23

The Problem with Digital Reading is Paper

Share this Post

the problem with digital reading is paperA 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).

About the Author

Craig Tashman, CEO & Founder

Craig leads the creation, development, and validation of LiquidText technology. He was inspired to start the company while getting his PhD from Georgia Tech in human computer interaction.

Share this Post

Comments 23

  1. Bruce Pratt

    I completely agree. I recently completed a literature review utilizing over 400 scientific publications. Because of working in two different physical locations, it was necessary to work from digital copies of the papers. It was much harder to cross-reference and compare within and between articles on the computer than the old-fashioned way of spreading them out on the desk. The only solution I can imagine is a screen the size of a real desktop where one could spread out the digital images, and sort/compare/connect with key words, and circles and arrows. kind of like an evidence board is used in law enforcement investigations.

  2. craig991

    Hey Bruce, great point about the cross-document comparison/synthesis. That’s one of the most common and difficult parts of professional reading. Using a big desk is awesome for paper, but even then, tracking relationships is tough. Some very specific verticals (e-discovery in law, for example) do have some good software tools, but of course they only work for really specific situations. It’s a big problem though, and I like your idea of a big desk with advanced sorting/connection tools. The information visualization community has explored things like that. It’s a problem we’re working on as well–and hopefully we’ll have some interesting things to show in the not-too-distant future. 🙂

  3. Irakli Kavtaradze (@Iraklipsyche)

    I think reading material integrity matters a lot. Reading medium should be independent entity and hold its integrity through space and time. This way, we take it more seriously (as it is for the books). There is difference between books created in iBooks, especially with illustrations, and epub or any other digital book format. iBooks simulate the book in a sense that individual page looks more differentiated from other pages. Also, our brain locates the pages in iBook easier, while reading only text-based book on a screen makes remembering harder, since there is no (or only minimal) cue for the brain to store information as embedded in space.
    I don’t have direct research evidence to back up my claims, though you can read similar thoughts about digital reading on psychological blogs. And there is research about memory and space.

  4. drsanjuuk

    Love your app Liquidtext! I have found this really helpful in reading PDF versions of medical textbooks and taking notes that can be used later. Your app utilizes the iPad Pro screen size most optimally.

  5. JanL

    I wish there was also an application for OSX that could open Liquidtext files stored to iCloud. As computers are better for writing than Pads, it is this time when access to notes is required with computers. Sure, notes can be exported and transformed into separate docs one article at time, but that is unnecessary and unproductative work that should be avoided.

    1. Post
      Author
      Craig Tashman, CEO & Founder

      Thanks for your feedback! We totally agree; we’re hoping to create an OSX version of LiquidText around the end of the year. We know people need LiquidText on all their devices, it’s just a matter of some time and some money to get there!

  6. Mark

    Really glad to find this and to hear that you are developing liquid text for MacOS. As an academic, I’m drowning in digital reading, but is a necessary evil. I made the pledge to go paperless several years ago when I looked around my office and could not see past the clutter or the multiple copies of the same paper that I had made over the years. I saw a significant drop in my productivity since I was spending so much time looking for a particular copy of something. There are just too many journals in my scientific fields to the point that one simply cannot assimilate bodies of work the old fashion way with physical paper. Digital storage and organization is a great solution, but no one has cracked the code and given people ONE app to rule them all and let people work with their pdf files seamlessly across the iPad and desktop. I hope you guys are the ones to do it!

    1. Post
      Author
      Craig Tashman, CEO & Founder

      Thanks so much, Mark! That’s just what we hope to do with LiquidText–make an environment for assimilating content that’s better than paper; where all your information comes together across your entire ecosystem of devices and content. It’s a big vision, but we’re working on it!

