I’ve done a lot of usability testing in my day, but today I participated in one that was different from anything I’ve done before. Rather than testing the usability of a website, we were testing the usability of a book. This, by the way, was a test conducted by Liz Danzico, the editor of Rosenfeld Media, and it all came about because of her post about the test on her blog.
What was most interesting about participating in this was that I found myself looking at something—a book—that I’ve used for pretty much long as I’ve been around (after all, before I even knew what the word ‘Book’ meant or what a book was, my mother was probably, surely, reading bedtime stories to me – Mom? You are of course reading my blog, yes? Could you maybe post a comment to confirm?), and yet here I was looking at it as if I’d never seen it before, as if this were a completely new website somebody placed before me on a monitor and asked ‘so, what do you think?’ I handled the ‘prototype book’ that Liz carefully presented to me, leafing through it a bit, looking at the table of contents, the index, the back cover.
In a nutshell, I found myself feeling very strongly that contemporary book designers can learn a thing or two from information architects, the people who organize information on websites. Seems weird doesn’t it? After all, book designers have been designing books for hundreds and hundreds of years, so you’d think they’ve pretty much got it all down pat. Not so, at least in my opinion. Similarly to how the web is transforming the music industry, it appears that books are equally susceptible to the impact of the web. No, no, I’m not talking about the paperless office or some futuristic hoopla about how the web spells the end of the book. I’m talking about how the way that we use the web, the way that we move from one page to another, the way that we have come to expect information to be organized on a web page, or in a website as whole, consciously or otherwise, is affecting how we think about and read books.
As a case in point, I mentioned to Liz that I would expect something akin to a ‘Getting Started’ section in the book, and the reason I wanted that, of course, is because it’s something I’ve come to expect in online help documentation (as well as in product-specific websites.) This, of course, would be for how-to books, and not for a more theoretical text.
Additionally, I’d expect a very tight integration between the book (keeping in mind that this is a book for computer professionals) and a companion website for the book. I would assume that I could go to the companion site and find additional content, similarly to what one might find on a DVD in addition to the movie, and of course things like errata (which already is quite common.)
Taking this a bit further, I would like to see a discussion forum, where the book essentially is the hub of a community that can congregate online to share their thoughts. And what would really bring the book-web connection home would be the presence of a wiki, where maybe the author sort of continues writing their book, possibly in response to comments made on the discussion board, or maybe uses the wiki as a live beta of a forthcoming future edition of the book. I guess the overall idea is that the web would function as an organic, living extension of the original work.