Reading went digital at the turn of the century with eReaders, of which the Amazon Kindle became the most famous. A decade later, tablets of similar form factor revolutionized audio-visual content consumption. For billions of people around the world, especially millennials and Gen Z, AV content surpassed reading as the primary form of entertainment, information, and interaction. In this blog let’s explore the Designing Engaging Interactive eBooks.
Experiments with Augmented Reality also unlocked the promise of a whole new kind of interactive content. Developers were quick to grasp the potential of blending the world of long form text, and “augmenting” it with sounds, imagery, hyperlinks, and games that would make the material more engaging for the reader…or so they thought, anyway!
The truth is, hyperlinked books have never quite caught on. Sure, eReaders let users click on words to access a dictionary, but that’s about it. Where audiobooks have taken off with multi-million dollar platforms hosting them, interactive eBooks just haven’t. There are many reasons for this, but an important one is the lack of consensus on what makes a book engaging!
Immersion vs. Engagement
Filmmaker and academician Stephen Deutsch distinguishes between immersion and engagement thus: immersive content as a “sensory experience”1– (in the case of films) an extravaganza of sound, rich visuals, fast paced narratives, and so on. Little is left up to imagination. Engagement, on the other hand, invites the viewer to “decode” the content, filling in what’s been left unsaid. It requires a willingness to participate in some call to action. And that’s the rub.
As author Patrick Roesle writes2, “Reading is a cooperative effort” and elsewhere, “Reading a book on the beach is entirely different (from watching a movie on a tablet at the beach). There is no interference. The sun, the hissing percussion of the surf, and the scent of saltwater enhances the pleasure of reading, just as reading contributes a deeper richness to the act of sitting on the beach.”
This could be exactly why previous attempts at creating interactive ebooks never quite caught on. Many readers like their reading to be linear- to read, absorb, and move on at their own pace in the classical tradition of storytelling. Fictional interactive ebooks that include sound, video, perhaps even puzzles to solve essentially try to convert a good read into a game of “Dungeons & Dragons”, which is fine for a small, niche audience looking for such “active reading”.
For the broader Fiction world though, perhaps the key to creating better engagement with an interactive ebook if Fiction is to follow the tenet of “less is more”. Using hyperlinks as digital equivalents of bonus material like a map “such as of Middle Earth that Tolkien included in Lord of the Rings”, 3D model of a castle etc. may be enough. Perhaps a beautiful cut-scene here or there, but just enough, and just essentially!
There are many categories that lend themselves very well to interactive eBooks, each for its own peculiar reasons. For example, textbooks explain new concepts that can be difficult to visualize, or require practical learning along with theory. Children’s picture books are meant to engage the child in a number of sensory and interactive ways to keep them entertained, and to help boost their early stage comprehension and imagination capabilities. Other categories well suited to interactivity include travel guides, cook books, art & photography, personal development.
Over time, each genre has developed its own “best practices” to develop books that are more effective reads. In our opinion, the key to improving engagement is to a) use literary and interactive elements that help deliver those best practices better; and b) to spot gaps that words just cannot bridge and fill them with other content. Let us use a middle school Chemistry textbook as an illustrative example.
Designing an engaging Chemistry interactive eBook for High Schoolers
As author and teacher Kristi Turner writes while addressing school teachers, “Regardless of our subject we are all teachers of literacy”3. In other words, Textbooks, with their continuous prose has a significant literacy demand which can be challenging for some students. The three primary jobs of a teacher therefore are:
- To help students make sense of the language of the textbook’s passages.
- To teach students how to learn the subject at hand.
- To teach the subject matter itself
See the below table about how the above goals can be translated into features of an interactive ebook for optimum engagement:
|Interactive eBook Approach
|Using a textbook
|Direct students to relevant book passages for explanation
|Add Gen-AI based queries and links to glossary terms
|Students read passages from a book aloud in class
|Sound clips of passages and terms, and AI-based feedback for read-alouds
|Students note down new words and are quizzed
|MCQs and hyperlinks to dictionary feature/glossary
|Students perform experiments and solve puzzles
|Scaffolded note taking
|Effective note taking
|Pen & paper based structured note taking via one or more techniques
|Graphical representation & diagramming
|Developing visual cognitive abilities
|Drawing chemical structures of molecules; writing equations
The above demonstrates how an interactive chemistry eBook could augment the classroom experience for both students and teachers, as well as enable students to learn independently. Such adherence to research and experienced-based techniques with a view not to replace, but better represent the ideas is, in our experience, the key to improving engagement.
The above article takes the basic idea of better engagement, and explores it to a degree of depth that goes beyond silo’d ideas to address the “why” of the engagement. At the end of the day, it isn’t about creating value- it’s about creating relevant and irresistible value.
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