In a previous blog, I explored the idea of merging interaction and narrative. But what about using interactive technology as a complement to reading?
Now that books can be read on a dedicated e-reader or tablet device, the possibilities for enhancing or changing the experience of reading narrative text (either fiction or non-fiction) are truly exciting. Marcus du Sautoy, the author of The Num8er My5teries, a book about bringing maths to life, makes use of a gaming app and web content to supplement the static text with visual interactive material so that readers can try out the puzzles for themselves. His excellent article Into the Unknown discusses some of the opportunities and limitations of this new publishing technology.
My reservation is that the act of reading is such a singular and focused experience, that any interactive add-on to the text on a device may just interrupt the flow. Reading may seem passive but the interaction between reader and book can be highly active whereby the reader re-creates the world of a novel in the mind. Apps that offer complementary content such as interactive family trees, maps, glossaries and author interviews need non-intrusive interfaces that don’t distract the reader from the main experience. Mobile Art Lab’s Phonebook allows an iPhone to be placed inside the covers of a book to deliver content appropriate to the current page. Such seamless augmented reality solutions offer a way for physical books to be enhanced by interactive technology.
The Alice app for the iPad offers animated scenes using artwork from the original Alice in Wonderland book to ‘bring the characters to life’ which is more a re-invention of what a book is than a complement to the text.
What’s interesting is that the possibilities for interactive technology lie at any point along the spectrum between complementary apps for traditional paper-based books and complete re-imaginings of what a book can be. And often the nature of the content itself can determine what blend of traditional linear text and interactive content will work.
I have often been involved in conversations on the differences between those user experience practitioners who are trained and educated in the more traditional areas of industrial engineering, ergonomics, cognitive psychology, or human factors and those who have come to the profession via a degree in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). Those who have the more traditional degrees are eligible to work on things like air traffic control systems and the design of nuclear power plants, but a great many of these people, like myself, have chosen to work in the IT industry on more commercial applications.
As a result, the debate often focuses on the skill-sets possessed by practitioners who have taken the different routes, and the key questions asked are:
- How important is it for a practitioner to have a deep understanding of the visual, intellectual, motor, and memory capabilities of the users when they are designing commercial systems?
- How important is it to have the knowledge of implementing empirical research techniques for evaluations when they are rarely used?
The answer to these questions obviously depends on the situation, but the growing demand for usability work in recent years has meant that individuals with very little training in this area are also conducting evaluations and creating designs. In addition, the cost and time pressure of today’s IT industry means that empirical research is not always viable or even understandable by our clients, so simpler and quicker techniques need to be employed in order to get data to inform design.
Therefore, is it necessary, when employing these ‘discount’ techniques for evaluation and creating user interface designs, to have a deeper understanding of cognition and empirical techniques? There is also the question of whether the use of user interface design standards and guidelines, and the knowledge gained in a couple days of training is enough to get effective results. In this fast growing industry, HCI is becoming increasingly important along with how to provide quality services in a fast moving and economically strapped environment.
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