The Readery’s UXR Visualiser Experiments. 

Case Study (Phase I).

Role — UXR, Cognitive Ergonomist

Year — 2019

Started as a cognitive experiment on HCI usability and attention, it developed into a new formatting protocol. 

We aimed at offering a prototyping solution for an actual readery tool: a multi-device app used for introducing all-source documents, containing texts and multimedia, and making them improvingly readable, editable, collaborative and shareable.

  • Goals — Build a series of experiments to understand the problems that targeted users may encounter with, as using a screen reader tool for working with complex/academic/scientific texts. Extract the set of affordances they don’t occur to be offered by nowadays tools. Synthesis the values to follow for a better readery tool.
  • Challenges — Contrastability: settling our control groups and differentials was at first fuzzy. We applied a comparative approach, through which results, after experiments, were analysed with a clear direction.
  • Learnings — Cooperative work makes easier conclusion-&-decision making process. UXR on user practices and their required affordances can offer new perspectives for creating more solvent tools in very common areas, however not yet explored.

Overview of the Project.

Presenting The Readery Project as a case study, this page shows its Phase I, explaining the Visualiser Experiments held to extract the usage affordances for further application. The next Phase II defining the HCI prototyping is available below, along with Phase III, incorporating the Blockchain system.

1. Intro
2. UXR Scenario: Characterising Problems & People
3. UXR Experiment: Understanding User Affordances
4. Findings
5. Applicable Conclusions
6. Set of UXR Principles for Prototyping
7. Background Context of the Project

1 — Intro.

What was to be an isolated experiment ended up being three different projects in three different years. My colleague at the Commons Vibeke Lundborg and I, in collaboration with Barbara Leid and Pam Kluge, started a cognitive experiment on reading attention and screen usability in 2018. This resulted in prototyping the HCI readery’s usage affordances applying our experimental conclusions by mid 2019. Dynamics for a blockchain system were incorporated to the prototype soon, scheduled for 2023.

2 — UXR Scenario: Characterising Problems & People.

We focused a specific but rather larger audience: long-time and all-time readers; this is, people reading many hours a day, and many days per year. Generally, it shows to be target for scientific or academic narrative texts readers.

We observed there was a formatting paradigm in screen reading, PDF formatting, that does in fact benefit editors, authors and publishers, as it accomplishes legal, managerial and editorial requirements through mainly invariability features. However, we interpreted from our results that this paradigm is not only not beneficial for the users of those texts, but that is hampering how long-time and all-time readers understand contents and work with documents to fulfil further goals, mainly in scientific and academic ambiances, where collaboration is a major need.

Below — Visor sample, desktop version

The main observation from our results is that the so-called ‘readers’ are in fact but ‘viewers’. These apps are great at rendering texts and images in immutable formats, displays offering magnificent definition within an optimised viewing window, however are of limited interaction, maladaptive by nature to formatting preferences or accessibility requirements, and difficult to fit or even incompatible with multi-device continual usage. As PDF viewers, they are not actually providing of a qualitative reading experience; nonetheless, this kind of apps are the most commonly used.

The last observation, multi-device continual usage, is maybe the most significant remark for nowadays users. Continual usage means for us intermittent track of the same content among different devices, under distinct ambiance conditions, and with specific interactive tools. Mobile reading may be very general, but hampered when work scenario shifts from desktop to little screen’s usability tools:

Below — Visor sample, mobile app version

When the same viewer reframes into mobile, decks collapse, many options hide, all-document vs selection-within-document abbreviates in labyrinthine finger journeys, and zoom-in/out becomes a new foe masked behind a friendly disguise.

A major interaction drawback comes with what in editorial design is called ‘columniation’, the arrangement of columns serving as structure for the document’s content. The problem comes with how users attention is derived from interpreting content in several columns. In cognitive research, especially for reading, we call stains to any element of a page/screen, including texts, images, media, etc. We have observed that multiplying columns makes stains less understandable, as attention disengages from the content in comparison with stains arranged in a single column. The effect of stains working as eye-catching drivers of attention,  ‘Attentional staining’, can explain this.

Below — Visor sample, Mac, desktop version

We can see in this other viewer how columns affect the way attention is focusing the topical content being read, where the reader has at the same time content of the body of the text, quotes, a new section (conclusions) parallel to what is being read, plus the references list. Cognitively speaking, the last three items are performing as distractors for the main action: understanding a thematic content channeled through a main stain competing with others.

Readers compensate this effect by zooming in the document, orienting the text topically and thus searching for a single column. This is, they interact with the text while reading applying a user-driven ‘attentional staining’. We thought this process needs be carried out by design, not by the users’s strategies for avoiding obstacles. Additionally, in mobile, this functionality disorients the structure of the reading in a much higher rate due to the scale.

