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Whatever Happened to Reading?

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Technology's War on Words.

Once upon a time, there was a bookstore bigger than any library on Earth. It took more than 20,000 people to operate its over 1,200 locations in the United States and abroad. Suddenly, Borders Books seemed to just disappear, closing its doors for good in 2011 after 40 years in business. Why? Well, for a number of reasons including some questionable business moves, the rise of online retailers like Amazon.com and a general decline in book sales throughout the industry. Borders’ epic failure got people thinking…“What’s happening to our most virtuous of pastimes…snuggling up with a good book?” Are we dumbing-down as a society? Is there something in the water causing our attention span to have dwindled to a few nanoseconds? Are we becoming addicted to memes and clickbait giving us nothing more than snippets of trivial pablum?

Similarly, our daily newspapers are quickly going by the wayside. Even the online versions of many former news giants are experiencing a decline in readership. According to Pew Research Center, in just one year, 2016-2017, newspaper circulation (print and digital) dropped more than 10%. Horace Greely, the famed newspaper tycoon, must be turning in his grave.

It seems that we’re reading less, but are we actually reading more?

We like to blame television and computers for gradually luring us away from the written word. But actually, we may be reading more than ever. What once packed the shelves of the belly-up bookstores, lonely libraries, and nonexistent newsstands now dwells in cyberspace and is ever-present on our smartphones and Kindles. Seemingly every book ever written and every issue of every newspaper and magazine published in the last 25 years is accessible to us in the seconds it takes to type in a few search words. We’re also bombarded by email. Though we ignore most of the junk in our inbox, we open and read many. We’re virtually glued to Facebook and Twitter. We’re entertained for hours by sites like Reddit, and we bounce in and out of news articles pushed at us by Google and Yahoo. Truth is, we’re reading all the time now! We may not be devouring as much Tolstoy and Steinbeck but we’re still reading.

Web sites, even the best journalistic ones, are careful to present textual content to us in enticing bite-size portions, respecting our collective A.D.D. Well-designed sites let us choose to click into or expand an article beyond the headlines and lead-ins. Informational sites are favoring more videos. One, theskimm.com, even serves us quick audio summaries of each top news story. From there we can click into a full written article.  But while New Media generally turns a cold shoulder to lengthy prose, the full, living breathing text of our existence finds a home there. Start with Wikipedia, our modern-day Library of Alexandria.

Mobile apps belong to their own digital phylum. They avoid words altogether.

Apps are designed to replace textual content almost entirely, favoring instead pictures, symbols, and iconic cues whose meanings are intuitively clear to us. (Props to the Department of Transportation whose road signs have long used this approach to alert us with pictographs instantly understood by motorists zooming past them.) In almost every app, we know that tapping the little sprocket icon will reveal a menu of settings or that a magnifying glass lets us search and that three vertically-stacked lines will show us a table of contents or a site directory.

Apps need to be simple and highly intuitive, not only as a means of catering to our intolerance for text, but because they’re most often viewed on smartphone screens the size of a playing card. Call it the “ace of spades” approach to user interface design. There’s simply little or no room for words and no one likes “fine print.”

One of the cardinal rules for app design according to Roxanne Matta, the chief UI/UX designer (user interface/user experience) at a thriving software company serving the roofing industry, is to avoid any need to explain to users how to move through the app. Today people want a super-interactive user experience rather than a pedantic one. “I try hard to limit text and even instructive pop-up messaging,” said Matta. The experience has to be thoroughly intuitive.” She also uses prevailing design elements courtesy of ubiquitous brands that define our interaction with technology such as Google. “People have already learned how to navigate the universally popular apps so UI/UX designers shouldn’t try to recreate recognizable elements. The floppy disc, something that was popular back in the 80s, remains a familiar icon telling users to save their work by tapping it. No need to change it,” she added. Matta also adheres to a rule of defining the problem as the first step in her approach to designing an app or even a screen within the app. “When you understand the problem you can focus on developing a specific and ideal solution.”

