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This article is from January 23, 2013, and is no longer current.

Q&A with Meagan Timney

As part of CreativePro’s coverage of the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference, we will be featuring interviews with some of the speakers on the topics of their sessions and wider themes and trends in design and publishing technology. Here is a Q&A with Meagan Timney, who will be presenting UX Design for Digital Books: Creating Engaging Digital Reading Experiences. Meagan is a Senior Product Designer at Blurb, Inc. Her expertise includes goal-driven and user experience design, usability testing, information architecture, content strategy, research, and writing. She will also be speaking in a free webcast from O’Reilly on Feb. 1.

What would someone coming to your TOC session expect to learn?

“UX Design for Digital Books: Creating Engaging Digital Reading Experiences” demonstrates why book creators need to integrate user-experience design principles into the creation of their digital publications, and how they can do so. Those who attend the session will learn the principles of UX design as they apply to digital publishing, and how they can leverage these principles to create engaging reading experiences. Participants will have ample opportunity to ask questions and connect with other book creators in this exploration of the future of the book. The topics we will cover include modularity, requirements gathering and research, building interaction specifications, generic and editorial considerations, creating narrative paths (“the reader’s journey map”), and the differences between designing fixed-format ebooks and books as apps.

How do you see the role of the book designer changing?

When Craig Mod attended the Yale Publishing course, he tweeted a compelling thought that has stuck with me: that we’re not just designing books, we’re designing software. Thus, if digital books are essentially websites (i.e. books wrapped in a web browser) or applications–if we are designing software–then it follows that digital publishing stands to benefit from interaction design methodologies. The digital book designer can no longer attend to merely a static printed page, but must take into account multiple layers of content and interaction. I foresee that book designers will encounter the same challenges that interaction designers currently face: the feeling that they need to be a “design unicorn” (i.e. they need to be skilled in all of the following: user research, interaction design, information architecture, graphic design, and development). I see partnerships between interaction designers, visual designers, and developers being crucial to the quality and success of the next generation of digital reading experiences.

What’s the difference between an ebook and a digital reading experience?

Ah, the essential question. There’s no hard and fast rule that demarcates the two. Carla King has an interesting take on the differences among ebooks, enhanced ebooks, and book apps. Digital reading experiences offer more than reflowable text and illustrations. An ebook that is an exact copy of its printed counterpart is not a digital reading experience, it is a form of digital remediation. I see digital reading experiences as a convergence of narrative, storytelling, interaction design, and long-form reading practices. They are often born-digital, that is, the content has no print antecedent. Digital reading experiences are immersive and adaptive.

How do modular / agile principles affect the design process?

I think agile development methodologies offer publishing a new model for building user- centered reading experiences. We have an opportunity here to use modularity as a way of generating user feedback before we put in all of the work upfront. This means perhaps releasing a single chapter, or section of a book, performing usability testing and user research, and then iterating as you learn more about what readers want and how they interact with your materials. Craig Mod’s notion of “subcompact publishing” would also support this agile model. I think both designers and readers will benefit from this method of “chunking” information.

You also mention the opportunity to follow “empathy-driven design principles.” Can you describe what that means?

When I was a little girl, I read voraciously. Books offered an escape, an imaginative paradise of fantasy and magic, a glimpse into lives vastly different than mine. As an introvert and an only-child, fictional characters were more often than not my best friends. For those who have made reading an insoluble part of their lives, I doubt they forget those secret childhood moments, hidden beneath the covers with a flashlight, praying for a few more precious seconds in those imaginative realms. Following empathy-driven design principles allows us to tap into our readers’ love of reading, to understand a readers’ intuitive connection to their materials, and to understand how they think and feel. User-experience research allows us to discover these thoughts and feelings so that we can design digital reading experiences that delight and inspire readers.

For designers adapting from a print background, what skills are essential to learn first?

I think first and foremost, designers adapting from a print background should familiarize themselves with the principles of narrative and interaction design, to learn how readers interact with information not merely in print, but in electronic formats as well. The narrative structure is no longer merely solely the purview of the author. Designers of this new generation of reading experiences will need to intimately understand the mechanisms of digital information design. Having a basic knowledge of the underpinnings of ebook formats (especially EPUB3) will also help them understand the technical implications of their designs (even if they don’t end up doing the development themselves).

Do you have any recommended inspirational examples of digital reading experience?

There are a number of excellent examples of what I see as integrated digital reading experiences. In particular, Inkling / Open Air Press’ “Wine Simplified” app, Horowitz, & Quinn’s The Silent History, and Rawlings and Mod’s Art Space Tokyo. I’m also really interested to see McGraw Hill’s new offering in adaptive reading textbooks. That said, I think there is a lot work to be done to create truly immersive digital reading experiences, and the more we learn about what our readers need, the better these publications will be.

Resources for further learning

Cooper, Reimann and Cronin, About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design (Wiley, 2007)
Miller, Above the Fold (HowBooks, 2011)
Garett, The Elements of User Experience 2nd Ed (New Riders, 2011)
McGuire & O’Leary, Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto (O’Reilly, 2012)
Meyers, Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience (O’Reilly, 2011. Preview Edition)

Mod’s work, especially “Platforming books” and “Post-Artifact Books & Publishing
King, Carla. “A Self-Publisher’s Primer to Enhanced E-Books and Book Apps”. 12 Aug. 2012. Web.

Editor in Chief of CreativePro. Instructor at LinkedIn Learning with courses on InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, GIMP, Inkscape, and Affinity Publisher.