From Readers to Users: the Mutability of Book Design and User Experience Design
Book design and user experience design are two mutable disciplines that serve two separate functions. For the purposes of this essay, book design is not predicated on long-form content; we might consider the departments of magazines, tabular data, or other short-from content. Nor is user experience design predicated on fragmented or short-form content; we might consider the longer editorial posts of blogs. The nature of content is an entirely separate topic. Rather, I wish to discuss how book design and user experience design serve information consumers. More importantly, I hope to examine how the two disciplines differ in function but operate according to similar paradigms within two-dimensional parameters, and how user experience design must operate outside these paradigms if considered within three-dimensional parameters.
Book design concerns itself with a reader. User experience design concerns itself with a user. In Thinking with Type, Ellen Lupton notes, “the dominant subject of our age has become neither the reader nor writer but user, a figure conceived as a bundle of needs and impairments—cognitive, physical, emotional” (Lupton 97). Therein lies the fundamental distinction between book design and user experience design, and the shift from one to the other is predicated on the difference between readers and users. Readers and users are two distinct kinds of consumers, thus book design and user experience design are with two distinct modes of information exposure. Thus, we might contrast the mechanisms of user experience design with those of book design in order to define user experience design beyond “how a person feels when interfacing with a system,” be the system a “website, a web application or desktop software” (Gube).
Book design is solely predicated on the reader’s ability to consume information: post consumption, the reader does not interact with the book in order to use said information. Books do not possess encrypted input forms in the same fashion as electronic systems. With the exception of library loans, books cannot themselves track their readers and do not “gathe[r] data about [their] audiences” (Lupton 97). The book design model is built upon the assumption that the interaction between a book and its reader is a one-way process of text to reader. If the reader is to engage with the text, they do so via an external platform, system, or medium: that is, another book in which they write, a computer system wherein they input information, or another human being with whom they interact. Book design demands that its readers consume information and — as far as the book from which the reader consumes information is concerned — nothing more.
But users, unlike their reader counterparts, “expect to be in search mode, not processing mode” when they engage with a user experience designed system (Lupton 98). Users “expect to feel ‘productive,’ not contemplative” (Lupton 98). User experience design, then, addresses the user’s “ability” to interact with the system and “easily input information” (Paluch). User experience design demands that its users search for and produce information via a single system.
However, user experience design is not to be confused with usability. User experience design and usability are not mutually exclusive, but they are, as Jacob Gube argues, “distinct” (Gube). Gube argues that the former primarily concerns itself with how a user “feels when using a system,” whereas the latter primarily concerns itself with a medium’s efficiency and “user-friendliness” (Gube). Although user experience design primarily operates within digital parameters, user experience design does not concern itself with issues of hardware (Gube). The “slow” and “sluggish” hardware of the Kindle 2 is not a result of its user experience designers, but its programmers (Nielsen, Gube). This is not to say that user experience design places precedence on the user instead of the medium. User experience design places precedence on a process, as opposed to person or medium. Thus, “how texts are used becomes more important than what they mean” (Lupton 97), and user experience design facilitates the ability to consume and produce information in a single process.
That said, information consumption remains a vital component of user experience design: information consumption and information production are collapsed into one. Before system can, in Lupton’s words, “quietly and insidiously…gathe[r] data about its audiences” via user-produced information, a system must first provide content through which users may navigate and thereby “provide users with a degree of control and self-direction” (Lupton 97). Therefore, part of user experience design’s function — as far as both textual and visual information is concerned — is predicated on the paradigms of information consumption. Historically, such consumption has been the province of book design, and from hereon we might consider the mutability between book design and user experience design.
As I have demonstrated, book design and user experience design serve two distinct kinds of information consumers. Readers consume information, whereas users consume and produce information. Regardless, both book design and user experience design deliver textual and visual information. If we are to consider user experience design as operative within a full-colour digital screen of resolutions 1024 x 600 to 1920 x 1080 pixels (StatCounter GlobalStats), book design and user experience design are qualitatively unified by two-dimensional design paradigms.
Moreover, design, as a whole, “is dispersed across a network of technologies, institutions, and services that define the disciplines and its limits” (Lupton and Miller 67). This dispersion includes print mediums and their digital counterparts. Design, then, operates according to paradigms that are interchangeable between its sub disciplines. For example, the principles of one typographic school are interchangeable with those of another: in Robert Bringhurst’s words, “writing systems vary, but a good page is not hard to learn to recognize, whether it comes from Táng Dynasty China, the Egyptian New Kingdom or Renaissance Italy” (Bringhust 10). He continues, “the principles that unite these distant schools of design are based on the structure and scale of the human body…and on the invisible but no less real, no less demanding, no less sensuous anatomy of the human mind” (Bringhurst 10). Design principles in different design disciplines remain the same because all design disciplines serve human beings. As such, book design and user experience design are both concerned with human beings, be they readers or users. Book design and user experience can therefore serve readers and users via similar if not outright identical means.
While user experience design remains a “relatively new” discipline (Gube), paradigms long established by book design can be applied and repositioned within the parameters of user experience design. Mike Kruzeniski argues, “User Interaction design needs to look to Print Design as an inspiration and a quality bar,” and clarifies, “we need the thinking, the aesthetic, and the quality of Print Design applied to the digital surface” (Kruzeniski). Although Kruzeniski argues for a potential relationship between print design and interaction design rather than specifically book design and user experience design, his approach can be paralleled and applied to book design and user experience design. Just as “the design principles established through the history of Print Design are also true for Interaction [Design]” (Kruzeniski), so too are the design principles established in book design true for user experience design.
