Reservations about Our Choice, and the Push Pop Press vision of tomorrow’s books

Like most people fascinated with the potential that devices like the iPad have to change how we read and learn, I rushed to the App Store to purchase Push Pop Press’s highly-anticipated first interactive book, “Our Choice.”

Several months ago, I was also one of the first to purchase the Wired app for iPad. Ultimately, I found it disappointing. Its interactive elements felt out-of-place and contrived (I don’t want to tap buttons to simply reveal sequential information, when using a device that can scroll), and actually distracted from the content itself. Furthermore, (perhaps coincidentally) I didn’t find the content as engaging as it was when I read Wired religiously a decade ago.

Mediocre content, fighting for attention among distracting interaction elements, proved to be a deal killer for me and the Wired iPad app.

On the other hand, I have come to absolutely love the Economist and BloombergBusinessweek apps. I’ve subscribed to both, and honestly feel a sense of anticipation each week, waiting for a new issue to come across. Why? Because I find the content interesting, engaging and well-written, while, at the same time, the publishers haven’t added interaction that distracts from the concentrated mode one enters when reading. The interactions that are there are pretty much what I want and expect — efficient navigation, bookmarking, emailing and social sharing.

Our Choice, as a technical example of what can be produced with the Push Pop Press platform, is truly impressive — especially for someone like myself, who is passionately interested in user interfaces and user experience. While the book is fully consumable without interacting with anything, the interactive elements — especially the info-graphics — are implemented in a way that, on the surface, seems to support and amplify the content. This, in my opinion, is an achievement, in and of itself. And as expected from a company run by Mike Matas, everything is exquisitely executed, to the smallest detail.

But, does this represent forward progress in learning, or simply brilliant implementation of what’s technically possible?

My kids — 10 and 8 years old — are both avid readers. The absolutely devour every book they can find. And, they are both intimately familiar with the iPad. My 10 year-old, in fact, reads many of her books in the iPad’s Kindle app, and often likes to write summaries of when finished.

I showed them Our Choice, and just observed. They quickly figured out the navigation, and discovered all the interactive features. But… they didn’t read the content. Fascinated, they skipped through the book, hunting for the next interactive element, to see how it works. They didn’t completely watch a single video.

When they finished, I asked them to tell me about the book. They described how they could blow on the screen and see the windmill turn, how they could run their fingers across the interactive map and see colors changing. How they could pinch to open and close images. But they couldn’t recall much of what the book was about. They couldn’t recall the message intended to be communicated in any of the info-graphics (though they could recall, in detail, how they worked.)

When I, myself, skip and skim through a book or magazine, I rarely return and read through again (although I always plan to). The same thing happened with my kids. They continued with their concentrated reading in the Kindle, but haven’t since returned to Our Choice.

Perhaps it’s the novelty of a new experience, and in a future where every book is published like Our Choice, the interactive elements won’t interfere with content engagement and comprehension. But for now, based on my observations, I remain just a little pessimistic, and have a feeling that we still have a ways to go in terms of understanding the value of, and techniques for, integrating interactivity within the process of reading for comprehension.

10 thoughts on “Reservations about Our Choice, and the Push Pop Press vision of tomorrow’s books”

  1. Matt, thanks for expressing your observations and doubts. I made the interactive infographics for Our Choice, and I wanted to share some thoughts in response.

    I agree that novelty is partially responsible for what you’re seeing. But I think there’s a deeper issue, which is that interactive learning demands more effort from the learner.

    Static media, such as print and TV, are very good at shoving information at the viewer, regardless of whether the viewer actually cares about the subject. (Much TV content is specifically designed to exploit this, especially advertising.) You might call this “drive-by learning”, where the viewer ends up soaking up information almost inadvertently. The metaphor of “consuming” information is apt.

    By contast, interactive learning requires an active drive to learn. The learner has to hold up his end of the conversation, by forming questions and actively exploring to answer those questions. A good interactive explanation is designed to enable that conversation.

