Thursday, June 26, 2008

Zoomii: Book covers, physicality and cover usability

Recognition vs. Discovery
The Da Vinci Code by Dan BrownCannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris
Have you played with Zoomii yet? It's a new bookstore—a skin on Amazon.com—that uses a very attractive and dynamic cover-browsing interface. Instead of text, or a mix of text and graphics, Zoomii is all covers, laid out as if they were on an "endless shelf." The effect is very impressive but also, and with due praise for the ingenuity involved, unsatisfying.

There is no shelf. Part of the problem stems from the "physicality" of the idea. The limits of shelves are the limits of the physical world. Importing physical limitations into the online world is a familiar error. As Clay Shirky remarked in 2005, we ought to be over it.
"People have been freaking out about the virtuality of data for decades, and you'd think we'd have internalized the obvious truth: there is no shelf. In the digital world, there is no physical constraint that's forcing this kind of organization on us any longer. We can do without it, and you'd think we'd have learned that lesson by now."
In Shirky's analysis, not "learning that lesson" results in information architectures like that of the original Yahoo directory:
"Yahoo, faced with the possibility that they could organize things with no physical constraints, added the shelf back. They couldn't imagine organization without the constraints of the shelf, so they added it back."
In Zoomii's case, the whole point was to add the shelf back. It was surely a conscious reversal, and therefore an audacious one, but like swearing off email in favor of handwritten correspondence or communiting in cars in favor of horses, not an efficient one.*

Covers and usability. Zoommii also helped me answer a question I have been struggling toward for some time but never fully worked out for myself: What are covers good for?

If you had asked me a month ago, I would have mentioned Gardnerian "Theory of multiple intelligences," and the contrast between visual learners and those who do better with text. This concept has a lot of relevance in my own life.** And I would have mentioned how covers were a great way to browse other people's library.

The truth is, I think, much more simple:
  1. Covers are great for recognition, because visual memory is faster than reading.
  2. Covers are terrible for discovery, because reading covers, with all their different typefaces and layouts, is slower than reading words.
Transferred to web design, these are fundamentally uability principles, and for the bookstore or OPAC developer up there with any overbroad dictum of Jacob Nielsen—not the full story, but a good rule-of-thumb and starting-point.

In retrospect, this patterns can be seen all over LibraryThing. On the new home page, your recently-added books are shown as covers because you are expected to recognize them at sight, but recommended books are in list format by default, because you probably aren't familiar with them. This principle also solves why list and cover view are both useful. Cover view is, in particular, a great way to scope out someone else's library quickly—when you're looking for commonality, not making a detailed assessment.

Obvious as this discovery is in retrospect—and you may have known it all along—I think it was worth spellng out carefully. In my estimation, bookstores and online library catalogs lack a clear rationale for when covers should be used and when they shouldn't. Often the idea seems to be that covers add "panache," which to some extent they do.

But there are some deeper principles at work in the decision to use covers, and the decision to put them on virtual shelves.

*In this vein there's a good deal to be said from David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous. In Weinberger-ian terms, Zoomii is a throwback to the "first order of order." Incidentally, for a quick fly-by of both Shirky and Weinberger, check out Mike Wesch's Information R/evolution.

**Although obviously a reader, I am an unusual visual person. I learned this when in a group of graduate students preparing to take Latin. We all took a standard learning-styles test so that we understood the idea. The class was perfectly split between visual and textual learners—the archaeologists were visual, the philologists textual. Except for me. I showed up on the visual side. It was a revelation to me because I couldn't even understand my fellow philologists. Confronted with the task of navigating to an unknown place and offered a choice between a map and a set of directions these people chose the directions? Were they insane?

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13 Comments:

OpenID pivyca said...

I think covers are also great for marketing. That's less about organization, though, and more about making $$$. :)

6/26/2008 12:57 PM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

Ugh. I guess the rest of you have sweet accelerated video cards, but it was distinctly laggy for me. More over, they only had two Christies, both "And then there was none". Why do I want to go from Amazon's selection to that of a book store?

6/26/2008 5:23 PM  
Blogger Kath said...

I love the interface because I love browsing bookstores -- and then buying from amazon and other discounters. But there aren't enough books on the shelves.

6/26/2008 6:40 PM  
Anonymous infiniteletters said...

Covers and even fonts can help identify genre though. Or at least what the marketers _thought_ was the genre. That's why covers and titles would be useful for the recommendation lists.

6/26/2008 11:57 PM  
Blogger Nicki said...

I hate that, for all these reasons.

