Investigating Lightweight Interaction for Active Reading in Digital Documents

Jennifer Sarah Pearson


Reading is a complex human activity evolved, and co-evolved, with technology over thousands of years. Mass printing in the fifteenth century firmly established what we know as the modern book, with its physical format of covers and paper pages, and now-standard features such as page numbers. Today, electronic documents are enabling paperless reading supported by eReading technologies such as Kindles and Nooks, yet a high proportion of users still opt to print on paper before reading. This persistent ‘print to read’ mentality is one sign of the shortcomings of digital documents.

The physical properties of paper (for example, it is light, thin and flexible) contribute to the ease with which physical documents are manipulated and pose a completely different set of affordances to their digital ‘equivalents’. Paper can be folded, ripped or scribbled on almost subconsciously – activities that require significant cognitive attention in their digital form. The almost subliminal interaction that comes from years of learned behaviour with paper has been described as ‘lightweight interaction’ which is achieved when a person actively reads an article in a way that is so unselfconscious that they are not apt to remember their actions later.

This Thesis investigates the advantages of paper, how the affordances of paper can be reified in digital form, and what forms best support lightweight interaction for reading. It explores the reasoning behind reader behaviour and introduces several interfaces that implement the lightweight properties found on paper to produce new ways of reading and marking up digital texts. Each of the tools described have been evaluated on an appropriate population of users.

As a starting point, the concept of placeholders are investigated as this is a good example of an area where the digital equivalent of a common paper practice is lacking in usability. From this investigation, several notable possibilities for lightweight attributes were identified which then leads systematically on to the second investigation into annotation – another common activity that has been poorly migrated from paper to digital. After studying both paper and digital based annotation, the Thesis then moves on to note-taking, focusing on a desk-based implementation that makes use of amalgamated tools – just like paper. Finally, to investigate the possibility of solely digital lightweight properties, the concept of back-of-book indexing is investigated – an example of a task that is currently difficult to perform both physically and digitally.

After gaining ideas from each of these implemented interactions and user studies, a set of rules for designing lightweight interactions on digital interactive texts is described. This list of lightweight attributes can then be used as guidelines to improve the usability of future digital reading implementations.


Publication typePhdThesis
InstitutionSwansea University
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