    If a reader doesn’t actually care about the subject, and isn’t thinking actively and critically about it, then the interactive content becomes a toy to play with, superficially. And in this case, you’re absolutely right — no learning is taking place. The fact that the reader can enjoy playing with it without asking questions is a side effect of the design.

    (For an alternative to these “accidentally fun” designs, you may want to check out some of my ideas for interactive explanations which are much more subtle and not intrinsically playful: http://worrydream.com/ExplorableExplanations/ I think that both styles will have their place.)

    So yes, your kids (and many of our adult readers!) were attracted by the novelty of the interaction. But I think that the lack of comprehension that you saw was what happens when someone who is accustomed to passive learning is given a medium for active learning. It will take some time before people learn how to be active learners.

  2. Bret,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    I’m not sure that I agree that the focus of the discussion should be on active vs passive learning. I’ve been actively learning my entire life through reading of books, and have seen the same learning process happen with my children. I don’t think that reading, in the absence of interaction, represents “passive” learning.

    Perhaps the conversation should rather focus on the consequences of interrupting the concentrated state of the mind, on the process of comprehension and learning.

    Any interaction element that breaks the concentrated mode of the mind when reading has a cost, which needs to be compensated by the value of the element.

    Imagine I’m reading about the proposed congressional budget cuts in the billions of dollars, on an overall budget in the trillions. Since billions and trillions are scales our minds aren’t typically used to managing, an info-graphic which presents these relative scales in terms with which we’re familiar, addresses a likely interruption in understanding, and thereby supporting continued learning. Without a clear understanding of the relative difference between billions and trillions, we don’t have a framework to understand a subsequence discussion of trade-offs.

    But does stopping to expand an image, then tapping to see where Beppu, Japan is in relation to where I am now, compensate the interruption in reading about international efforts to tap geothermal energy? It’s interesting, but knowing where Beppu is doesn’t directly support the message that the rest of the world is ahead of the US in this area.

    My feeling, and this is based on nothing more than my experience (as written about in this article) and reflection on the topic, is that one should be very careful and selective when interrupting concentrated reading with any element. But when it’s necessary, it can be then critical to comprehension, and in those instances the ability to go beyond static imagery to interactivity represents an evolution in the potential to support learning.

    For me, that’s the positive potential that you’re unlocking with your platform. But if it turns out that my feelings expressed here are correct — that the interruption of concentrated reading is something one should generally avoid — then my concern with platforms like Push Pop Press’s is that they will encourage the introduction of such elements, simply because it’s possible.

    — Matt

  3. By “active” learning, I mean that the learner is constantly making decisions about what to learn next. By this definition, reading a book is “passive” (regardless of what is going on in the reader’s head) because the reader generally isn’t making decisions — he reads the next sentence, and then the next. Crawling Wikipedia, on the other hand, is generally more active, because the reader is deciding which links to follow, according to personal interest and questions that he’s formed.

    Someone accustomed to passive learning in this sense (reading everything that he’s presented with, instead of choosing what to read) is susceptable to the interruption of concentration that you’re concerned with. In your example, you’re absolutely right that that expanding an image of Beppu and seeing its location on a map is irrelevant and distracting. My point is that a long-time active reader would not think to expand the image in the first place, because he hasn’t formed any questions that the image would answer. A novice reader might stop to expand every image, because he’s used to consuming everything he’s given.

    So, I share your feelings about how interactivity can interrupt concentration, and that authors have a responsibility to avoid gratuitous and distracting elements (interactive or not). But I also feel that active reading is a skill, and readers have a responsibility to “learn how to learn” in this new medium. To learn how to maintain concentration while actively deciding what paths to explore.

    I’ve actually written extensively about the negative side of interactivity. In http://worrydream.com/MagicInk/ I make the case that for many software interfaces, interactivity is harmful and should be avoided as much as possible. I make a distinction between “dynamic” (the interface responds to the user’s context and needs) and “interactive” (the interface requires the user to express those needs explicitly). It seems like you might resonate with this argument.

