Can the web ever be like the printed page? A lot of people would like it to be. Last week Microsoft and the New York Times released the results of a collaborative effort to make the experience of reading information on a computer more like reading a printed page.
Based on some new technologies that will (hopefully) be under the hood of next year’s Windows Vista operating system, the “Times Reader” is a sort of cross between a web browser and a traditional printed newspaper.
Both Microsoft and the Times emphasized how the font used is identical to that in the paper’s print edition and the page layout is very much like that of the “Grey Lady“. Whoopee.
Attempts to make the way we experience reading in a digital environment like a computer or a cell phone more akin to the traditional printed page have been ongoing since the advent of the computer. It makes you wonder, though: do we really need these new mediums to be like the old?
Take Zinio Reader, a piece of software that duplicates the layout of a printed publication on a computer screen.
I’ve been reading a weekly trade magazine called Red Herring in Zinio lately because I can get it much more quickly this way than through either a mail subscription or the newsstand. Reading a Zinio publication is pretty much like reading a regular magazine, it’s a page-to-page linear experience. There are even some kitschy page-turning animations.
The problem is, it sucks. Zinio has revealed to me that printed page layouts just don’t work on a computer screen. For one, I typically don’t want to read the whole magazine, just the few stories that actually interest me. It’s a bit of a hassle to leaf through the whole thing just to get at what I want. But it sure looks and acts cool.
Both the Times Reader and Zinio assume that the panacea of digital publishing lies in how closely the experience of reading a print publication can be replicated in a digital environment. And basically they’re relying on a belief that the key is layout and visual design.
The layout of a newspaper or magazine page, however, follows a set of structural principles that don’t necessarily translate to a computer screen. A reader’s eyes will travel differently over a web page on-screen than a printed page. Presuming to carry over the psychology of print design to the online world is folly.
Indeed, the structural concerns of successfully publishing online go deeper than that. Print media is inherently governed by the concept of an editorially-coherent published volume such as a newspaper or magazine as a vehicle to deliver information.
This is a response to the natural constraints of delivering a physical medium. Because of such variables as paper cost, size, weight, and format, the publication typically contains only a qualified, limited representation of available information.
Online information need not be so controlled or bundled. On the internet there is no such great requirement for editorial control or guidance, nor for a layout and design to information. Instead, there’s a demand for customization.
Indeed, this has been proven by online music sales. Music “albums” are a thing of memory. Today music is governed by the one-song “track” and custom-made “playlists”. People buy just the songs they like and then patch them together into their own mixes. Stories and articles traditionally bundled in newspapers and magazines are ready for a similar liberation.
To an extent this is already happening online with the widespread adoption of RSS readers that permit users to skip complex web site layouts and hone in on just content. Content is still delivered as part of a publication’s collection, however.
Online publishing needs to go one step further and permit users to pick discreet items of interest and compile them into their own “information playlist”. In essence, enable people to custom design their own magazines or newspapers on the fly, based just on stories that interest them.
Before I find my ass in the street here, I must stress that this does not represent the end of the editorial process. After all, what mere mortal could efficiently sift through the plethora of information released online every day? Instead, it’s a retooling of the ideology governing how disparate information items are compiled into a coherent whole.
Instead of broad community or advertiser interests guiding information design, it would be a small, probably niche user base defining strict requirements. From an economic viewpoint, advertisers would already be attached to any individual piece of content, so their interests have been served prior to the engagement of the editorial process.
In the end, layout and presentment may prove to have little effect on how people adopt the next generation of information online. I mean, really, if god-awful-ugly web sites like Thestreet and Slashdot can attain a level of popular success then design and layout are clearly not important web site qualities to information users.
So forget visual design: look and feel have expired. As the saying goes: it’s the information, stupid. (By the way, I’m referring to Microsoft, not you.)
First published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 5, 2006.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Canada License.