It’s the Information, Stupid

Microsoft Screen Shots of Times ReaderCan 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.

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One thought on “It’s the Information, Stupid

  1. You’ve misunderstood what this technology is about. This isn’t about putting a replica of the newspaper online. Packaging is a business issue (various models exist today and will continue to exist in the future). This technology doesn’t preclude new types of packaging or personalization or blogs or automation or linkability. It only enhances what you get in terms of user experience. And user experience does matter. Visual design does matter. If it didn’t, then all cars would be basically the same and all magazines would use the same fonts, layout, branding. They don’t.

    Users demand differentiation and usability. Users have consistently chosen products with better user experience. And because users drive the Web (Ad/Traffic), the sites that can master the digital domain AND provide a decent user experience will attract more users and keep them longer. You mentioned digital music. We had mp3 players for many years before the IPod came on the scene. An important part of that success story was a great end-to-end user experience including a super usable device.

    Design doesn’t come at the expense of information – on the contrary, visual design makes information and media consumable. No one is suggesting that the layout of the newspaper needs to be replicated digitally. These are completely different mediums.

    However, the Web today doesn’t have the presentation tools to provide a decent reading experience. Don’t believe me? Buy a new Laptop with a beautiful cinema display screen. You get a reasonably good experience for photos and video. The text content experience though is one long, ugly scrollable region of choppy text huddled on the left-hand side of the monitor. No one enjoys reading that.

    What Microsoft is providing here is the presentation tools that enable professional content designers provide great content experiences that work across a wide range of screens and sizes. What are those tools? Here are a few:
    Columns – the basic unit of a reading layout
    Pagination – no manipulation of scrollbars needed
    Dynamic reflow (for laying out text to fit the screen)
    Dynamic Hyphenation and Justification
    ClearType – optimal text clarity particularly on LCD screens
    Optimal paragraph
    OpenType with ligatures and other font features
    Figures and Floaters
    Fonts as resources (so designers can make use of real fonts)
    Multimedia integration
    3D elements (pull in 3D)

    And a bunch more stuff.

    The Times Reader is not about bringing an exact replica of the print newspaper to the screen. It’s about bringing readability, design and fidelity to the digital content world. I for one and happy about this in the same way I was happy when the PC went to a graphical display from the command line. Do you still use a command line word processor?

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