6 February 2013

Respect the reader

I'm sitting here trying to write but a web page I saw a few weeks ago keeps bugging me.

Gather together a bunch of web developers and you’ll find it hard to get any of them to disagree with the principle that you should always respect the user and their wishes.

Of course, they all turn around and make hideous websites, with awful readability, loaded with ads, but they will all also loudly proclaim that they had no choice. Their manager, employer, or customer demanded it. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the business model of most websites hinges on a certain level of disregard for the reader’s best interests.

Still, at least these web developers can argue that they did it for money. In our capitalistic society, doing grotesque things for money is practically every citizen’s patriotic duty.

—Why is he prancing about, dressed like a monkey, harassing passersby?

—He’s doing it for money/charity/advertising.

—Oh! Okay. Fine.

As is obvious from just watching the news and following current affairs, destructive and hostile acts are clearly considered a-okay as long as they are for pay. This is the society we live in.

Amazon, Apple, or Google do something potentially destructive to an entire industry but it’s okay because they make money doing so.

However, just because human decency is for sale, that doesn’t mean you should discard it arbitrarily.

So, getting back to the principle that you should respect the user: what does it mean?

It means you don’t do things like this.

(For those who can’t be bothered to follow the link, it’s a page that recommends adding a clever bit of code to ebooks that nag the reader to change their reading settings.)


—But, surely, a polite note at the start of a long book is acceptable? Nobody is being hurt and the book would be so much better if they saw it the way it’s supposed to be seen.

No. Not really. There are two sides to this:

  1. The platform owner has defaults you don’t agree with.
  2. The reader has changed the settings to something you don’t agree with.

The only correct response to number one is to lobby the platform owner to change the defaults. I’ve tried that myself and it usually doesn’t work.

Most platform owners choose the defaults of their apps and devices for specific reasons. If they have ‘Publisher Fonts’ turned off by default, there’s a good chance it’s because of how the device renders arbitrary fonts. For a platform as old as the Kindle, if you go through all of its default settings you’ll find that most of them have a history and a reason. Often the reason is bad, weak, or even stupid, but it’s still a reason the platform owner valued over the counterarguments.

And the only correct response to number two is that you should never ask the user to change their settings.

You don’t ask them to change the font. You don’t ask them to change the font size. You don’t ask them to turn justification on or off. You don’t ask them to turn social features on or off. And if you’re making a website, you don’t ask them to resize the window, allow popups, install flash, or enable cookies.

You are allowed to tell them when, say, they try to log in, that this feature is broken when cookies are disabled, but that’s more in the context of explaining why a feature is broken than of trying to nag them to change it.

And when the only difference between your preferred settings and the reader’s preferred settings is aesthetic, no you don’t get to nag the reader.

It doesn’t matter what the context is, you don’t ask the user to change their settings. You work with them, because you work in a service industry.

This is the key difference between book publishing and the various forms of digital publishing.

A book is an object. An ebook is a service. An object is supposed to have holistic embodied aesthetic. A service is there to serve. The relationship to the reader is different. Of course, services can set ground rules (‘no jacket, no service’) but most of those ground rules are there to serve the other customers (‘I don’t want to eat with riffraff’, ‘I want my coffee as quickly as possible’, ‘I’m a cheapskate’), not the proprietor. The ebook designer’s relationship with the reader is more like a waiter’s relationship with a diner than that of Henry Ford to the buyers of his cars. Once you enter the digital publishing industry you cease to be the purveyor of created and designed objects and become a provider of services.

This, by the way, is the reason why many existing publishers find it difficult to do ebooks and apps without running into process, quality, or marketing problems. The print mindset and processes often directly conflict with digital best practices.

So, please respect the reader and accept that their settings are their business.

Unless, of course, you are a member of the current generation of ad-loving, social-media addicted web developers who willingly disrespect the reader and sacrifice all that is good about design in the name of money.

If your business model requires you disregard basic human decency, then you can do so knowing that society will not only forgive you, but, if you make enough money, society will glorify you as a divine being blessing us earthly creatures with your godly presence.

In that case, the only thing I ask is that you feel suitably guilty on the way to the bank, counting your ill-gotten gains.


ETA: William Ockham, the ebook developer whose web page it was that I linked to above and prompted these thoughts sent this response:

A response, of sorts, on respect.

I wrote a post last month called “Making the world safe for embedded fonts” and Baldur responded to it on Wednesday. I believe that his response unintentionally mischaracterized me and the work I’m doing. He has kindly agreed to allow me this space to explain that. The most important point for me is that Baldur and I are in agreement that, in the context of ebook design, respect for the reader is paramount. Where we disagree is on how to show that respect.

