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
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
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.
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.
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,
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 http://www.acm.org/sigchi/bulletin/.
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
Steven Pemberton - CWI
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