Informal Organization and the Emerging Class of Casual-Use Devices

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.

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9 responses to “Informal Organization and the Emerging Class of Casual-Use Devices

  1. I was so sorry to hear the rumour that the next Kindle will be an Android tablet, and further that it will be touch sensitive. That does not necessarily imply an iPad wannabe (ie: LCD), but I fear that it may be. I use both a Kindle and an iPad regularly. The e-ink for eye-friendly reading, and the lack of touch sensitivity (ie: that I can hold it any which way I please, free of fear that my grip will lead to spurious input events) are what make the Kindle worth carrying.

    Perhaps as an homage to Ken, I recently picked-up an enTourage Pocket eDGe. Drawing with a stylus on the eInk display (ignore the lag) is a far more pleasurable experience than any light-emitting device. The characteristics of the display matter so much more than I had expected.

  2. I have to admit that I occasionally catch myself tapping or sliding my finger on my Kindle screen to flip pages.

    I think touch sensitivity, but even more so, stylus mark up could be a huge addition to the kindle and it one of the critical elements needed to make it serve non-fiction well.

    But yes, insenitivity to touch can also be a good thing. As I often say during my talks, incidental contact with the screen is a fundamental property of soft-touch touchscreen interfaces, and you have to design with it in mind.

    I’ve never tried on of the Entourage devices… You’ll have to tote along the Edge (I refuse to go along with their funky spelling) next time we meet…

  3. Have you ever tested the ASUS EEE Note? A grey-scale ebook reader with pen functionality seems like a logical combination.

    http://www.asus.com/Eee/Eee_Note/Eee_Note_EA800/

    • I have not yet seen that specific device, but there are previous examples similar to that I’ve played with and help to convince me that such a form-factor would be highly desirable for some tasks. Perhaps the Amazon Tablet will move in this direction, although that may be too much to hope for in their first release…

      The iRex iliad (company now bankrupt) and the old RocketBooks e-reader (used a resisitive touchscreen supporting pen or touch) were examples from the past that explored this. Both were ahead of their time, but as more and more content moves to e-readers it’s a matter of when, not if, e-books with digital markup become commonplace in my mind. Particularly when traditional publishing hits the tipping point where paper books become a subsidiary right — even for non-fiction — and the situations where users need mark-up become more common on e-readers. For reading novels, it’s a nice-to-have at times, but not so much a necessity. For reading nonfiction, documents from work, taking notes– then you really need a stylus.

    • Another quick thought on this device, it looks like it may have a resistive digitizer (it refers to it as a “touch pen”) and not a high-fidelity active digitizer with hover such as a Wacom digitizer. But again, this is just me reading between the lines on their spec sheet, I have not actually held one in my hands.

      Nonetheless looks interesting. Some resistive touch-screens have a nice soft touch and feel good with a stylus too, although the inability to distinguish touch from stylus input on most of them is a major barrier to creating innovative user experiences. (See, for example, Stantum’s technology as one example (although it is not traditional resistive touch, it is an active matrix approach that does multi-touch and can distinguish the stylus). The resisitive touchscreen that was on the old Psion 5 handhelds is another example — I talk a little bit about this device towards the end of my new book chapter.)

  4. Its funny that you mentioned Psion 5. That thing got me through high school because I had horrible handwriting. Having typed notes in 2000 was a very rare thing and needless to say I was in many study groups.

    I honestly thought that the MS Courier was going to be a modern day replacement of my Psion but it seems that the tech is years away….

    My GREEN Psion.

    • Yes, my name is on those patents as they are based on my research projects of the past few years. Note that all of the patents were filed quite a while ago, but the titles / claims are just publishing now.

      The blogger’s speculation that they are “supported on Windows 8” is pure confabulation, however. I don’t know what Windows 8 has planned other than what they have already shown publically, and even if I did I wouldn’t tell you:-) So no, this doesn’t tell you anything about what Windows 8 is going to do and it most certainly does not indicate that the Courier Project is back from the dead. Sorry to disappoint. They’re just patents derived from my oddball and fanciful research investigations into technological never-never land.

      Hopefully some of them will be useful to future products some day, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this research gig, it’s that its very, very hard to predict what will be useful or important or not at the time that you come up with it. It takes the test of time and often the evolution of the whole industry and ecosystem of devices before you know if you were barking up the right tree or not.

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