Chapter 82, Graphic Design and Layout of eBooks in the Smart Reading Devices of Future

In the April 2013 edition of the Scientific American an article by Ferris Jabr entitled "The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens" claimed
How exactly does the technology we use to read change the way we read? How reading on screens differs from reading on paper is relevant not just to the youngest among us, but to just about everyone who reads—to anyone who routinely switches between working long hours in front of a computer at the office and leisurely reading paper magazines and books at home; to people who have embraced e-readers for their convenience and portability, but admit that for some reason they still prefer reading on paper; and to those who have already vowed to forgo tree pulp entirely. As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper? Should we be worried about dividing our attention between pixels and ink or is the validity of such concerns paper-thin?

Given the close affinity of graphic design and layout with reading material, such questions are of crucial importance from a designer perspective. The article reported that
Since at least the 1980s researchers in many different fields—including psychology, computer engineering, and library and information science—have investigated such questions in more than one hundred published studies. The matter is by no means settled. Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens. And recent surveys suggest that although most people still prefer paper—especially when reading intensively—attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common. In the U.S., e-books currently make up between 15 and 20 percent of all trade book sales.
A similar article by Brandon Keim in January 2014, issue of Wired, entitled "Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be … Paper" wrote:
To those who see dead tree editions as successors to scrolls and clay tablets in history’s remainder bin, this might seem like literary Luddism. But I e-read often: when I need to copy text for research or don’t want to carry a small library with me. There’s something especially delicious about late-night sci-fi by the light of a Kindle Paperwhite.

What I’ve read on screen seems slippery, though. When I later recall it, the text is slightly translucent in my mind’s eye. It’s as if my brain better absorbs what’s presented on paper. Pixels just don’t seem to stick. And often I’ve found myself wondering, why might that be?

The usual explanation is that internet devices foster distraction, or that my late-thirty-something brain isn’t that of a true digital native, accustomed to screens since infancy. But I have the same feeling when I am reading a screen that’s not connected to the internet and Twitter or online Boggle can’t get in the way. And research finds that kids these days consistently prefer their textbooks in print rather than pixels. Whatever the answer, it’s not just about habit.

Another explanation, expressed in a recent Washington Post article on the decline of deep reading, blames a sweeping change in our lifestyles: We’re all so multitasked and attention-fragmented that our brains are losing the ability to focus on long, linear texts. I certainly feel this way, but if I don’t read deeply as often or easily as I used to, it does still happen. It just doesn’t happen on screen, and not even on devices designed specifically for that experience.

According to Jabr:
Understanding how reading on paper is different from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them. As Wolf explains in her book Proust and the Squid, we are not born with brain circuits dedicated to reading. After all, we did not invent writing until relatively recently in our evolutionary history, around the fourth millennium B.C. So the human brain improvises a brand-new circuit for reading by weaving together various regions of neural tissue devoted to other abilities, such as spoken language, motor coordination and vision.
This explanation then is not an argument for the revival of the Dead-Tree Editions, i.e., paper. One can hypothesize that it is the failure of the layout and graphic design in these smart devices that cannot produce an adequate vehicle for embedding " thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs" for "those long, linear texts". In fact, when I look at the website of banks, for example, mortgage pages, or retailers showcasing their various products I often see the same thing and feel amazed how "dead-tree" design criteria dominate the creation of these sites.

BB eBooks' Fixed Layout Formats

According to the article in Wired:
Mangen is among a small group of researchers who study how people read on different media. It’s a field that goes back several decades, but yields no easy conclusions. People tended to read slowly and somewhat inaccurately on early screens. The technology, particularly e-paper, has improved dramatically, to the point where speed and accuracy aren’t now problems, but deeper issues of memory and comprehension are not yet well-characterized.

Complicating the scientific story further, there are many types of reading. Most experiments involve short passages read by students in an academic setting, and for this sort of reading, some studies have found no obvious differences between screens and paper. Those don’t necessarily capture the dynamics of deep reading, though, and nobody’s yet run the sort of experiment, involving thousands of readers in real-world conditions who are tracked for years on a battery of cognitive and psychological measures, that might fully illuminate the matter.
The article then describes a 2004 study by psychologist Erik Wästlund at Sweden’s Karlstad University, who found that students learned better when reading from paper. The description quite clearly points out the fact that the layout design in smart reading devices are inadequate. It reads:
Wästlund followed up that study with one designed to investigate screen reading dynamics in more detail. He presented students with a variety of on-screen document formats. The most influential factor, he found, was whether they could see pages in their entirety. When they had to scroll, their performance suffered.

