the future of eReaders: what goes on in your mind while you are reading?

What Can Research Help You Discover?

I’ve been experimenting with eReaders. Google’s announcement of its software for several platforms helped me consolidate my thoughts on the subject. My conclusion is that eReaders are not where I want them to be, functionally. I believe this first few years worth of effort behind eReaders represents a transparent reach by companies for my pocketbook. There’s no heart behind their products yet, no deep attempt on their part to support my reading in a better way. They merely allow me to read in an obvious, flat, linear way. I am convinced that they need to understand the things people currently do in the real world in reaction to their reading, which will open up many options for functionality that will truly bring a change to the experience of reading.

What do I mean? I don’t mean evaluating how people use eReaders today. All the companies have practices in place already to conduct evaluative research into the experience with their existing products. They need to turn to problem-space research to obtain the insights that I mean. They need an understanding of people’s intentions and thought-processes while reading, regardless of tools, medium, or services. From this understanding they can generate truly new support for readers. For example:

  • Shujie puts her book down to ask her husband, there on the couch with her, whether he agrees with a particular viewpoint she just read.
  • Adam folds a corner of a page to look at later when he’s in front of the computer and can Google the concept he read about there.
  • Gerardo reads the three chapters of the textbook assigned, knowing there will be a quiz tomorrow. He highlights the sentences he wants to remember, then he re-reads those highlights a couple of times.
  • Johan wonders while reading a famous passage how it might have influenced Winston Churchill during World War II, which he just watched a program about.
  • Jocelyn reads something and smiles, thinking briefly of her friend Karen who would laugh at that sentence. She then reads on.

What are all the real-life thoughts, actions, and emotional reactions that go through people’s minds and sometimes get translated to immediate or delayed action? Can these activities and philosophies be compared and grouped into a model that might illuminate our path forward? If we can understand these behaviors, then we can discover the strongest threads that will pull readers toward a smoothly supportive digital reading experience. Generative research like this has the side benefit of producing stable results that shift only over decades and human generations. Therefore research conducted now can serve designers for a decade to come.

How Can eReader Software Improve?

Currently, all eReader software features are pretty similar. People can highlight text and write notes, and of course change the fonts and background colors and sizes. They can flow text differently to different devices, and they can synchronize across those devices. They can skip around and bookmark pages. But none of this is a completely compelling reason to choose a digital reading medium. People choosing digital right now are true pioneers, putting up with very limited functionality in their digital readers. Not everyone sees benefits to switching from analog to digital. To be compelling, a digital reading experience must support the little things that flit through people’s heads as they read. Without having completed any research yet myself, here are three imagined examples of how a digital experience can be made more powerful:

    • Katrin reads a beautiful passage in a book by her favorite author. She re-reads it several times, savoring it like fine wine. She wishes to “re-enjoy” that passage later, perhaps six months from now, without actually reaching out to the book itself, which remains “on her shelf.” She also wants to mention it to her friend Marisa, whom she thinks will enjoy it, too. Using the eReader software, she emails the passage to herself in six months, and texts it to Marisa today for a little back-and-forth. Katrin can enjoy the passage with her friend today.Then, six months later, she finds an email in her inbox from her eReader software with this passage, and she smiles and enjoys it once more.
    • Paul finds a meaningful passage in a book on philosophy. He wants to incorporate it in his life–make it a part of his daily practice. Using the eReader software, he sets up a daily afternoon text message with the passage. He can set this to occur at different times. Each day he sees this text from his eReader software and evaluates whether he has done well with regard to the philosophy.
    • AeSook pulls all the highlighted phrases from the chapters she has been studying into a separate study list. She finds most of the phrases in the list understandable, but one of them puzzles her. Wanting to remember the context of that phrase, she looks up the original paragraph and reads up and down a bit in the book to recall the point the text is trying to make. With this enhanced understanding, she feels ready for the quiz tomorrow.
    • KC finds an OCR error in the text, from where it was read from analog and converted to digital. They wants to let the publisher know, so they highlights it and clicks a button. They finds another passage to highlight as an interesting plot point, and add it to a list they created for “plot points,” as a way to learn how to be a better storyteller. Then there’s a passage they wants to share with their mom, for laughs, because it’s exactly how they talk about this thing. They sends it with a button and also adds it to another list they call “hilarious.” On a day a week later, when they’re depressed, they can open up the “hilarious” list and read all sorts of highlights from various books.

We are on the cusp of the digital reading age. There are hundreds of possibilities that will become “the norm” for humanity with regard to reading. The potential is massive. Using a deep understanding of the things people think as they read now, regardless of the analog or digital medium, will have a strong impact on the future direction of eReader software.