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Scrolling, flipping, and clicking

Oliver Reichenstein on digital screens and the user experience.

In this interview, Oliver Reichenstein (@iA), CEO of iA Inc. and a speaker at TOC Frankfurt, talks about user experience — including author user experience — on digital screens and says no devices are cutting the mustard thus far. He also dishes a bit on the problems with news and says the real problem isn’t getting readers to pay for online news but rather getting advertisers to pay real money for online ads.

Our interview follows.

What are some of the major user experience issues readers face with the digital screen?

oliver-reichenstein.jpgOliver Reichenstein: There are more open questions and unresolved issues than solutions in that field: Scroll or card? Is flipping pages really the best way to navigate between blocks of text? How do we give the reader a similar orientation of where in the text he is as in a physical object? What do we do with footnotes and annotations? Do we need links, or are they killing the flow? How much do we really want to connect the reading process with other people when you read classics that were conceived as intimate dialogues between writer and reader?

The shape of music, pictures, film, and all categories of artifacts is very much predefined by the means of production. If you look at the artifacts of the 70s, no matter whether you deal with German, English, Japanese or even Soviet products, no matter whether it’s a pop song, a style of fashion or a magazine, in some way they now all look more or less the same. Maybe that’s a hindsight bias, but it’s worth thinking about.

Paul McCartney once said that he had trouble adapting to the CD because it has no A and B side. Plato’s dialogues were read on scrolls, aloud (without spaces between words), and once you read Plato aloud, it makes much more sense. Ironically, Plato reads extremely well on screens, maybe because they scroll. Am I the only one who asks himself whether it is appropriate to read Melville on a tablet in Georgia or Times? Is “Moby Dick” the same text in a liquid browser window set in Arial or Courier as in a carefully set printed publication? I doubt it.

What I want to know is: What forms will emerge due to the new form of publishing? What are the new opportunities in reading that are unmatched so far? Will reading become more of a general chatting process? Will it be more fragmented? What roles will scrolling, flipping, and clicking play for the reading and writing experience?

Which platforms and devices are handling user experience well, and where do they need to go from here?

Oliver Reichenstein: I am not happy with any of the existing devices so far. Light reflecting devices like the Kindle feel surprisingly good, but they’re still way too slow and typographically poor. The iPad readers are still a typographic nightmare. And backlit devices just don’t seem to work for long-form reading. Also, the social potential of ereaders has not been properly explored yet — if there is such a thing, it will be big. We are just at the beginning, and I am very curious to see what comes next.

Most people consider readers in terms of the digital screen user experience … what about authors? What are the major user experience issues authors face with digital screen technology?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Authors are concerned about two things:

  1. Being able to sell text. That is one big, tough topic. The pessimists say that we are doomed. Our attention span goes down the drain, and we all are less and less ready to pay for text because there is so much good stuff we can read for free. The optimists argue the average reader becomes more and more prolific with scanning and analyzing text, and books seem to be getting thicker and thicker. In my perspective, really good text will always find its paying audience.
  2. Making writing more pleasurable and less of a technical hassle. With iA Writer, I think we have set a new standard of how pleasurable the writing experience can be if writers — and not programmers — design a writing tool.
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What is iA Writer, and how does it address some of the larger user experience issues?

Oliver Reichenstein: iA Writer is a word processor with a minimal set of functions that is optimized for professional writing needs. It is, as one user called it “refreshingly conservative,” in the sense that it allows you to write right after opening the program. That sounds obvious, but if you look more closely at most other programs, including TextEdit, it’s not a given. After months and years of studying, research and sketching better writing interfaces, I think that we found a good core solution.

The main problem is that programmers design most writing programs, and usually they don’t know anything about typography. Text is too small (which might be good for editing code but distracting for word processing), too tight, the leading is too wide, and the font comes in serifs and suggests that the text is finished even before you started.

