Escape from Cell Block A4: Breaking the Boundaries of the Written Document

This article was originally published in “What’s the Future of Work?” on Medium. You can find it here.

A document is a box of words arranged in a predetermined and unchangeable order. Readers can only physically interact with a document in two ways: they can turn its pages and they can scribble in its margins.

But we don’t have to live with those limitations anymore. Technology is catching up to the human brain, providing ways for us to project the ideas that zap through our neural synapses into the physical world.

We have the brain power. We have the computing power. What we need now is a tool that transforms the one-sided delivery of content — a monologue — into an interaction between content and its consumers — a dialogue.

It’s time to rethink how documents work.

Burning our old ideas about books

The puzzle for designers isn’t how people read. It’s how people think. And people don’t all think the same way. Ask a mathematician and an artist to describe the night sky and you’ll get two completely different answers. We need to ask whether one content format can best serve the needs of everyone on the spectrum of thought styles.

Finding better ways for users to cut and paste or find and replace isn’t the answer. We’re not talking about streamlining functions — we’re talking about breaking a 2000-year-old habit of writing on rectangular sheets of paper and replacing it with something completely new, something better suited to the way we think. We’re talking about a revolution. Not a reading revolution — passive reading is what we’re pushing out of the way to make room for something better, something more fluid and versatile that turns content into an extension of the thought process.

Enriching reading and thinking

The limitations of an 8.5 x 11” page need to be broken. Increasingly, we’re abandoning the printed document and the standard desktop monitor for tablets and phones of inconsistent sizes. Responsive content is today’s best practice, but can the concept of responsiveness be taken further than the dynamic resizing of text? The form factor of a device may drive how we present content, but form factors are fleeting; computing power that once required the entire floor of a building now fits in the palms of our hands. How can we disconnect content from its delivery device and instead connect it to the “consuming device” — the user’s thought process?

The tactile elements of reading are important to keep. The goal is not to destroy the experience of reading, but to enhance it and give it room to evolve. When a reader has a physical book in hand, things are happening cognitively that he doesn’t realize are happening. The balance of pages shows how far along in the story he is; the quality of the paper gives him a sense of the authority the book carries. This is true whether the reading is for pleasure or work.

These nuances need to be maintained on flat screens or the joy of reading will be spoiled. Readers want signposts, like progress bars. They want text that echoes the look of print on paper. They want to be able to bookmark their place and scribble in the margins and highlight important sections. We don’t want to lose any of that. Instead, we want to echo the best aspects of reading a physical document and add new ideas that make reading a more interactive process.

Ideas unshackled

The structure of a piece of writing is the physical expression of its flow of logic. If we stripped away a document’s titling and paragraphing to achieve the highest level of content fluidity, we’d be left with the bare bones of a scrolling LED display. What a sterile content consumption experience that would be — the exact opposite of what we hope to achieve.

The human desire to bring our ideas to life is a continuous thread that runs from cave painting to papyrus scrolls to bound books to film to video games. We use technology to add layers of vividness and immediacy to our stories. But ultimately, day-to-day concerns are what impact people most, both readers and authors. People want practical tools that enrich document creation, management, and consumption, like updateable content.

Content needs to be updateable in real-time because information is always changing. Take it a step further and imagine a cited statistic; today, we link the fact to the source, but wouldn’t that document have a longer lifespan, better accuracy, and a greater return on investment if it could automatically update when the original source was updated? Yet we don’t want to rewrite our history on the fly, so there has to be a publicly accessible mechanism to access archives. One thing leads to another when a designer begins thinking about how to overhaul something so essential to our culture as the way we interact with information.

Designers can influence the evolution of thought

As designers, we have the opportunity to sweep away the antiquated notion of content delivery and replace it with something new. Content opening is more like where we’re going: in the same way that an amusement park powers up its rides each morning, content will be open for users to manipulate in any way they like.

When we find better ways to structure and present digital documents, reading will no longer be the passive act of absorbing information. Instead, readers will be free to participate in information, interacting with the text itself and perhaps with the author as well. The format of the new document is still unknown; perhaps it will be something not yet conceived, some great idea that’s just taking seed in the mind of a trailblazing designer. Maybe you’re that designer. And when tomorrow’s reader says, “The words just leaped off the page,” he could mean it literally.