Thursday, August 16, 2012

How should the future e-book be designed?

On April 10, 2012, I was interviewed in an ebook/i-book project. Students from the Media, Information & Technoculture programme in my faculty at Western had created an i-book or e-book (their terminology was "i-book"). The students therefore, were conducting testing of the i-book and getting reactions to it. I volunteered to participate and give my reactions.

I had to navigate the i-book through the iPad. This was not a pleasant experience for me, as the iPad mediated between me and the information in the book. I found it hard to locate what I wanted due to the need to understand the iPad's gesture technology.

As I compared it with my experience using the physical book, I felt it was much easier to manipulate the physical book, due to the fact that I know exactly what to expect. As I turned the cover page, I would expect to see title page and table of contents. With the i-book, it was not clear where these were. In addition, the pages took a long time to load. There was neither instant or immediate access to the content. I also had to be searching the screen and scrolling and figuring where the familiar information that I expected in a book was, like index etc. With the book as a physical object, there is less need for mediation and greater opportunities to manipulate the book as an object and locate the information I needed (provided it has indexes and table of contents). Plus I knew exactly what to expect, which is not a guarantee with the iPad mediated i-book that I examined.

This experience also brought to light my earlier discussion and review of Laurel's views on computer interface metaphors. In a previous blog post I spoke about the need for humanities to inform computer design. Well, my experience tells me that how we currently think and go about designing e-books is all wrong. Which brings me to the idea of how folklore can help us create better concepts and designs for the e-book.

I read in my university's science library newsletter about a Harry Potter story where Harry Potter interrogates a blank diary by writing a question and receiving a written response (Goodman, 2012). This story inspired some scientists in Australia to create bioactive paper that can conduct blood tests (Goodman, 2012). This bioactive paper receives the input of human blood and outputs results in text informing users about what their blood type is (Goodman, 2012).

Bearing this in mind, I feel that the future of our books need to be more interactive and designed similar to the ideas that Laurel (1993) expresses in her book Computers as Theatre. This is why I feel that the future book must break with the tradition of trying to imitate the printed or traditional book, and take on a totally different paradigm. In this regard, I recommend the artificial intelligent conversational agent to help book publishers transcend into the perfect e-book paradigm.

The agent is specifically applied in education as virtual tutors or virtual coaches in e-learning (Rubin, Chen & Thorimbert, 2010). Some agents have been designed as talking characters from literature, history or science. One example is the Shakespearbot, ‘an interactive chatbot designed to assist in the learning of the life and works of William Shakespeare’ (, 2012). Designing AI conversational agents to simulate talking characters could potentially impact the publishing of future e-books. Agents could in fact be designed as talking books. Rather than permit sequential access to information, an AI talking book could provide a more direct approach to helping users find information located in the book. Hence, the potential for future e-book users to ask books questions in natural language of what they want to know or find out and retrieve direct answers in the same is also a possibility. However, current publishers seem oblivious to this idea. industry data suggests that only two non-English publishers are currently applying the agent, but more for the purposes of customer service, rather than seeing the application as a talking publication (See Figure 1). While publishers may not yet see agents as having a potential to transform the industry, Rubin, Chen & Thorimbert (2010) propose that libraries use agent for storytelling and for even leading book discussions.

Figure 1. directory’s 2 search results for chatbots used by publishers.

In fact, even Laurel (1993) propose agents as storytellers as well as guides to information in a multimedia database. Agents can be performers that tell the user what is contained in the book and even suggest what to click next based on the user is currently reading. This is important as findings from Hertzum, Andersen,  Andersen, and  Hansen (2002) indicate that people when interacting with new information sources such as virtual agents want to develop some assessment of them before they can trust them. Hence whatever information the agent can provide to help people assess their value as information sources can help in establishing trust (Hertzum et al., 2002).

As such, I suggest that the future books take a leaf out of Harry Potter's page and design future e-books to be interactive responding to user input in modifying the information displayed. I also suggest that future e-books incorporate multimedia performances that indicate to users what the book is about and what sources inform the book. Further, I suggest that agents be employed to help users navigate books to content that they need. Since the traditional book has become a disembodied storyteller, let us reincorporate the traditional embodied storytelling practices through conversational agents in the future e-book.


Goodman, M. (2012, August). What’s your type? The Pipeline, Western University The Allyn & Betty Taylor Library Retrieved from

Hertzum, M., Andersen, H. H. K., Andersen, V., & Hansen, C. B. (2002). Trust in information sources: Seeking information from people, documents, and virtual agents. Interacting with Computers, 14(5), 575-599. doi:10.1016/S0953-5438(02)00023-1 

Laurel, B. (1993). Computers as theatre. Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., c1993.

Rubin, V. L., Chen, Y. & Thorimbert, L. M. (2010). Artificially intelligent conversational agents in libraries Library Hi Tech, 28(4), 496-522. (2012). About Shakespearebot. Retrieved from

1 comment:

  1. Always knew that e-textbooks are overrated. Not designed properly. Check out this article by Angela Chen from The Chronicle of Higher Education that indicates that "Students find E-Textbooks ‘Clumsy’ and Don’t Use Their Interactive Features":