6/27/2008 7:19 AM  
Anonymous evangwen said...

Interesting that you have assumed all books are textual, even though you tested as a visual learner. I can tell you that taking the covers off the art and photography books in our library (as is common in most academic libraries) is not popular with nor helpful to the art and visual design students/faculty. Those covers (even what percentage you can see of the spine on the shelves) convey an enormous amount of information to artists without necessarily reading the title, author, etc. And as graphic designers will tell you, choices of font, graphic, color, etc. are chosen to convey information beyond the content of the picture or text.

I know that I can tell a lot about a book from its cover, and the quality of the design does usually have a correlation to the expected quality of the contents. So I think that adding book covers to the online catalog adds more than just panache -- it is more information that a patron can use to decide whether to choose this material or not. And it is standard in library instruction when teaching students to distinguish between a scholarly periodical and a popular magazine that one of the (many) factors to take into account is the cover (no pictures, neutral colors, non-glossy, boring-looking -- probably scholarly. Colorful, photos, eye-catching and flashy -- probably popular.) You can make a pretty accurate inference in a glance, which is a lot faster than reading through the editorial policy.

6/27/2008 8:50 AM  
Blogger Dorothea said...

I disagree that covers are necessarily poorer discovery tools than catalog browse lists or item displays. The simple problem is design.

Books have well-established conventions for what a spine, cover, or title page look like. I grant there is considerable variety within those conventions, and there are also idiots who flout them. Still -- I could hand you a book in Hungarian or Russian or such another language you don't speak, and you could probably draw circles around title, author, and publisher! That's how strong those conventions are.

OPAC displays ignore these conventions entirely, and for that reason, they cost extra cognitive effort to interpret. This is fixable, but few have even tried to fix it.

6/27/2008 9:04 AM  
Blogger Chris Thiessen said...

Hi, I'm the creator of Zoomii. So I guess that makes me biased. :)

I agree with dorothea. Covers are designed to tell you something about the book. And beyond just author, title and such. They convey tone, style, and subject via their artwork and font choices. Those things can be recognized at a glance without knowing the book ahead of time.

Also, the easy recognition of the covers of loved books draws your attention to that section of the shelf, which is likely to contain other books of the same author and/or subject. I've found many books this way.

Finally, there is some quality of bookstores that Amazon and other sites like it can't match. The essential parts of that quality may differ between people, and therefore not be well-captured for some by Zoomii, but I've met very few regular book-buyers who don't still go to bookstores. For me, the visual wandering of semi-related content is the draw.

6/27/2008 3:16 PM  
Blogger Nebula said...

I agree with Chris--as a reader and book lover, I still go to bookstores because of the sensual experience you can't get otherwise. I like the smell of fresh print and I like the way a new book feels, but I also like used bookstores because seeing the covers of beloved books from my past is also a wonderful experience, like visiting old friends! The memories some covers evoke are as strong as any other sensory memory. I can look at a cover of a book and remember where I was when I bought/found it and how old I was, what I was feeling, etc. In addition, some covers are just beautiful as art on their own and should be displayed.

6/28/2008 4:27 PM  
Blogger Johanna said...

I went to the site and browsed around a little and it felt just like going into my local bookstore - but from the convenience of home. Granted, I would probably go right to Amazon to find a specific book, but if I'm just looking for something new to read, I'd probably head here to browse. I like it!

6/28/2008 8:46 PM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

It sort of feels like going into my local bookstore, but without the fellow patrons and the staff, without the ability to look inside the books, without the ability to pick up the books how good the paper is and if they're really the right size to carry around. So basically like my local bookstore, but without the things that keep me going to my local bookstore instead of Amazon.

6/28/2008 9:05 PM  
Anonymous DrBubbles said...

With respect to the second half of the post, I now understand why my public library's catalogue search-results displays both covers and text in a 12-item list format that requires scrolling through multiple screens: to drive everyone, visual and textual, crazy!

6/30/2008 9:25 AM  
Blogger David said...

I'd have to agree that a cover provides more information than recall. I can spot an O'Reilly Press or Penguin Book even if I can't make out the title. Romance novels have different covers than Mystery. Even given a thumbnail image genre is often evident.

However, it is not for me. Maybe if the result was more precise. Maybe I'm just not visual enough. For whatever reason I can't see it providing me better resource discovery. Might be intersting to include it as an option for a result set in the catalog and see how often it is used to what result. Just because it doesn't work for me, doesn't mean it won't work for others.

6/30/2008 12:14 PM  

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