The interface design focused twitterhood of my timeline got really excited a month ago, when Push Pop Press released Al Gore's Our Choice. Teenage groupie girls excited. Statements of the book as we know it being a thing of the Past were made. From people I decided to follow. Good thing there were some beers and a weekend after that.
Before having a closer look at the amazing work Push Pop Press did with this app, here are some comments about this fantasy dead book thing.
The paper book is an object so optimized that it's not going to fade away any time soon. Here's what a book since spinal binding was invented allows us to do, and what any digital incarnation should be able to provide to deserve the name of Book Terminator:
- Displaying at a glance how much there is to read. I haven't read many ebooks, but each time I start one, I haven't got a clue about how much time it will require to be read – it's not a nice feeling.
- Displaying how much more there is to read. That's kind of addressed with the status bar at the bottom, but it's expressed as a proportion of a value you can't really figure out.
- Bookmarks – done.
- Notes – done.
- Easy access in space and time. A book sits on a shelf and will remain there waiting for you to come back to it if you wish to do so. It doesn't matter if it's next week or in twenty years, as long as you don't move house, it'll be there with all the notes and bookmarks. Will the Kindle or iBooks offer the same ease and legacy? Allow me to doubt A LOT.
- Lending. Knowledge is meant to be shared and spread. Profit is a corollary to this, not the other way around.
- Owning a copy signed by the author, or by a friend who made a gift. The emotional bond that tangible artefacts provide between individuals over space and time is cruelly lacking today in the digital sphere.
Because of these lacks in function and emotions, I tend to perceive eBooks as a convenience: you can buy them from your couch, they have no weight, and they don't age. You give away all the sexyness, presence and reliability of a nice paper book for accessibility and zero impact on your bookshelf. As it has already been said, eBooks may replace a certain category of books, the ones you would get rid of when you're packing before moving, but it doesn't look like paper books are going away any time soon.
So what's the deal with "Our Choice"? What has Push Pop Press done differently for it to generate so much passion and unrestrained commentaries?
There is something about the navigation in this book app. As Josh Clark said, buttons are a hack, and the Our Choice app is a living proof: pinching out means "more detail about this", pinching in means "I'm done with these details, get me back to the bigger picture". The interaction model is exactly the same as the iPad Photos app's one, but for mixed media: you're zooming on chapters just as you zoom on your photo albums, you zoom on charts or animations just as you zoom on your photos, and you swipe to the next chunk of text as you would swipe to your next photo. Two simple and self explanatory gestures are used to control all the app, pinch and swipe.
Pretty close to the single flip gesture found in paper books, it's remarkable. They applied to textual content gestural evidence found in one of the iPad's core app, something that was before everybody's eyes but only them (it seems – correct me if I'm wrong) have noticed. Even Apple's own iBooks doesn't use this model, very well played.
But as meaningful as they are, I can't see how they could be useful on a fiction book, or an essay. Paged prose just need a forward/backward gesture, that's it. This interaction model seems to be better suited to content where details other than text provide better understanding to the reader - educational books for example. Charts, audio, maps, updates... Cell biology would be easier to grasp with the help of some interactive 3D models. Learning about the history of Paris would be great with overlaying maps combined with time sliders.
Producing a compelling work in this format is a team effort, it's not for a single person with ideas, a notebook and a pen. Al Gore didn't sit in a library by himself, wrote the text, picked the right iconography, produced the interactive info-graphics and 3D models, shot and edited the videos, recorded and edited the sound, et cetera. It would take a rare breed of author to produce a work worthy to be published with such a scope of media. Does such an individual even exist? People in their twenties today may be more fluent than older generations in these media, real authorship still requires a lot of insight and practice in each of these fields. It doesn't come easy.
With the level of polish we can witness on this app, we get a sense of how important motion design is to our interfaces today. Not only because it helps mimic reality and can get the user to conceive a mental model of how the different parts of the UI might work, but also because they convey meaning and emotions. Depending on its speed and dynamic, a fade in can be dramatic or energetic.
Interface design happens more and more in four dimensions: X, Y, faked Z (for now) and time. Knowledge in film editing should be taught to aspiring interaction designers; not how to use editing software, but how film editors think and work.
"As a result, Mr. Gore goes much farther in his mission — persuasion — than he could on the printed page alone."
D.Pogue, New York Times.
Allow me to disagree with this – and it may just be that I'm starting to be an old fart – and point out a downside of this particular app. Has anybody who got excited about this book app finished reading it? Or did you get distracted and switched to Twitter to praise the app and opened it twice since then only to read a couple of pages and browse the nice pictures? The app format may be more entertaining, its navigation model more rewarding for interface designers, but did we get the message better? Not sure about this.
If you don't want to listen to something, or if nobody's forcing you to, the message won't get across, pinch/swipe or not. I found the text to be too often interrupted by images or other calls. Every couple of views my attention was required on another level of discourse, sometime three times on a single view. These interruptions are not always in sync with the prose, resulting in a jittery reading experience where the reader's flow isn't respected enough.
The 80's are over
I feel insane when I see how much time I spent discussing about the form of this book, while the message that it holds is so much more important.
It's a bit sick to be discussing about proper pixel arrangements when so much depends on what's said in the book itself. If the interaction model of this app represented 1 point in benefits to human kind, reading and getting Our Choice is probably worth 1 000 points, a scale that Push Pop Press wouldn't probably contest.
By understanding how our actual way of life is suicidal for mankind, we will be more willing to act on it, and quick. Just as knowing about health issues related to smoking helps you quit, Our Choice helps you make decisions that will impact your quality of life and make sure our grand kids will have one. Less pleasure, better future. Fly less, avoid instant buys, look for expensive durable local goods you'll pass on to your kids instead of cheap disposable crap from overseas, and be considerate of your cloud requests. Uncool? Read Our Choice and think again.