Does the world need another e-publishing app? Evan Ratliff, Nicholas Thompson, and Jefferson Rabb think so, and they’ve created The Atavist to prove it: an iTunes-like store for a la carte, original, long-form narrative journalism — combined with a multi-platform e-reader optimized for iOS devices, Kindles, and (soon) Android.
Unlike the digitized razzle-dazzle of many competing e-reading experiences, The Atavist was designed for one thing and one thing only: reading. But The Atavist’s creators took pains to add digital features into each story that enhance the reading experience in ways that paper never could — like “smart” timelines that help keep you oriented in the narrative but don’t spoil future plot twists, or built-in audio versions read by the authors.
Co.Design spoke to The Atavist’s designer/developer, Jeff Rabb, about the choices that went into creating an e-reader that — he hopes — will stand out from the crowd.
As a longtime designer of interactive websites for books and authors, what was your starting point for designing an e-reading app?
I do have an established creative process for creating websites for books, but in many ways I had to toss that process aside for The Atavist. When I’m designing a site for a book or author, I start with broad questions of personality. I try to figure out what the book or author is really about, and how I can visually capture that personality very clearly and cleanly and quickly. But when you’re developing an app like The Atavist which is meant to hold a very long series of different stories, you want to cleanse it of personality — you want the personality to come from the content and the stories. You ideally want an interface that’s more of a canvas, or a blank slate.
So what exactly is The Atavist — a store, an e-reader, a quasi-magazine?
Well, the store element is a means to an end, because we’re very interested in selling stories individually, like the way people purchase songs from iTunes. Primarily, The Atavist is an e-reader with a lot of extra features. We’ve given a lot of thought to how people actually read, where they potentially get lost — in a negative sense — and how to address that. I spent a lot of time thinking about how certain kinds of longer stories, even when told in the very best writing style, can become extremely complex and hard to follow — and I tried to figure out what an app could do to help prevent that without handholding the reader too much, or interfering with the reading itself.
What are some of these ways that a reader can get lost, that your design is meant to avoid?
Regardless of whether you’re working in digital or print, whenever you have a story with a very lengthy cast of characters, it’s very hard for anyone to keep it all straight. People talk about this when reading Anna Karenina or even The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: they can get lost in the names and have a hard time following the story at first. The same can be also true for locations in a certain kind of complicated news story. People who don’t have a photographic memory are going to forget who’s who or what’s what. In the digital context, you can easily help people with that; but if you’re anything like me, you tend to follow a link to learn more about a subject, and then you end following this interesting trail that never leads you back to what you were originally reading. In The Atavist, we try to provide as much of that material in the app, at people’s fingertips, so they don’t lose track of what they were originally doing — which was reading a good story. The Atavist has a fairly rich cast-of-characters feature, as well as timeline and geography features, all meant to quickly aid people in their reading.
So you’re not trying prevent “digital distraction” as much as address some pitfalls that long stories tend to have in any medium?
Yes, that’s right. One of the defining characteristics of this project is that all the stories are going to be long. If you take that as a starting point, you start to ask yourself questions about the aspects of lengthy journalism that people sometimes have trouble with, and how can you improve upon them. If we were publishing much shorter pieces, a lot of the features we’re providing would probably feel kind of unnecessary. But the hope is that if you publish a 10,000-word story about a complex heist, providing a tool like an interactive timeline can be very helpful in reminding you about the order of events, and keeping you in the story. That kind of thing is difficult to keep straight in your mind without some sort of aid.
At the same time, all of these options in The Atavist are presented as “opt-in”, in that the reader can choose to activate them but isn’t forced to. Was that a big part of your design philosophy?
Yes, but to be frank, we go back and forth on it quite a bit. On one hand, you want a very clean read and you want that clean read to be the first thing someone sees. On the other hand, there’s a fear that there’s a lot of valuable elements to these stories that could potentially go unviewed. We ultimately opted for cleanliness, and I think that’s the right choice.
A lot of the navigational and UI cues in The Atavist are very subtle. How did you converge on the point of “just enough” handholding for the user, but not too much?
There are two ways that our “inline extras” are visible. In the left margin there are light gray arrows that point to wheverever there is a line of text with an extra element in it. Those are present all the time, and because they are off in the margin and rather faint, they won’t intrude on the reading experience. But when you know what they represent, it can be a helpful way of getting a sense of the volume of extra material on the page.
The second way that they’re shown, which is only visible when you have opted to turn the inline content on, is that the words that have the material associated with them have a very light box around them coupled with an icon indicated what type of content it is: audio, a timeline, map, or a character bio. That cue is less subtle, but you should be able to read throught them, and they tell you exactly what’s there if you’ve opted in to that feature.
The ultimate thing we’re trying to convey is that if there’s something you may want to learn more about, we’re probably providing it. In the best scenario, someone who reads The Atavist frequently would develop a certain trust for us, where they just tap the inline elements feature, see what we offer, and read on.
You opted for a scrolling-and-swiping method of advancing the text, as opposed to a tap-to-paginate style like Kindle or Instapaper. Why?
We gave a lot of thought to that. Plenty of people felt that scrolling was a bad idea. But after much thought, I disagreed. The reason is that these stories are broken into continuous pages of text called chapters, and when you’re in chapter, you’ll want to read it beginning to end before proceeding to the next section. We wanted this idea that horizontal motion goes from chapter to chapter, and vertical motion stays within the chapter. So scrolling just made the most sense. It’s a pretty natural gesture.
How did you optimize the design for different screen sizes, like iPad versus iPhone?
I created a custom content management system called Periodic which feeds these stories to the devices, and because of that separation, the story can be composed once and displayed in different ways by different platforms. For example, we found that having fully justified text on the iPhone was problematic because you’d get weird spacing in the text pretty frequently. But the iPad, because it’s a much wider screen, we found that it looked much better. So if you read the same story on the iPad, you get fully justified text; on the iPhone, it’s ragged right. There are a lot of small differences like that. Image size is also a big issue because you don’t want to waste time delivering giant images to the iPhone. Periodic produces multiple versions of each story where the images are custom-resized for the device it’s intended for. There are different decision points at the CMS level and at the app level which optimize how the content is displayed.
Is this the future of e-publishing, making everything completely custom? Or will we see more of a standards-based future, with somewhat less diverse designs?
In our case, I’ve tried to build The Atavist in such a way that any individual story can look wildly different from another based on what the material is. Because of how images can be used, even down to the level of typeface, stories in The Atavist need not necessarily look the same. The goal here, in terms of how it’s structured, is to not constrain design — or to constrain it as little as possible. Even if we ended up in a scenario where many publishers were using Periodic, the result would not be a homogeneity of design.
But to your broader point about whether this approach needs to be used for other publications, that all depends on what the book is. For nonfiction with certain kinds of complexities, our approach works very well — we designed it exactly for that purpose. For other kinds of books, it’s completely extraneous and doesn’t add much to the experience. It’s pretty hard to imagine one idea being generalized enough to be useful for everybody.