ERCIM News No.25 - April 1996 - CWI

Hot Links and Cool Sites: How Do You Make an Electronic Journal Readable?

by Steven Pemberton

Reading a paper publication and an electronic publication are very different experiences. Hundreds of years of development of the printed page has made reading paper publications an easy and pleasant experience. Is there any chance that reading publications online will ever become pleasurable? If so, what are the issues involved?

In January 1996, the first electronic ACM SIGCHI Bulletin went online. SIGCHI is the ACM's Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction, and the Bulletin is their main publication. It was therefore of prime interest and importance to SIGCHI to address these issues before putting their publication online.

The World Wide Web currently seems to be dominated by the question "What's Cool". Too many WWW documents emphasise cool graphics (with their long download times) to the detriment of quality of content and usability. It was this problem that was one of the many that SIGCHI addressed when it decided to put the SIGCHI Bulletin online on the web: the real question should not be "What's Cool", but "What's Good".

The SIGCHI Bulletin

The SIGCHI Bulletin comes out quarterly, in issues of around 100 pages, and is distributed worldwide to SIGCHI's members, to libraries and to other institutions.

Although the Bulletin is produced almost entirely by volunteers, and produced on a rather low budget (in order to keep its price as low as possible for members), it attempts to be a high-quality publication; for instance, it is entirely typeset, rather than being produced from camera-ready copy supplied by the authors.

The SIGCHI Bulletin is produced entirely electronically. Material is submitted by editors and authors electronically in a number of different formats (ASCII, Word, TeX, Frame, and others), via a number of different routes (email, ftp, floppy disk), and the Bulletin is laid out and typeset electronically at the CWI. Finally camera-ready copy is produced on a 2400 dpi digital typesetter, and sent to the printers in the United States.

SIGCHI is an active, vibrant and forward-looking SIG, and considers it important to be at the forefront of developments in electronic publishing. As a consequence, it is supporting a number of experiments in electronic publishing, such as producing CD ROM and World Wide Web versions of the proceedings of its annual CHI conference, as well as putting the SIGCHI Bulletin online.

Before going live with the Bulletin, a pilot issue was produced. This experiment aimed to find out how much work was involved in producing an issue, what resources were needed, and in keeping with the primary aims of SIGCHI - Computer Human Interaction - what is necessary to make using an electronic journal as pleasurable as possible.

Electronic Publications

Common complaints about electronic publications include that they are not as readable as paper publications (and there is research to back this up), that they don't feel so easy to use, and that you can't take them with you to read in the train.

Some of these complaints will disappear soon enough, and are only a function of technical constraints. Colour LCD displays of 300 dpi are already being made, and only have to drop in price to be usable on a large scale. It is easy enough to envisage a device the size of a paperback book with a display of a quality barely distinguishable from the printed page, using current or soon-to-be available technology.

However, there are advantages of a paper publication that are inherent in the medium: for instance you can see at a glance how big a publication is and it is easy to quickly scan through to get an idea of the contents.

On the other hand there are the undeniable advantages of an electronic publication, such as the ability to cross-link, the ease of searching and that the use of colour is effectively free.

The Analysis

Web pages are essentially computer-human interfaces. So, as any user-interface design project should, we started with an analysis of requirements and tasks: what aspects of a paper journal are pleasant, that we would like to emulate, what aspects of using World Wide Web documents were undesirable, that we would like to avoid, and what does a reader require from a publication, whether digital or analogue?

On the basis of this analysis, we then designed a structure for the online Bulletin that supported browsing and serial reading, trying to minimise the number of actions necessary by the reader. We then tested this design, and iterated.

We ended up with a shallow structure. The advantage of this is that it reduces the chance of the reader getting lost, since the hierarchy exactly reflects the conceptual structure of a journal (series of issues, each issue of a series of articles, and no further subdivisions, although there is a structure imposed within each article).

The Online Bulletin is at At any time the most recent issue is only accessible to members. A forthcoming issue of the CWI Quarterly will contain an article addressing the design more fully.

Please contact:
Steven Pemberton - CWI

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