This all means that the user affordances of PDF viewers are not what readers demand: a proper contents reader, where formatting adapts to personal preferences, content is distributed in a cognitive and attentional leading manner, topics’s significance relate to selected forms and colours of the text, and interactive controls are offered to the reader beyond the publisher’s editing and format decisions, however maintaining rights protected, as legal and payments dispositions protected. PDFs may be, thus, not the most affording format for reading.

3 — UXR Experiment: Understanding User Affordances.

What we finally understood in a preliminary stage is that the problem is not of the format itself: PDFs are great. The problem comes with the management afforded by the display apps showing the contents of any formatted content. The problem, thus, is about their interactive presentation, is about software user affordances.

User affordances are those actions users are allowed by a software to perform through a particular device. These have their major impact when designing for multi-deviced software, involving accessibility and flexibility features via personal preferences-centered design.

In a cognitive way, usage affordances can be understood as willing operations, control strategies, and interested handling initiatives that are allowed to perform for specific users by the limits and conditions of their interaction with a particular software and device. Scientific and epistemic literature has produced extensive work on this topic, which has also materialised into accessibility features for better software design and UIs in the last 10 years.

Focusing our research, we managed to imagine what to do to solve these two questions:

(1) what would be the most used or desirably used features of a readery app for the focused users?
(2) what focused users need for a better reading experience?

We monitored the reading of three groups of 5 individuals within the targeted audiences. From the 5 individuals, 3 were offered the academic paper ’The Turn to Affect’ (2011), by social historian of emotions Prof. Ruth Leys; and 2 of them the first part of the novel ‘jPod’ (2006), by Canadian writer and conceptual artist Douglas Coupland.

Group A was not offered screens, just material papers and writing tools. Group B was offered the same content with just a phone. Group C was offered the same content with a phone and a laptop. Each person was eye-&-attention-tracked, and then asked to define how they would implement beneficial changes to their reading and interpreting process. This composed the two phases of the experiment. In the first phase we wanted to observe where users looked to and why they looked there on the page using PDFs in papers, phone apps and multi-device apps. The second phase consisted of the qualitative extraction of applicable fundamentals from their main user affordances.

4 — Findings.

1 — Two Phases of Interaction.

We discovered how users manifest a short first phase of minimal interaction, and an extensive second phase of proactive interaction. The first phase comes with acceptance of the topic and the structure of the text, as well as how it will be developing itself until the end, both in scientific papers and narrative novels (chapters index and their length is an example of this interest). The second phase comes with the working reading itself, where printed text gets immediately affected by writing comments, and screens by highlights.

2 — Limited Multidevice Usability.

Research on practices showed how PDF-based reading makes multi-device usability very reduced, even in apps used for reading PDFs in screens: text columns cannot be changed, so mobile users need to zoom-in and manoeuvre within the page losing the context of the surrounding stains of peripheral texts and images. PDFs cannot be edited much beyond commentational notes, and sharing options depend upon mail/message delivery systems, not proper to the readery apps. However this, many readings are materialised as PDFs in the focused audiences: long-time and all-time readers spend almost all of their screen-reading working time in front of PDFs.

3 — Central Attention Column.

Central reading was constant: even when reading columns, each one was adopted as the central text to read at the moment, zoomed-in and read, then the next column became the central text. Frustration in zooming-in because of having to walk to the top to rearrange the column to the page was pointed out in screen users, in both little and bigger devices. Lacks of attention occurred when changing sections because of low scale differentiation between headers and proper narrative text blocks.

4 — Active Reading Means Personalised Text Editing.

However on paper or on screen, editing was a need, and with digital formats, a problem when notes where extensive. In many occasions, users abandon the app in search for more space in a different app, or to look up a word in a dictionary or the web —this promotes user migration and attention retention lacks.

5 — New Needs, New Formats, New Affordances.

Reading deserves different affordances than those of printing. Personalisation of long and portable written documents can enhance the users’s actual understanding of what is written by means of editing while reading. Reviews, journals, academic and scientific periodicals may publish articles and studies in this format, which, intentionally for us researchers, authors and the industry behind, deserve PDF’s features due to legal and editorial considerations. Nonetheless, the reading and interpretation process of this material can be re-structured when working with it, for the needs are now of us users, text readers, content interpreters, for whom PDF formatting doesn’t offer enough affordances.

5 — Applicable Conclusions.

Thus, in order to conclude something useful for answering those two questions, we agreed to consider at least 5 concepts allowing better usability in long-time and all-time readers:

Stain Resiliency
Heteroformity
Scalability
Remarkability
Shareability

Stain Resiliency.