    So, I approach design from an anti-interactive stance to begin with. To me, interaction is valuable when it enables a level of exploration that wouldn’t be possibly statically — when it expands the range of questions that the reader can answer.

    One of my favorite examples in Our Choice is the “Carbon in the Ecosystem” graphic in the Soil chapter, where you can paint a map to see the carbon stored in that region. This allows the reader to ask questions such as, “What carbon is stored in North America? Or the southern hemisphere? Or east Asia?” Addressing all such possible questions in print, if possible, would be so tedious that it would destroy your concentration.

    Another favorite example is the Deforestation graphic in the Forests chapter, where you can adjust the bars to answer “what if” scenarios — “What if there was a policy change, and we got Brazil to cut its deforestation rate in half?” “What if Brazil and Indonesia stopped deforesting entirely?” “What if we gave up on Brazil and Indonesia, and concentrated on the rest of the countries?” You can answer these questions immediately, without breaking your concentration to do calculations or seek out supplemental material.

  4. It seems your description of passive and active learning could similarly be labeled linear vs non-linear learning, or deep vs shallow learning. My first impression reading your reply was, “Sounds like the internet,” and then you mentioned Wikipedia.

    What seems apparent between your view and mine (or, what I think is mine), is that you encourage the availability of both supportive and orthogonal learning choices and detours to the reader, while I wonder whether reading should be interrupted only when one suspects the linear process needs support. You also propose that active learning is a skill that can be acquired.

    I wonder if we can look at how the choices available on our desktops today affects our productivity, as something analogous?

    At any point during the day, I have the choice of checking email, twitter, RSS, IM, etc. while trying to work and get things done. I’m sure it can be argued that the availability of these interruptions carries potential benefits, but I’ve personally not developed the skills necessary to interact with them in an overall positive way. It’s very clear to me that I’m far more productive when disconnected, and able to enter a linear, concentrated process of working. And this seems to be an opinion shared by many these days.

    Of course, you’re talking about designed interruptions, which is obviously something different. But, perhaps this is still an indication of the likelihood of people developing the skills needed to make active learning (according to your definition) an improvement over passive?

    By the way, apart from this, I just wanted to say congratulations on the fantastic work in One Choice. I’ve long been fascinated by info-graphics (the Tufte trilogy sits in prime real estate on my bookshelf), and the potential they have to act as keys to unlocking understanding. Is the intention that your team will be involved in the production of all books from Push Pop Press? I imagine so, since the design and coding of interactive info-graphics is very case/concept specific.

  5. I completely agree that interruptions and distractions destroy concentration. (And I think it’s hopeless to expect people to develop enough self-control to ignore them — I think the right solution, like you said, is to remove the distractions from the environment.)

    But I don’t see the interactive “detours” that I favor as “interruptions”. They aren’t digressions from the topic at hand, so much as going deeper into it. If the reader is engaged in the topic, then the interactions should allow the reader to explore their own relevant questions while in that concentrated mode. (And if the reader isn’t engaged, and is simply playing with the interactions at a superficial level, then I would say that they were never really concentrating in the first place!)

    I have in mind some of my examples at http://worrydream.com/ExplorableExplanations/ and http://worrydream.com/TenBrighterIdeas/ where the material can be read at multiple levels. The hurried reader can skim it. The casual reader can read it as-is, without interacting. The curious reader can adjust the author’s scenarios. The engaged reader can explore scenarios of his own devising. But all interaction serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of the topic at hand, instead of going off in some other direction.

    I think that the skill of being an active reader is about forming questions and then using the material the author has provided (including interactions) to explore those questions. Perhaps one component of that is avoiding distracting and irrelevant material, but this includes learning to skip irrelevant footnotes and endnotes too — it’s not new to interactive media.

