A while back Bill Buxton put up a brief quotation on billbuxton.com that I like a lot:
Just a thought: Slate computers and e-readers represent a new class of digital appliance– one targeted for casual use. With the growth of this market will emerge a new and long overdue approach to interaction– one that is in keeping with the casual intent and context of such usage and which will complement, rather than replace, interfaces that support more formal and structured activities.
He goes on to make a nice little plug for my InkSeine Tablet PC application, but that’s only a very small part of why I like his quotation.
To me Bill’s comment gets at the essence of the new approach to design and interaction demanded by this emerging class of casual-use devices.
And it’s one that’s already deeply rooted in human behavior, even back in those dark ages before our twilight dreams were set afire by the eerie blue-white glow of our iPad portals to never never land.
I like to call it informal organization. It’s a lot of why paper has remained so pervasive in the so-called “paperless” office of the modern information worker. (You could do a lot worse than to spend a weekend reading The Myth of the Paperless Office by Sellen & Harper to understand this more deeply).
But now that e-reading and tablets are gaining more and more traction, we’re seeing at least some of those paper-based behaviors and expectations smash head-on into the limitations of current-generation readers and tablets.
I can send my documents to my Kindle to read them away from my desktop; I’ve never really liked doing much reading on my computer. And printing seems wasteful and moreover has a higher transaction cost than just sending the document to my reader– hitting print, selecting the right printer, remembering to pick the auto-staple function, walking down the hall to pick it up, coming back to my office and actually starting into reading before I get interrupted and forget why the hell I printed out the document in the first place…
But on the Kindle or iPad, I can get right into reading my document quicker, but then when that moment comes that I want to mark up some copy-edits, jot an annotation in the margin, highlight a passage, slap a post-it on it with a note about what to do next, thumb back and forth quickly between multiple documents, or god forbid casually toss the document into a pile with other like-minded papers– the workflow breaks down and I am into clumsy workarounds and tricks and little idiosyncratic habits I’ve developed to make the tools work for me as best they can.
This is where the frontier in e-reading experiences currently lies.
The e-ink reader and yes even our fancy-pants multi-touch iPads are going to look like antiquated glowing green-phosphor displays to our eyes a few short years from now.
Because these unmet needs are all about the interaction experience, figuring out what the appropriate digital analogs of these behaviors are, and figuring out what the right input modalities and interaction techniques and workflow are to allow users to express these notions as quickly and casually as they can conceive of them.
I talk about some of this in my recent paper Pen + Touch = New Tools. And a few techniques are shown in the video that goes along with that, although to be honest they are clumsy and have a long way to go to get to where I really think things need to be.
As another example, take a look at the Collections mechanism on the Kindle for organizing your e-books. My friend and former colleague Jeff Pierce wrote about the rather limited Kindle book organization mechanisms on his blog, which was actually what tipped me into this little rant. Just gathering together a half-dozen short stories, or documents that you’ve emailed to yourself, or your read vs. unread books and managing that on an ongoing basis is a huge pain in the ass.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the massive shift to electronic reading that the publishing industry is tipping towards, and as more and more “real” work versus casual recreational reading moves to such devices, there’s a huge incentive to get these reading devices and tablets right.
And making something that’s even half as good as the stacks of books and papers and post-its scattered around my desk wouldn’t be a bad start.