According to Wästlund, scrolling had two impacts, the most basic being distraction. Even the slight effort required to drag a mouse or swipe a finger requires a small but significant investment of attention, one that’s higher than flipping a page. Text flowing up and down a page also disrupts a reader’s visual attention, forcing eyes to search for a new starting point and re-focus.
It is clear then that these smart reading devices need a different "visual grammar". As the article in Scientific American suggests:
"Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices. Both anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular piece of written information they often remember where in the text it appeared. We might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of the trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest; in a similar way, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett on the bottom of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters.

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there's a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

If such claims are valid, then a graphic designer can create and reinforce these senses of orientation and tracking of footprints. Nevertheless, perhaps this is the reason why fixed-layout eBooks are so popular format for eBooks today, especially for children, textbooks, and technical books . Unlike standard eBook files, fixed layout eBooks can keep the same page layout and design as their print book counterparts, and can sometimes contain enhancements that make them more interesting and interactive.

According to Lotta Larson, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Kansas State University education technology, smartphones, e-books, iPads, Kindles, iPods, etc. have now become the new learning aids for school kids.
“Today it is very common that elementary school classrooms are equipped with SMART boards, which are interactive white boards, as well as a projector and at least one classroom computer with a high-speed Internet connection. More traditional technologies, such as audio recorders and players, are also useful and common at the elementary level. Preferably, all students have access to computers several times a week, whether that is through the use of laptops, tablets or stationary desktop computers in a computer lab,”

One can imagine that for kids who move effortlessly across various platforms traditional paper books do not create any emotional attachment. In general, it is quite clear that future readers would be expecting intuitive experience of moving seamlessly across all devices and various platform, reading their books whenever they want to, at whatever platform would be available at various times. Thus , ebooks need to adopt the concept of omni-channel, and in this regard graphic design plays a central and crucial role in creating an omni-channel experience.

The article in Wired emphasizes the tactile nature of the paper in a somewhat romantic and nostalgic language:
To be sure, electronic reading has changed quite a bit since Wästlund’s experiments, which concluded in 2005. Many applications, such as Amazon’s Kindle software, have scrapped scrolling in favor of page-flipping emulations. Yet Mangen, who in a 2013 study of Norwegian teens found a deeper comprehension of texts on paper, and Wästlund say that e-readers may fail to capture a crucial, generally overlooked aspect of paper books: their physicality.

From this perspective, the feel of pages under one’s fingertips isn’t simply old-fashioned charm. It’s a rich source of information, subconsciously informing readers of their position in a text. Reading experts say that sense of position is important: It provides a sort of conceptual scaffold on which information and memory is automatically arranged, and the scaffold is strongest when built from both visual and tactile cues.
The task of graphic designer is to overcompensate for such shortcomings of ebook.

At present,  there are two layout formats available for an ebook:

  •  reflowable layout,
  •   pre-paginated layout. 

Reflowable layout format is the most popular ebook format for publications, particularly for text-heavy, single column format ebooks, since it provides responsive text and images.  In other words, this format treats the content as floating text and images, then rearranges them according to the screen dimensions (mobile, tablet, or desktop). As a result, the number of pages in  this layout is dynamic – it depends on how many pages it would take to fit the same content on the current screen size.  Clearly, large screens would result in less number of pages than smaller screens.

  • The user can switch between portrait and landscape views, and the content would  automatically rearrange itself to optimize readability for the new dimensions. A reader can also change the size of the text to a desired level.
  • Some think reflowable layout is more user friendly, as the text renders itself  appropriate to  the screen dimensions at hand,  and the reader just needs to scroll up or down, which is as simple as turning a page on a printed book. 
  • This format is easier and cheaper to produce, and it does not require a large disk space. However, designers do not have much of control over format, and fonts or how the text and pictures are displayed on screen. 

The  pre-paginated layout format (also known as fixed layout ) basically takes a photo of text and image placement. This  allows  for the full creativity of the graphic designers to be fully implemented. The reader would be able to zoom in and scroll both vertically and horizontally. It also allows for some interactive elements, like audio-on-click and animations.

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