    1. Post
      Author
      Craig Tashman, CEO & Founder

      Thanks so much for the suggestion, John! I hadn’t considered that. Generally the challenge is that we need extreme speed to make some aspects of LiquidText work (e.g., in the innermost loops of the iPad app we manually allocate and manage memory, because the overhead of ARC and objects was too high). So I would wonder whether something like electron could give us enough control to accomplish this. That said, it’s interesting, and a good idea–I’ll talk to our dev team about it when we start working on a desktop version (which we hope will be soon).

  7. ldunville

    Another vote for MacOS. A full keyboard and filing system is necessary for extensive notations of technical and/or legal documents. In the mean time, LiquidText is a work of art!!!

    1. Post
      Author
      Craig Tashman, CEO & Founder

      Thanks so much for the suggestion and feedback! Yes, we’re hoping to have a desktop version out in 2017. No specifics yet, but that’s our goal. Thanks so much again!

  8. Dong Liang

    Just discovered your app and it was a great experience trying it out on an iPad pro. Like many of your users I am an academic too and your app makes me realize that there is no little being done on the side of digital active reading. We are still far from Vannevar Bush’s idea. BTW, I am teaching a UI design class next month and I am thinking of using your software as a lesson in design. If you have more materials or ideas to share I would be extremely grateful.

    1. Post
      Author
  9. Mimi Klimberg

    Liquid text is great for PDFs, but there is still a lot of knowledge and ideas that can only be found in books. Can you link liquid text to kindle?

    1. Post
      Author
      Craig Tashman, CEO & Founder

      Thanks Mimi! Unfortunately though, Amazon does not give us any way to access Kindle. We’ve asked them but so far no way. Hopefully in the future though!

  10. Scott

    Any update or a timeline on the Mac version and will it link with devonthink pro? I could do with that in my studies right about now. This really is an excellent app that just blew me away with how intuitive and smooth it is! Thank you so much for your hard work on this. Also, one feature that would be nice is a dark or night mode (or solarized theme). It might sound silly but when I’m
    studying for a long time I like switching to these themes.

    1. Post
      Author
      Craig Tashman, CEO & Founder

      Hi Scott! I’m sorry to say there’s no update on the Mac version timeline, or whether it will integrate with Devonthink. All I can say is that we still hope to create a Mac version, and hopefully even later this year. But nothing concrete yet.
      As for night mode, it’s a great suggestion–I’ll upvote it in our request list!
      Thanks so much again!

  11. Eduard Playa

    Paper vs digital reading is truly an awesome discussion from which, sooner or later we will produce a great advance for almost every human on Earth. But true progress has been elusive, so the end result is that we are left with more “mediocre” (please don’t read this in a pejorative way) which in fact, only makes things worse as it gets more difficult to choose one…
    I don’t intend to have any brilliant idea, just maybe, another parameter of the equation that I haven’t seen mentioned. The problem with digital reading is paper makes a solid point but there’s something even more influential to the matter, the problem with digital reading is paper writing.
    What I mean is reading is constrained by the written text, reading is a consequence of writing which we continue doing under the set of possibilities allowed by paper. We write, mostly, in a linear way, among many other paper driven parameters. If we write for a paper format even on a digital support, reading gets all those paper limitations.
    So I guess, if we want to improve our digital reading maybe we should start by digital writing.
    Just an idea….
    Eduard

  12. Eduard Playa

    I forgot to mention, adding to my previous comment, that if we check any digital writing app, they all start with a blank page (exactly as a blank paper page!) Obviously, we haven’t changed the way we write, making it very difficult to read in a non paper way.
    Maybe there’s an opportunity here for an innovative writing app intended for an active digital reading….
    Just an idea ……
    Eduard

  13. Howard Ashcraft

    Technical reading requires space because you need to be able to see connections simultaneously. Paper has an advantage because pieces of text can be arranged on a whiteboard and connections made. LiquidText is a significant advance because of its ability to shrink the space between documents, but it is still constrained by the size of the screen. The Mac OSX version–with larger external monitor space, would make LiquidText much more powerful.

Leave a Reply