While many screen designers will eventually find the right font face, type size, and leading
measure that fits their needs, non designers will continue to stumble in the dark. Typography is something that feels extremely good when it’s done right. It’s extremely awkward if the slightest thing is off. If this sounds like bullshit, look at good designs — what do you think makes it special? The typeface? No. It’s the system of how the typeface is used and arranged. In other words: It’s typography.

This is why we decided to limit our first writing program (iA Writer for iPad) to one single typographic setting, just like a type writer. We added a thing called focus mode, a special typing mode with typewriter scrolling. It lets you only see a limited number of characters in black while everything else fades out. Focus mode was not conceived as a general setting but as an alert mode. It will help you once you get stuck, such as at the beginning when the screen looks so empty, and in the heat of the fight when the text wants to run in all directions. We added the reading time function instead of the random page breaks as a measure of assessing text lengths. Page breaks disturb the flow of writing, and they have close to no meaning on the screen.

How does it differ from other word processor platforms?

Oliver Reichenstein: To describe what makes iA Writer unique, it’s helpful to look at what was imitated and what no one was able to imitate yet.

A couple of people tried to port functionality and the look and feel of iA Writer for iPad to OSX before we did. Here and there, some copied look and feel, the old Focus Mode, auto-markdown (originally an idea from my good old friend Bodhi Philpot), the disappearing title bar and even our marketing materials.

There are some elements of iA Writer for OSX, though, that are technically tough to copy: It sounds mad, but we invested weeks in figuring out how to make that anorexic default Mac cursor nice, bold and blue, like on iOS (a clearer cursor facilitates orientation). We hacked the NS TextView and reprogrammed bits and pieces to allow the delicate combination of the custom cursor, Focus Mode, typewriter scrolling, auto-indentation and auto-markdown, with all the little transitions this necessitates. We made the title bar disappear as soon as you start typing. Last but not least, we licensed a beautiful font for the app, called Nitti Light that was altered for its specific uses on iPad and on the Mac.

Nerds always want more features. But iA Writer is for writers, not for markdown specialists. That doesn’t mean that we won’t evolve. What you see right now is just the skeleton. If things go as planned, in a year iA Writer will be in a completely different place.

You’ve done a lot of work with the digital transformation in newspapers. What are some of the major obstacles holding newspapers back?

Oliver Reichenstein: In my experience the main problem of news is not that the reader is not willing to pay, but that the advertisers don’t want to invest in good online advertising but still waste millions on print ads that no one sees. Online, those same advertisers only want to pay for clicks. Part of the silliness includes the online news marketing departments that for some reason dislike quality advertisement as an online paying method. They push more and more crappy little banners on a page and destroy the user experience, and disgruntle the readership with popup crap. It’s clear as day: As long as they force us to deal with crappy little banners and popup ads, they are not going to manage that magical turnaround.

But there are interesting changes happening. From what I hear, some newspapers are doing quite well with the Kindle. A few make a couple of bucks with iPad apps, but they are the big exception to the rule. Especially in local European markets, the chance that you succeed is minimal. However, for a handful of really big English and German brands (like the Guardian or Bild), there is some money to be made in the app store.

And a follow up to that: What needs to change?

If I had the opportunity to force a publishing house to go my way (which will never happen):

  • Step 1: I’d go and take the marketing department by the throat and force them to take advertisement in their own hands instead of outsourcing it to the ad distribution mafiosi.
  • Step 2: Social Media marketing doesn’t mean that you plaster your site with “tweet me,” “+1 me,” and “like me” buttons. Nothing documents the miscomprehension of social media better than an article with three banners that say: “2 tweets, 6 likes, 0+.” There is a lot that publishing houses could do there. The social web must become an integral, functional part of how news works.
  • Step 3: Wait, I’m not going to tell you everything! I have documented my old ideas back in 2007 in a little experimental publication called “The Future of News.” A lot has happened since then, but a lot is still valid.

Right now, we’re secretly experimenting with our own publishing systems and news platforms, testing new ideas. Once I’m completely recovered from my political fatigue and a nice client rings our bell, I’ll be happy to open up our next package.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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