New Frontiers in Publishing

I’m currently involved with a startup in digital publishing. My work will involve bringing the design thinking perspective from other fields I previously worked in to a field that is notoriously conservative. So naturally when I read the post of David Pogue about e-book piracy, I was dumbfounded by this gem of an admission:

Traditionally minded publishers are very much opposed to the idea that abandoning DRM is a viable business strategy. When Tor (as have others) did provide their material free of the consumer hassling technology and noticed no increase in piracy, the go-to explanation is that their case is special and does not apply to other publishers.

Tor acknowledges that its science-fiction/fantasy reader community “is close-knit, with a huge online presence, and with publishers, authors and fans having closer communication than perhaps some other areas of publishing do.”

Here is my take, though: No kidding Sherlock!

When the main disruptive force of the internet lies in disintermediation,1 that’s where your business model needs to answer some pressing questions. And if you fail to see how creating a close-knit community that connects authors and readers is part of your new role in a digital environment, you deserve to be strong armed into irrelevance by Adobe, Amazon and their ilk.

Dear publishers: There is a choice to aim to be special, too! Create a better experience for readers. At least that’s what I’m going to do.


  1. A fancy way to say: Making everyone in between producers and consumers obsolete. 

While we are on the subject of physicality in interfaces (see my last post) I urge you to have a look at what Andy Kirk wrote about tactile maps. These maps are a great example of design as problem solving and introduce you to several affordances that are grossly underrepresented in current design.1

The indigenous people along the arctic circle have overcome many challenges of the environment they inhabit. So that they don’t get lost at sea they designed a navigation tool to guide them along coast lines. Bear in mind that it needs to be reliable in the harshest of circumstances. Functional constraints clearly drove this design process. It just works.


  1. Though there is some talk about tactile feedback for shape shifting phones

Visualising Data | Tactile visualisations: Inuit wood maps

Building Facebook Home with Quartz Composer (by David O Brien)

This is just the first in a series of videos that Dave O Brien created in a timely fashion: Some of you may have heard about the Facebook design team using Quartz Composer for prototyping their Home app.

The emphasis on animations resonates with another current debate, about the haptic experience that physical books provide. The result of that haptic experience should not come as a surprise to you, my endeared regular readers: There are affordances about mapping information to spatial and haptic cues that pictures under glass can’t provide.

When you read a book or magazine, you are navigating information in physical space. Your brain creates a rough map of the information that you are browsing while you are flipping page after page. Moreover, it draws upon past experiences with book space to inform the mental image of your current read and bestows you with a sense of empowerment over the text, and a feeling of serendipity.

Now, when you take away the physical feedback that paper provides to your senses, you are taking away functionality from the user interaction with the text. No feeling the weight of pages to tell how far into the text you are, no sense of halting and reversing the flick of a page in mid-air because you glanced something you want to inspect more closely.

But you know what pictures under glass can do for you to give you some design elements not available to print? That’s right. Animation. Hence the video above. The design team from Facebook realized just how much physicality matters, so they looked for a way to make their wireframes animate according to physics. Inertia, pseudo-gravity, all these sorts of things matter in animation.

I’m not saying that you can fully emulate the experience of physical objects with current digital technology. I’m saying that you need to make up for the shortcomings of our current interaction paradigm (pictures under glass) by introducing explicit feedback mechanisms. Visual feedback is the go-to choice most of the time. But sound or vibration is already available in many touch devices.

How would you quantify a statement like

We believe [terrorists are coming]

against

It is probable that [again, something terrible].

This is one topic to really tickle my fancy: Data Visualization, Semantics and Intercultural Communication all rolled into one. Even though I disagree that setting standards in phrasing is the right course of action, I very much enjoy the research from Psychology of Intelligence Analysis prompting it.

If you have a means to convey information less ambiguously, do it! Words don’t mean the same to everyone. Neither do images, mind you, but there is a decent chance that some very low level visualizations are less wrought with semantic ambiguity. Semantic ambiguity is definitely a challenge for quantificational statements in natural languages and as I have recently experienced it can be a pain to overcome in intercultural communication.

My problems were merely communicating workload estimates across a diverse team. Imagine what different interpretations of threat levels expressed in natural language can do to intelligence sharing between different cultures. Read the article on words of estimative probability to get an idea.

Bond Reporting Standards | Bella consults

Prezi Interface Considerations

I had some opportunity to develop high concept Prezis with various clients in recent months. In doing so I learned a lot about how far you can push the technology and in what scenarios the software plays to its strengths.1

Mind you that Prezi works best as an interface for content you prepare with authoring tools outside of Prezi. If you have a means to create vector graphics in a flash file format, you can enjoy intricate layering and zooming effects to navigate your material.2 As this brief introduction may show you, there are ways to overcome Prezi’s technical limitations for both presenting, and—even more relevant in my opinion—exploring information.

Prezi, much like other authoring tools, still suffers from a lack of widely recognized best practices and commendable design principles. Here’s to hoping I may provide a bit of useful input to their fashioning. More information is in the Prezi itself, and some files for download can be found at my lab.


  1. This is not going to be a post about critiquing a product, even though there is ample opportunity to do so with Prezi. Some of its idiosyncracies are baffling, to say the least, and the kind of design decisions Prezi forces upon its users are a tough pill to swallow at times. But hey, I made it work and so can you. 

  2. I fully intend to post some tutorials about how to create the right flash files for Prezi in the future. The one tool that makes it possible, other than flash itself, is pdf2swf

Some interesting words from Dr. Drang about how critical a properly implemented feedback loop is for human computer interaction. Just days after I lauded Apple for being quite savvy about this whole human-computer interaction thing, he presents a case where they fall short. Rightly so.

I don’t use Fantastical, the tool that he discusses, but I do endorse his comments about usability through instant, incremental feedback.

[The animations are] not just eye candy. The animations are providing instant feedback on how Fantastical is parsing your words and, more important, they’re teaching you Fantastical’s syntax. This is tremendously useful because, despite the wonderful flexibility of NLP, there’s always a syntax and you need to learn it if you’re going to use the product. This lack of instant, incremental feedback is what makes Siri impenetrable to some people; you have to give Siri an entire command and wait to see how she interprets it.

Incidentally, instant incremental feedback is ever present as a repair strategy in human-human interaction. A puzzled expression on a face of your audience prompts you to rephrase what you just said, for example. These sort of natural interactions are what artificially designed interfaces need to imitate in order to make interacting with them feel natural, too. Read the post on All This to see feedback discussed in the context of an actual product.

what's really great about Fantastical