What makes a good interactive book?

by Philip Webb on 1 August 2012

Interactive books

Interactive books offer such tantalising advantages over traditional print that it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that the reading experience can only be improved by the introduction of interactions. Text can be supplemented with beautiful rotatable images, sound, animations, alternative routes through content, updated content… The possibilities seem limitless.

But sometimes interactive books experienced through an e-reader or tablet don’t work. The act of reading isn’t passive, it’s highly active and interactive – the magic happens between the text and the world the reader creates in response to the text (see blog http://www.webcredible.com/blog-reports/blog/enhancing-books-technology). Anything that unnecessarily interrupts this process is likely to be annoying to the reader. So what classes as a necessary interruption?

  • When the interaction helps the reader understand the content
  • When the interaction enriches the content in a way that text cannot

Generally speaking, when it comes to fiction, the potential for successful interactive content to supplement the text is limited. A good novel shouldn’t need interactive enhancement. Even a picture is likely to crowd out a reader’s idea of what a character or a setting looks like. Augmentations to the text, such as complex family trees, glossaries, and maps can lend themselves better to an interactive format because the reader voluntarily breaks out of the text to look up a word, character or location. Though it’s easier to imagine that it is for non-fiction works where the greater opportunities for enhanced content lie. Here are some examples of where interaction works and where it doesn’t in 3 (fiction and non-fiction) interactive books published by Touch Press, downloaded through the iTunes store and accessed on an iPad.


  • The Elements

This interactive book covers the chemical elements of the periodic table. A dry subject is brought to life by the gorgeous images of each element, which can even be viewed in 3D with viewing glasses. Although, the introduction explains the relationship between the shape of the periodic table and the similar properties of groups of related elements, it doesn’t explain this visually. This is a missed opportunity for an interactive book where animations and highlighting could enhance understanding. Sometimes the interactions have been introduced for the sake of interactivity – the ability to rotate an image of a gas tank in the content about oxygen doesn’t add anything to the experience. Overall the book is a serious attempt to go beyond just publishing the same text book content in electronic format but it falls short.

  • The Solar System

Like The Elements, this interactive book makes full use of the visual nature of the subject with sumptuous NASA photos. The ability to rotate planets and moons in 360 degrees really works as a way of exploring the surface of these objects. The best feature is the orrery – a digital version of the antique ivory and brass mechanical planetariums that were made to illustrate Copernicus’s insight that the Earth orbits the Sun. It allows you to speed up and slow down the orbits and to view a dynamic model of the Solar System from the perspective of different planets, scales and orientations. The content presented like this enhances understanding about the structure of the Solar System that any number of static images can’t. The navigation is clever too – it allows you navigate visually from the Sun to the outer reaches of comet orbits.

  • TS Eliot’s The Waste Land

The Waste Land truly offers something more than just the classic poem text. The content offers annotations and references explaining the text of the poem, video commentaries from actors, artists and writers, alternative readings (including some by Eliot himself), facsimile of the original manuscript, and a gallery of images related to the poem. All this content is presented through a highly intuitive interface. The result is a rich experience that will give the reader new insights and greater understanding each time they access the content. Crucially, the interface allows you to dip into the content as someone new to the text or as an expert. It lets you study the poem in great detail or just enjoy the language being read to you.


There’s a distinct contrast between websites, and traditional books devoted to the same subject matter as The Elements and The Solar System, and it’s the digital ‘coffee table book’ experience of these interactive books that gives them a unique appeal. Here when the supplementary content is visually impressive, and the interactions intuitive, the potentially dry material is enhanced – demonstrating how these apps can fulfill their potential to engage and impress the reader in novel ways. Anyone using these apps will soon notice limitations which place constraints on the platform’s ability to entice a new generation of interactive readers. Particularly noticeable in both The Elements, and The Solar System is the clunky relationship between the static and downloadable content. Certain facts and figures about the planets will obviously not change, but where the app must connect online (to retrieve the most-up to date info on the subject) the experience quickly becomes tiresome and lacks the striking appeal of content found elsewhere. Though it is important to contrast how this information might be viewed in other digital formats (see the following websites http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/index.cfm, http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/solar-system/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/space/solarsystem/) - which would you prefer? In terms of creating a new way to enjoy a classic poem, the Waste Land app does an excellent job of catering for both literary experts and novices alike. These audience groups have the choice between casual and in depth experiences, which are tailored to their current understanding, and appropriate to how they wish to explore the text. So what’s the future for such interactive publications? How do these apps compare to traditional mediums where usually there’s been a choice between educating the reader or exciting and engaging them – what will influence whether your next purchase is of an interactive book app, an e-book, or a physical text book? User research would illuminate what users really expect from their interactive book experiences. It’s essential we develop an understanding of individuals’ reading aspirations and how this might vary depending on the purpose of the task e.g. reading a novel for pleasure, inspiring conversation from a ‘coffee table book’, or learning in detail about a complex subject. Only then might we come to understand how the true potential for this new and exciting medium can be unlocked.

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