Papers, now with notes


I was excited to see annotations mentioned in the description of the updated Papers app for the iPad, but was disappointed in the execution. They added two kinds of annotations: text notes and highlighted passages. While both are useful for active reading and appropriate given the characteristics of the device, the implementation left a lot to be desired.

The first problem was that I could not figure out how to create either kind of annotation without first reading the instructions. This was due to their design decision to reduce clutter in the UI (a worthy a priori goal), but given other constraints on interaction, the design required long-lasting gestures (tap and dwell, tap and drag), which are hard to discover and occasionally hard to reproduce.

Each annotation style also has other interaction issues. Notes are created using a Post-It metaphor, which is quite reasonable. Unfortunately, after you are done typing a note, the Post-It goes away and gets replaced by a push-pin, the kind you drop onto Google maps. While this element is fine for marking a precise location on a map, it is not effective for representing a text note for two reasons: text notes are not that localized, and you cannot see the text note without further interaction. In iAnnotate, text notes can exist in three states: collapsed, viewable, and editable. While the viewable mode is not ideal because it obscures the neighboring text — often the very text one is commenting on — at least it’s possible to see quite a bit of both. In Papers, the Post-It view opens too large to be able to view much of the document and the note at the same time.

Passage highlighting is a bit better (and certainly better than not having it at all), but the interaction is, again, not as clean as that in iAnnotate. You have to tap and drag to select a chunk of text, at which point you get the standard text selection handles, which you can use to tweak the selection. Tapping off the handles creates the highlighting marks on the selected passage.

My take is that these features improve the Papers offering considerably, but that the interaction design needs to be thought through better.

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  2. Mark Taormino says:

    Hi Gene:

    I continue to greatly enlightened by your posts. I am working on a doctoral dissertation on e-reader use in higher education. From my review of the literature, there are scads of anecdotal articles and opinions, and very short on empirical evidence. The recent Kindle studies were really long overdue, and pointed to a clear problem with all readers in general: annotation and active reading. We can go back to the premise of active reading described by Adler and Van Doren (1972), and easily understand the needs of students. Your Xlibris research was surely the seminal work in prototyping reading appliances. I can’t imagine why, other than cost, how all of the device vendors missed the point of reading. It seems many features are important (color, resolution, flipping, etc.), but it seems that the engine that will drive reading appliances is the ability to seamlessly interact with text. I’m trying to uncover if annotation functionality is the key driver for education (the tipping point), or just another check box in the long list of students dislikes in working with digital text. From reading all of the Kindle studies at the colleges, it seems any relative advantages are largely meaningless without the inclusion of annotation functionality that is truly natural, seamless, and non-disruptive. Surely that’s a tall order technically, but I am wondering if the vendors ‘get it’ at all. It seems they continue to try to market around the real issues, rather than solve the problem. Or, maybe there is no real problem at all to be solved here. Portability and storage of text might be just one of the nuances of digital texts, but solves really nothing important. In academia, it is a little bit odd to see reading appliances as a solution in search of a problem. Students aren’t clamoring for the obsolescence of the printed book. Recognizing Rogers theory of the diffusion of innovations, relative advantage seems to remain essentially elusive. I currently would liken relative advantage and ereaders to the old Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon, with former representing the concept of relative advantage. :-)

    I always look forward to your comments! Thanks very much.


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