The fairest way to judge Baldur’s response to my post is to use his own standards. Here’s what he said on Google+ about what he would prefer when someone responds to his posts:

I would just like one, just one, response to a blog post of mine to be actually about the blog posts and not the crap they make up to not actually address the issues I raise.

Bill’s comment is typical of what I usually get. It argues against points I didn’t make, accuses me of opinions I don’t have, and ignores every single point and argument I actually made in the post.

My post had one simple point.

Fonts should be the foundational choice for an ebook design.

Baldur never mentions that. Conversely, the first eight paragraphs and the last three paragraphs of his post were a recitation of his opinion about web design and doing grotesque things for money, two topics that have nothing to do with my post. Sure, it’s his blog and he can write about whatever he wants. But he casts the post as a comment on my work, and then leads and finishes with something completely unrelated.

When he finally gets around to mentioning the web page that has been bugging him, he hits the trifecta of arguing against points I didn’t make, accusing me of opinions I don’t have, and ignoring the points I made. He frames the discussion with this:

—But, surely, a polite note at the start of a long book is acceptable? Nobody is being hurt and the book would be so much better if they saw it the way it’s supposed to be seen.

This would the position of someone who wants an exception to a rule they accept. The rule here is that asking the reader to change a setting is a violation of the principle of respecting the reader. That is not my position at all. I reject the model that Baldur wants to impose on this discussion. I’ll explain in more detail below.

Next, he asserts that I disagree with ebook platform defaults and that there is only one acceptable response to that. Perhaps, if I actually held that opinion, I would agree with him about the correct response. But that’s not my opinion. My opinion is that the platform owner has given the reader the option to choose whether or not display “Publisher Fonts” on a book by book basis and that we should honor the reader’s ability to make that choice.

Worse, he asserts that I disagree with settings that the reader has changed. Nothing could be further from the truth and by imputing this opinion to me, he makes it easy for him to put me in the wrong. To be honest, his position seems to be that by notifying the user that they have a choice, I’m automatically proving that I disagree with the user’s choice. Baldur includes a lot of “you don’t ask” and “you don’t get to” examples, but the only explanation for this is an analogy.

The ebook designer’s relationship with the reader is more like a waiter’s relationship with a diner than that of Henry Ford to the buyers of his cars

I don’t quite understand how this analogy works. When I go to a restaurant, there is often an empty water glass on the table (that’s a platform default). The waiter (the ebook designer) might fill my glass without asking, ask me if I would like to have my glass filled, or wait for me to ask for water. Am I supposed to feel disrespected if he asks me if I would like my water glass filled? I’m not being facetious. I think this scenario is useful because there are ways for a waiter to ask me if I would like to have my glass filled that are disrespectful. For example, if the waiter comes by every five minutes, interrupts my conversation, and asks me if I want my glass filled when it is half full and I’ve turned him down 3 times in a row, that feels disrespectful to me.

And this gets to my opinion. The only way to evaluate whether or not an act is disrespectful is to evaluate its impact in context. Although respect describes the attitude of the actor, what we are really talking about in this case are the effects of the action on the reader or user. Which means intent is irrelevant. As is the act itself. It is a mistake to say that some action is always disrespectful or that avoiding some action is required to show respect. The context does matter.

When I apply this test to the web “don’ts” that Baldur lists (“don’t ask the user to resize the window, allow popups, install flash, or enable cookies”), I see a list of things that are disrespectful for different reasons. And none of them are disrespectful only because you are asking the user to change defaults. And there any number of things that are just as bad or worse, in exactly the same ways, that web designers can do that don’t involve asking the user to change their settings. If you fail to keep your platform software up to date and expose your web site to infection by a “drive by” virus, you are showing your users disrespect in essentially the same way as if you convince them to install flash.

Even Baldur admits that it is acceptable to notify your users if a feature is broken due to a setting being disabled. As I stated pretty clearly in my original post, I came at this issue from the perspective of a reader with personal experience of a core ebook feature (formatting) being broken and not understanding why. He ignored that and chose to dismiss my concerns as merely aesthetic, but there is no clear boundary between the aesthetic (it looks better) and the functional (the formatting is so goofed up that I have a hard time reading the story) in ebooks.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not my suggested technique will be judged as disrespectful to readers will be made by the readers themselves. There is no ironclad principle involved in whether or not it is acceptable to notify readers of a choice they can make. I believe strongly that readers will benefit from this, but this kind of stuff has to be field-tested. Because I believe the only way to fully evaluate impact of something like this is in context, I willing to admit that I could be wrong. And if I am, I will redo every book I’ve done this way. Respecting the reader also involves taking risks on their behalf, even if it means ending up egg on your face.

Needless to say, I disagree.

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