    Thanks for your kind words about Our Choice! I don’t think we’re ready to get too specific about our plans moving forward (we are Apple alums, after all), but I will say that I personally have little interest in one-off projects — my interest is in establishing new patterns for others to build on, either by example (hopefully like Our Choice) or through tools. I’m definitely interested in the challenge of making the creation of interactive graphics less case-specific.

  6. Sorry for the delay in replying; we had an 84 hour internet outage here in southern Spain!

    It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the long run. Personally, I feel torn between excitement and skepticism.

    On the one hand, I’m very excited by the potential of interactive elements in supporting learning, when used with care and implemented with skill. Also, many of the arguments you’ve made here resonate with my intuition. It’s a whole new world of possibilities to explore! On the other hand, I still can’t help but remain a little skeptical.

    Consider the digital filter in your ExplorableExplanations essay. I think that’s a particularly interesting example.

    The interactive environment in your example encourages the learner to play with the filter response first, and then observe what happens with circuit parameters. A more traditional approach to learning would be to suppose a particular changes in the parameters, predict how the response will be affected, and then make hand-calculations to confirm or deny those predictions.

    I clearly remember my university three-course series on the design of RF filters. The first course focused exclusively on manual design — using pencil, protractor and paper Smith Charts. Through hand calculations and drawing, we developed a deep (and visual!) understanding of the relationships between circuit parameters and stability regions.

    In the second course, we discarded those manual materials, and received interactive materials (an interactive mathematics environment, with RF filter design modules). In that environment, one could, having a basic design in place, fine tune parameters, and interactively verify frequency response in a similar way as implemented in your example.

    The professor asked, “Why didn’t we start learning about RF filter design with these interactive design tools? Because in our experience, although valuable after core learning has happened, they have proven counterproductive to the fundamental process of learning.”

    In their experience, students who tried to start the learning process in those interactive environments, despite the great potential for exploration, never developed the deep understanding that came through a simple, manual, and non-interactive learning process. On exams, they would not only get problems wrong, but would get them so wrong as to demonstrate a lack of basic fundamental understanding.

    The message of these professors (based on their experience at what is a top-tier engineering school in the US) to us was not “if only we had interactive media we could improve the learning process”, but was actually the complete opposite: “Stay away from that stuff until basic learning has been achieved.”

    And it wasn’t because the interactive environment prevented learning; in fact, it benefited from the same advantages that you outlined in Explorable Explanations — it allowed the user to make infinite explorations. But the fact was (in their experience) that it resulted in apparent understanding (“Oh, yeah, you move that, and that happens.”) and not real understanding (“What would you expect to happen if you removed that element from the circuit altogether?”).

    As I said, though, I’m torn between excitement and skepticism. I’m excited at the potential, and excited to see what’s possible (through platforms like yours), but my experiences (lessons from my old university professors, observing my own children, etc.) leaves me wishing to see some evidence that active learning through interaction is a path worthwhile to pursue.

  7. Dear Matt & Bret:

    Billion & Trillions.

    What is the best user interface to engage kids to learn effectively? Since the topic so far does not include the deaf and the blind, I have to assume (without making an ASS of myself) that your dialogue is about interfaces that cause rapid understanding of a subject. Hopefully my interruption (indiscretion) will not rune your day or thoughts.

    Back to BILLIONs & TRILLIONS

    Since both of you are well educated, and really understand how a few people can impact an economy, the looming crisis of the baby boom generation will multiply in your minds. The for profit educators have lines to create ass wipers with extraordinary skills. The current projections are 20% of the working population will be involved in healthcare. Alzheimer’s disease alone is a $40 TRILLION problem.

    How to we provide a user interface that engages the kids AND delivers a life time of understanding in math? Writing well is another skill that needs to be tackled.

    Regards,

    Todd

  8. I just happened on this conversation (after discovering Brett’s work and advocating the open-source communities I’m involved in to also explore Brett’s ideas).

    I really like Matt’s last post. Thanks for giving lots of food for thought!

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?