Understanding the problems inherent in introducing an app to tech-shy construction contractors was iRoofing Co-founder Daniel Meridor’s unique challenge as he prepared to launch the platform in 2012. “We knew that a big part of our key prospects were not people who went through the physical-to-virtual transformation,” said Meridor an architect-scholar. Meridor speaks in terms that sometimes sound esoteric but carry profound logic when deconstructed. By “transformation” Meridor means that he needed to usher his users into unfamiliar ways of navigating from point A to B in the virtual space a.k.a. his app. His core market of dyed-in-the-wool traditional hammer and nail guys aren’t exactly techies. “When you walk around a rooftop with a measuring wheel and end up on the far side (physical space) there’s rarely any problem getting back to the ladder. It’s second nature. In contrast, when you drill down into a digital application, going back to a particular screen is often difficult. It’s not hard for anyone who was born into the digital age – twentysomethings and thirtysomethings – but for folks who have been roofing contractors their whole lives, movement through virtual space is not second nature.” This is why Meridor and his team of software and UX designers like Roxanne Matta have to adjust accordingly. Each market is different and introducing technology to the ground troops of the construction industry, like roofing professionals, is very different.

Regarding his design challenge in creating roofing’s first do-it-yourself remote, aerial measurement application, Meridor draws similarities to fire evacuation signs in buildings, perhaps an example inspired by his long residency in downtown New York City as a student and academician at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The positioning, illumination, graphic elements, and the wording on such signage must take into account conditions obscured by heavy smoke, language barriers, panic mentality, etc. “Architects deal with user interface design in the real world. I really needed to apply that to the virtual world to ensure the success of iRoofing.” Meridor did that. By captioning certain buttons with text, positioning buttons so that the most important functions were within thumb-reach as a user holds a tablet device, and even showing users a quick animation when ever they tapped a button – sending them from one function to another while subliminally “teaching” them about the app’s logical structure.

Another notable difference between learning to navigate in virtual space versus physical space is the absence of human intervention. “When we learned to find a book in a library we could rely on the librarian to show us how and instruct us on the Dewey Decimal System. Not the case when you pick up an app and begin to navigate through the many levels, functional elements and ‘shelves’ of data behind the app’s simple buttons and symbols,” continued Meridor. “You’re on your own.” (He might be forgetting about all those How-To videos on YouTube, but you get the point.)

Roxanne Matta, who was born into the digital age has learned from her work on software solutions for the construction industry. Recently she worked on a project involving her company’s release of a high-resolution aerial image option called Clearoof™.  She had to design a way for contractors to quickly understand that the aerial imagery available on the app could be accessed by month, e.g., an image that had been captured in the winter might help a roofing contractor see and measure an entire roof unobstructed by foliage, whereas an aerial image of a yard in springtime might help a landscape designer judge what plants and trees could be removed, replaced or relocated. “I placed the familiar eye symbol into the picture on the app screen. When tapped it displays each available month with an accompanying checkbox. The only instructive information is out-of-the-way behind the infotext icon.” So, Matta solved the problem while avoiding the need for most users to read instructions.

Currently, Matta is completing an Android phone app version for iRoofing. It takes complex tasks traditionally performed by contractors manually and offline, or in-the-field, and makes them all work conveniently from a smartphone. She uses her UI/UX design sensibilities and Meridor’s user persona insights to apply a graphically-uncluttered and intuitive layer over all the calculations that run in the backend. The phone app for iRoofing gives workmen a simple roof measurement tool they can use anywhere, before visiting the property they’ll be working on.

Technology may seem to be waging a war on the written word but think about it...

Yes, there are games and apps that entertain us with few words but technology has really opened the doors to news, literature, and reference materials like never before in history. Publishing is booming. Authors abound and we can read their works on our Kindles tablets or phones. As common sense should tell you, the world’s not dumbing down, it’s smartening up and the clever word-less applications, some 5 million+ now available in the Apple Store and Google Play, including Daniel Meridor’s iRoofing app, are the works of bright minds. We, the app users are pretty smart too, for nothing is intuitive by itself. We possess the rapid ability to learn and a huge capacity to store knowledge, retrieve it in an instant and apply it to tools we’ve never used before but in minutes seem to magically master.

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