Print design and interaction design are “about clarity in communication and simplicity through systems” (Kruzeniski). User experience design is similarly predicated upon the perception of a computer system “as being valuable, pleasant and efficient” (Gube). The user experience designer must therefore construct “layouts” and “how users should move through a system” (Gube). These tasks are also those of a book designer and can therefore be accomplished via the technical print paradigms of “Hierarchy and Structure with Grids,” “Confident use of Negative space,” “Emphasis on Typography,” and “Proportion and Pacing,” as Kruzeniski suggests (Kruzeniski). In order for users to consume information via user experience designs, user experience designs must create “a visual hierarchy that allows users to easily scan and discover information” (Kruzeniski), much like book counterparts.
Further, much like any design discipline that must solve each problem as its own subjective entity, Gubes notes that user experience design “must be tailored” (Gube). Each user experience design must be calibrated to specific “goals, values, production process and products” (Gube). But despite the differences between digital and print mediums, Kruzeniski notes that digital design “ends up looking at lot like Print” (Kruzeniski). Book design and user interaction design paradigms are, at times, indistinct: when Jakob Nielsen reviewed the black-and-white Kindle 2, he commented, “when I actually sat down to read the novel, I became so engrossed in the story that I forgot I was reading from an electronic device” (Nielsen). Even without a full-colour screen, user experience design can handle textual and visual information according to the same paradigms as book design. More importantly, it can do so in a fashion that consumers deem adequate.
But if removed from the screen, the uniformity between book design and user experience design paradigms begins to shift. The mutability between book design and user experience design only holds within two-dimensional paradigms. If user experience design is to be considered outside of two-dimensional paradigms, book design and user experience design are rendered as not only functionally distinct, but also qualitatively distinct. Although user experience design is “generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI)” (Gube), this interaction is not restricted to the digital screen and the user’s bodily movements. Other analog components of the computer also perform a function in user experience design, and from hereon I wish to consider the Kindle 2 system as a model of user experience design in three-dimensional paradigms.
The Kindle 2, like most e-readers and computers that are not equipped with a touch-activated screen, operates via physical input keys. Although these keys are primarily concerned with the Kindle 2’s usability, these keys also serve its user experience design. In his review of the Kindle 2, Nielsen notes, “two buttons (on either side of the device)” allow “turning the page” to be “extremely easy and convenient” (Nielsen). He again comments on user experience design, and adds, “paging backwards is a less common action, but it’s also nicely supported with a separate, smaller button” (Nielsen). These keys function as metaphors the page turns of book design. However, in concrete terms, these keys have more in common with industrial design, rather than book design: typography has no role here. In conceptual terms, we might understand the size of the keys in relation to “proportion” (Kruzeniski), but the keys themselves remain alien to book design.
In order for users to further navigate through the Kindle 2, they must use a “small joystick called the 5-way, which lets you move the cursor in 4 directions; pressing down enables the fifth action” (Nielsen). Nielsen notes the inconvenience of this joystick, and comments “getting the cursor where you want it requires a lot of work” (Nielsen). Although the cursor is a metaphor for the user’s own finger or navigational will, the cursor itself is an entirely digital paradigm and can cause complications that are alien to print design. That said, with the rise of the Kindle touch and touch-activated tablets including the Apple iPad, the complications of cursors and most physical keys are rendered null. Touch-activated screens isolate the navigational elements of user experience design to two-dimensional paradigms. Thus, once again, book design paradigms are interchangeable with user experience design paradigms.
The digital parameters of user experience design allow for the additional function of user-produced information, but this information cannot be produced before information is consumed. Before users of a system can engage with a system, the system must first engage with its users. As such, user experience design is locked into a dichotomy that necessitates paradigms of book design, regardless of the nature of its content: both disciplines must solve the same problems of content consumption. The content of book design is removed from paper and ink, and placed on a two-dimensional screen. However, where book design demanded that its readers produce information via an external system, user experience design collapses these two tasks into a single system. The user has not replaced the reader: the reader has become the user.
Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. Hartley & Marks: Vancouver, 1992.
Gube, Jacob. “What Is User Experience Design? Overview, Tools And Resources.” Smashing Magazine. Vitaly Friedman, 5 October 2010. Web. 5 October 2011. <http://uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com/2010/10/05/what-is-user-experience-design-overview-tools-and-resources/>
“Top 10 Screen Resolutions from June to August 2011.” StatCounter GlobalStats. August 2011. Web. 5 October 2011. < http://gs.statcounter.com/#resolution-ww-monthly-201106-201108-bar>
Kruzeniski, Mike. “How Print Design is the Future of Interaction.” Mike Kruzeniski: Thoughts on Design, Technology, and Culture. Posterous, 10 April 2011. Web. 5 October 2011. <http://mkruzeniski.posterous.com/how-print-design-is-the-future-of-interaction>
Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students. Princeton Architectural: New York, 2004.
Lupton, Ellen and Miller, J. Abbott. Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design. Princeton Architectural: New York, 1996.
Nielsen, Jakob. “Kindle 2 Usability Review.” Useit.com, 9 March 2009. Web. 5 October 2011. <http://www.useit.com/alertbox/kindle-usability-review.html>
Paluch, Kimmy. “What Is User Experience Design.” Montparnas. 10 October 2006. Web. 5 October 2011. < http://www.montparnas.com/articles/what-is-user-experience-design/>
 Most online consumers use resolution sizes from 1024 x 600 to 1920 x 1080 (StatCounter GlobalStats).