Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Reflections of a Tab-a-holic

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

So I tried. My little experiment in trying to tame my attention deficit by limiting the number of tabs I would allow open at one time — FAIL. I suppose it was doomed to failure from the outset, but I learned a few things along the way about attention and how we browse:

  • Hyperlinking is the life-blood of the Internet. Emphasis on the “hyper.”
  • 95% of the content you encounter on the web is about 25% as interesting as you hoped it might be. Which is why there are so many things crammed around the content itself — things like banner ads and links to other content some algorithm written by some programmer came up with. It shouldn’t be a crime to be interested enough to open up a link that intrigues you. Either we have to develop a better instinct (either from experience or some magical ESP) about what these links will lead to or we have to rely on filters to determine what links have a higher probability of being very, very interesting and valuable so as to be worth opening a new tab.
  • Web apps have a significant browser footprint. By default I tend to leave open tabs for webmail (Gmail), social networking (Facebook), and news (Nytimes). That’s at least 3 out of 7 already (if we’re trying to keep it below 7). I’ve heard productivity strategies that tell you to check these sites only twice a day or something crazy like that. Yeah, right.
  • Tabs = cognitive real estate. Throughout the day, you get links sent to you via email, or you stumble upon them or you see them on Facebook, and occasionally, you pop one open. And another. And another. And you forget to close them. Or some of them, you decide to leave open, because you want to re-tweet it, save it in delicious, or finish reading it later but you don’t want to go hunting for it again (where did I see that link?). Or sometimes you want them there as research for a blog post, and you want to refer back to it. You start your blog post, but you haven’t quite figured out what you want to say…
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    The Rule of Sevens, or, Taming the Tab-Slut

    Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

    If you’re an information architect or user experience designer, or even if you’re not, you’ve probably heard the “Rule of Seven” axiom. That is, Seven (plus or minus 2) is the magical number of things your brain can comfortably hold in working memory before it freaks out and either shuts down or needs help. Call it “channel capacity” or “user-friendliness”(why does that term seem so antiquated?), call it what you will. Information architects know that chunking things into seven or less items or categories in a navigation bar is just a good, humane thing to do. It has been posited that a tightly-knit group of seven people is an optimal community size, because above that number communication tends to break down and not everyone interacts naturally with each other and cliques begin forming. Seven digit phone numbers, seven days of the week, seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the Magnificent Seven…the list goes on and on if you want to look for it. You can speculate as to why there is this natural limit on our perceptual machinery (my tongue-in-cheek hypothesis is that it’s the average of the number of fingers on one hand and the total number of fingers) but whatever the real reason, I accept it as a nice and useful constraint.

    Recently, I started thinking about applying the Rule of Sevens (plus or minus two) to my own version of “Getting Things Done”. You see, I am a tab-slut.

    If you walked by my monitor at any point in the day (or night) you would probably be astounded at the sheer number of tabs I have open at one time in my browser. On average I’d say I have at least 20 to 30 tabs open. And one day I asked myself, Why? Why does each and every one of these different websites need to be open? Is this a symptom of ADD? Or am I just lazy? I mean, you could say the same thing when you see the stack of dirty dishes in my sink (though I’m not as bad about that).

    So as an experiment in productivity, I decided to impose the following rule on my browsing:

    Thou shalt not have more than 7 browser tabs open at any given time.

    Of course this also implies that Thou shalt not have multiple browser windows open (if you can help it).

    I welcome anyone else to try this experiment with me and share your discoveries. I promise to post my thoughts at the end of today, because after tomorrow, I will leaving for my honeymoon, where I have decided to take things a step further and go completely off the grid. Wish me luck! (I’m gonna need it! Bad!)

    Related Posts: Reflections of a tab-a-holic, Stuffing our faces with information

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    Why I don’t read on my iPhone

    Wednesday, March 25th, 2009


    Stanza‘s great. So’s Instapaper and the Kindle iPhone app. But let’s be honest here. If I look at my real app usage (this is my own personal reckoning, since I don’t have RescueTime or Google Trends for my iPhone) here’s my top 5 in terms of actual usage:

    1. Drop7
    2. Facebook
    3. Mail
    4. Twitterific
    5. NYTimes

    One game, a social networking app, email, microblogging, and the news. Do you see an actual reading app here anywhere?

    But what about the news, you ask? That’s reading, no?

    No. Well, let’s be more specific. It’s short reading, browsing, scanning. News stories are generally around 600 words or less. Anything longer and I’m going to be worrying about my battery life or waiting to get to my computer. I’m going to generalize here and say that my app usage is for short, bite-sized activities. Small, just like the iPhone’s screen.

    Now, I’m sure there are people out there who actually do slog through long reads on their iPhones (using the aforementioned apps). For some, I’m sure it’s a point of nerdy pride (“Look! I can read a free sci-fi eBook on my handheld device!”) and for others it is an occasional convenience (“Bored. Stuck here without any reading material. Oh yeah, I can use my iPhone to read that article I saved to instapaper 3 weeks ago!”).