Stains, or blocking of contents in an arrangement of texts and images with colours and positions, help or put obstacles in understanding the peripheral context needed for interpreting what is being read. Resilient stains are made to adapt to the editing power of the user while still conveying their meaning without hindering the user from losing attentional focus.

Heteroformity .

Uniformity of a text makes typographic weights and colours flat, which increases the lack of understanding of the significance of the meanings the contents of the text deliver. Heteroform stains, in putting in practice a diverse set of optical resources, clicks better memory triggers and gets to convey contents with a more focused attitude.

Scalability .

Scalability comes when we tackle uniformity, and change the scale of the stains on a reading surface (page, screen), which also introduces the required variability for interpreting the length of sections, chapters, what’s next to read and what’s already been read.

Remarkability.

Remarkability makes the users able to adapt the text to their own cognitive performance when reading and understanding what’s written. This is mainly achieved via settling within the text user personal memory scenarios: this means users interact with it proactively by introducing comments, performing in-text searches, and marking it with highlights and underlines.

Shareability.

Shareability makes stain fragments to be excerpted and moved to a message delivery system —which is preferably build in the readery app. Mainly, to share with others or with oneself to remember important pieces of the content read. Shareability covers as well an important part of the work long-time and all-time readers need to do, making community and social interaction protagonists of their findings, generating a collaborative tool from the text itself. This needs be enhanced and promoted as is the major characteristic of contemporary screen reading: just in digital formats users can copy, duplicate, and sent immediately any length of a working text, with legal and context meta data automatically included and preserved.

For the reading part of their practice, the fact that both position and scale of heteroform stains cannot be modified makes reading mobile dysfunctionality a first barrier to overcome. For the editing part of their practice —including commentary and notes making, as social sharing or highlighting and text-variability/accessibility options needs, the fact that stains occur always statically, makes editing mobile dysfunctionality a second barrier to overcome. When these barriers shift from mobile to laptop screen, multi-device dysfunctionality comes in the sense of design accessibility (user adaptive design) and flexibility (user modification design), both in vogue in 21st-century UX fields.

6 — Set of UXR Principles for Prototyping

Below — Schemata for the affordances (A—D)

We captured the following principles based on our user practice research, which also define modern user practices research values:

(1) Adapt user affordances to personalised user practices
(2) Increase user attention retention and reduce user migration
(3) Offer quality reading by editing for improving cognitively content understanding
(4) Make reading a social and collaborative activity

We transformed all-time and long-time readers’s impediments into new adaptive, flexible opportunities for building the HCI prototype of a multi-device readery app on the Blockchain. We structured those results into a useful set of concepts ready for applicability, approaching it by re-defining the user affordances that an enhanced reader software ought to have.

We designed those affordances and prototyped a system to attain four main goals: 1, showcasing and managing readings; 2, publishing and protecting content via a Smart Copy System on the Blockchain; 3, reading and editing particular texts in a flexible, interactive, distributed and personal preferences-centered manner; 4, sharing works and collaborating with colleagues in a multi-user and multi-device fashion.

 

Below — Sketches for the affordances flow panels

Background Context of the Project.

In August 2019, the Kalavik Commons, a collaborative collective of European ergonomists, UX and HCI Researchers sharing their thoughts on the field and its future, arranged the second biannual meeting of the year in Munich with the title ‘Orienting HCI & UX Research for Blockchain Systems’. What a wonderful occasion for my Danish project partner Vibeke Lundborg’s thoughts on brain-tracking ergonomics and mine to be exposed together.

We introduced 3 applied concepts on cognitive ergonomics for intelligent platforms working with AI-assisted diagnostics built on the blockchain*. Very productively, colleagues at the audience started to formulate some questions about how to implement cognitive research to be applied in the prototyping of a readery app**, with said concepts being tested in a series of experiments about user attention and screen reading performance, mainly studying the usage affordances introduced by the app, and further on the users’s practice of the readery itself. After the talk, colleagues at The Commons, Karen Johannesson (Århus) and Pam Kluge (Copenhagen), proposed to build a prototyping framework for Kalavik, and thus we committed to work.

* Alex Card & Vibeke Lundborg (2019) — ‘Epidiagnostic Nosographers on the Blochchain. On the Human-Software ergonomics of a diagnostic distributed platform’, in Orienting HCI & UX Research for Blochchain Systems, CBC 2019b, N.6. Munich, Germany.

** The concept of a readery was first introduced as an example of flexible design in neuroergonomics in 2018. Cf.: Alex Card & Barbara Leid (2018) ‘The Neuro-Ergonomics of Brain Software. On a near-future imagery of brain-tracking software for non-medical usage’, in Reaching Mind-Reading Software?, CBC 2018a, N.3. Copenhagen, Denmark.