Rosenwald’s piece is that it helps us all get a little closer to the root of the problem with digital reading. The signs are that it’s less of an incompatibility with our childhood habits, as with our psychological and cognitive requirements as people.

Digital reading has been one of those phenomena that’s always a couple years away from completely enveloping the world—like nuclear fusion. Of course fusion has shown some hints of hope lately, and likewise some forms of digital reading have done well overall (Amazon doesn’t release sales figures, but we have some hints). But Kindle is really designed for casual reading; the place where digital has fallen short, as Rosenwald explains, is with things like digital textbooks. And while Rosenwald focuses on academic reading, other studies have shown similar preferences among professional knowledge workers, about 80% of whom like to print their documents to read them. This kind of professional and academic reading usually involves what academics call “active reading” since it necessitates a more proactive engagement with a text, and especially the physical medium of a text. Taking notes, comparisons, writing excerpts, searching, are all examples.

So why is active reading so hard on digital devices? Partly it’s the nature of a digital device that invites distraction and, on tablets and PCs, the irritating lighting of an emissive display. But a major component is more about what the devices are capable of and how that matches to what people need when they read. Back in the 90s Kenton O’Hara studied what goes into the active reading process at Xerox’s research labs in the UK. He found many of the usual suspects: annotation like highlighting and margin notes, bookmarking, etc. But he found nuances that are less obvious—having good ways to retrieve notes, support for non-linear reading, viewing different document sections in parallel, diagramming, etc.

…We’re left in a difficult spot: our digital active reading products are inspired by paper, inherit its problems, and avoid its advantages.

When you think about that list, your first thought is probably—of course—that computers offer fairly poor functionality and that’s why active reading is so hard. But think about it a bit more and you’ll see that paper actually isn’t great at those things either. Comparing three different pages of a book, for example, is pretty awkward, as are many of the things we need to do in active reading. And this is actually the root of much of the problem with digital reading—it’s very heavily inspired by paper. This is to be expected, right? It’s natural to inform a design for something new with the experience of something old—it gives a familiarity that makes the user feel more comfortable. Equally important, the use of metaphoric representations can help people learn to use the new item. But metaphors have limits, and past a point can actually hinder a user experience as much as help it (see Don Norman’s classic, “The Anti-Mac Interface”).

But paper has benefits, you protest. You can dog-ear a page, get a mustard stain under a picture, hold your thumb at the start of a chapter and numerous other things that make active reading tolerable. But here’s the rub—those good things are grounded in the physicality of paper, and don’t really translate to today’s digital media. Think about it—many of the best attributes of paper require it being composed of physical pages. So we’re left in a difficult spot: our digital active reading products are inspired by paper, inherit its problems, and avoid its advantages.

So where do we go from here? As I said earlier, and as my own research showed, active reading isn’t great on paper. It’s just that it’s worse on computers. There comes a time when you need to design from first principles rather than by analogy; if we hope to improve upon our flawed but tolerable paper books, we need to start thinking outside of the book for our e-reading (Tweet It).

Craig Tashman