The iPad Reading Experience & Medieval Usability

By Mike Swartz April 10, 2012

I’ve been using the iPad a lot more lately, after commandeering it from Upstatement and really trying to immerse myself in it. Some things are awesome: Angry Birds Space, Ableton Live control with TouchOSC, and the the ability to read the internet without a bulky computer.

But, some things are not so awesome. I’m really surprised at the amount of news and reading apps (iBooks: why!?!) that force the user to “card” or page through sections of type, instead of scroll. Information Architects has an oft-referenced post on this very idea, and they nail it. Scrolling is calmer, easier, and more natural for a digital device.

Fig. 1 The red circle is your gaze area, in this example on a columnar/paginated reading app

I’ve been trying to observe my behaviors in these apps, and the thing that gets me most about the carding approach is how it forces me to move my eyes across the page, constantly tracking type, moving like a guy mowing his lawn. First-world problems, I know, but it really is distracting. And most annoyingly, it’s totally unnecessary.

Fig. 2 Gaze remains centered, content scrolls past.

I find scrolling much more natural. My gaze remains fixed on the type area of the device, not continuously searching around the page. When I look away to one of the corners, it’s to find navigation elements. This type of focus keeps the user engaged with the reading area, and is less distracting. It also gives us more room and flexibility as designers, instead of artificially working within a fixed area to fit navigation, teases, ads and content, we create an unlimited amount of digital real estate and free ourselves from the borders and the frame of the device.

Columnar text, page sizes, and even pages themselves are solutions to the constraints of the format. Long scrolls of parchment are unwieldy, but books are small and compact. They can be read comfortably while atop a horse, or in your fancy autocar.

I love books and newspapers, but their familiar concepts are bugs, not features. Applying this type of medieval usability to our futuristic digital tablets is holding us back.

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