Take it easy on your team, but make it easier for your readers.
My goal is to convince you of two things:
1. That software projects should start small and scale up.
— Jean Kaplansky (@JeanKaplansky) March 11, 2015
Rebecca Springer, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, “User experience for illustrated nonfiction ebooks” (video)
Rebecca oversees production of cookbooks at Houghton, and her first challenge has been to get print designers to realize just how much “user experience” work they have always done, just not under that name. India Amos had introduced this theme earlier in the conference:
Rebecca framed much of her talk in terms of good manners, or at least in terms of holding the needs and experiences of the reader foremost in mind when creating E-books:
— India (@indiamos) March 11, 2015
Part of this process comes down to picking one’s battles—based not on what design challenges are easy for the designer to solve, but which design problems are hard for the reader to overcome. “E-books that crash are kind of a deal-breaker for most readers,” she deadpanned. I was reminded of Mark Horstman’s maxim: “Communication is what the listener does.” (If the listener or reader didn’t understand the message, then the messenger failed in some way.)
The importance of modular content shone through in unexpected places. As an example, Rebecca showed us a color photograph of a chicken dish that had labels and captions on it. If these captions were rendered as part of the image’s pixels, then the text of the labels could become too small to read on some screens. If the labels were kept as text on a separate layer, they could (usually) scale up or down in a way that would still be meaningful to the reader. (And would also be more accessible to people and devices that had difficulty with pictures.)
Publishers and production teams might chafe at all of this fuss over things that were (are) intrinsic to print design. “The reading systems that make up most of the commercial market have been created for what’s called ‘formless content….’ Without the contextual relationship of elements on the page, meaning is going to get lost.” It may be of some consolation that many of Rebecca’s tips for readability and compatibility also went far towards making E-books more visually elegant. Real fractions, smart quotes, and sensible hyphenation rules prevent misunderstandings and are also aesthetically sound. (No coincidence that; we’ve evolved sensibilities to be partial to stuff that is, well, sensible.)
Cookbooks have long been one of my best allies when explaining the Yellow Buick Review project to people who don’t read much poetry. A cookbook just wouldn’t work as straight paragraphs of text. Formatting matters a lot in recipes: “Add in the sugar…[device-inserted page break]…two teaspoons at a time” could spell disaster for a distracted chef. The challenge of digital cookbooks can be a useful on-ramp for people who mistake for foppery a poet’s insistence on formatting.