    But let’s be honest: reading on the iPhone is sub-optimal at best.

    Why? Because reading, the long, focused trance of real reading is, and should be, a pleasure, not a convenience. To be able to sink into a well-wrought text requires an environment relatively free of distraction — and that includes the reading surface itself — because following complex thoughts and detailed verbal description is like walking a tightrope. Any little lapse in concentration — an inconsistent scrolling of the text, finding the pagination, targeting the next page button, waiting more than a second for it to load, an accidental tap or swipe that jogs the interface, a new message — breaks the spell, and the words go back to being mere words and the world your imagination has been constructing burns away like a fog.

    It’s the difference between watching a movie on YouTube versus going into a dark theater with comfortable seats, immense screen, and surround sound. People will continue to pay (the price of a paperback) for that experience, just as they will continue to pay for well-set, well-edited books on good paper.

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    Monday, March 9th, 2009

    I happened to pick up a complete issue of the New York Times paper edition yesterday and I had a strange, disconcerting experience. I suppose you could call it déjà vu, but I think it’s slightly different, slightly more explicable than that…

    I had given up my daily subscription to the Times two years ago, subsisting now as a “Weekender” and the truth is, I am paying $3.45 a week for the New York Times Magazine, since that’s the only section I really read. The rest, as they say, is “fish wrap.”

    All other days, and even weekends, therefore, my daily experience with the Times is through its superb digital online product. So there I was, waiting in the hallway of my office, waiting for Ryan to come in since I had left my keys inside in my rush to leave the day before, and, bored, I picked up the newspaper someone had left for recycling, fully intact. After scanning the front page for a second, I realized that I had seen each of these headlines the day before online.

    I hadn’t read each article, of course, but as I flipped further, I thought to myself, “So that’s where they put that article, and oh, I didn’t realize that one got the entire front page of the business section!” It was like someone had come in and re-arranged all of the furniture in my apartment, with different priorities and a different sense of order.

    And one of the beauties of this post-digital encounter was that I stumbled on a fascinating article which hadn’t been on the “most e-mailed” list and it was a blip in the parade of articles on the homepage that day. But there it was, front and center on the business section:


    Google in the paper

    Google, the online giant, had been sued in federal court by a large group of authors and publishers who claimed that its plan to scan all the books in the world violated their copyrights.

    As part of the class-action settlement, Google will pay $125 million to create a system under which customers will be charged for reading a copyrighted book, with the copyright holder and Google both taking percentages; copyright holders will also receive a flat fee for the initial scanning, and can opt out of the whole system if they wish.

    But first they must be found.

    The article was about Google’s campaign to satisfy the terms of this class-action settlement, payback, if you will, for attempting to scan and offer digitally every book in the universe, to compensate the authors and copyright holders for this use of their “property”. The irony was that, in order to achieve this, Google was taking out half page ads in newspapers all over the world, an undertaking only Google could pull off.

    Fancy, that: Google having to use paper to distribute information.

    It just goes to show: print is going to recalibrate itself from what it used to do (everything from phone books to news to long texts to novels) to focus on what it does really well in a digital, networked world (not hyper-fresh news, not phone books, on-demand magazines and books, and information distribution off the grid).

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    Kindling on the iPhone

    Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

    I downloaded the Kindle iPhone app today after reading about it in the Times, and I took it for a quick spin. Here’s the title screen:

    Title screen for Kindle on the iPhone

    The title screen for the Kindle iPhone app

    Wait a sec..that’s no Kindle! That’s a paper book!

    The Good

    • I synced it with my Kindle2 and it took me to the “last read” section of the book I was reading. Now this is going to make us really have to re-think the act of reading itself.
    • Swipe to turn pages — better than scrolling
    • Nice to see even a touch of color (in the hyperlinks)

    The one thing the Kindle doesn’t have: color

    The Meh

    • Still insists on justifying the text. I’m sure there’s some technical reason for this, but I would love to see how it reads ragged.
    • Here’s where I’d really *love* to have text-to-speech
    • How do I put an eBook (EPUB) on this thing?
    • Shouldn’t the Kindle iPhone app allow my to buy stuff inside the app?*

    * When Hamilton (who works at the Times) complained that he was having trouble buying a newspaper with the app, I went and tried it myself, shrugging off the weird implications (buying a “paper” to read on your iPhone??). It seemed so roundabout, going to the website to buy today’s paper edition of the news to read on my Kindle when the actual website for the Times or WSJ or whatever organization is a few keypokes away. The tedium of those extra http requests is certainly not worth the reading experience of the Kindle iPhone app. Anyways, it didn’t work for me either: I went to Safari, logged into Amazon, and bought a copy of today’s Wall Street Journal (for $.75) and when I synced my Kindle app, it wasn’t there. Boo hiss.


    Stanza should be quaking slightly in its boots, though the closed-ness of the Kindle app really damages its networthiness, or at least, my unbridled full-bodied embrace of it, and the Kindle for that matter. The question is whether having fanboys is better than having general consumers fork over actual money remains to be seen.

    Grade: B-

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