Just got tipped off to Press Display, a news aggregation service from NewspaperDirect. Seems the biggest difference this site offers over competitors is the information experience. They have something called the Press Reader, which displays articles in the context of their original printed formats. You can see the headlines, images, colors, and layout of the original source, among other things. Their tag line: “Redefining the Reading Experience™“. In other words, the information experience is a USP for Press Display.
Here’s how they describe their “Smart Navigation”:
“SmartNavigation in PressDisplay.com provides advanced digital features such as interactive tables of content, full graphics and text views, foreign language translation capabilities, cross-title searching, sharing of articles through email or blog postings, bookmarks, advanced search and monitoring, article and page printing, clickable URL’s, emails and phone numbers and text–to–voice conversion.”
One thing I particularly like is that Press Display allows you to get a good overview of a source, offering a table of contents for entire an newspaper, for instance. You can also browse through all images in a newspaper or through all of the advertisements. (I don’t know of any retrieval system that even makes advertisements available.)
And of course, there are display controls for zooming or showing text in multiple columns and so forth. It’s quite well done. Have a look for yourself–it’s worth it.
What’s more, there are lots of ways to capture the information you find, so it’s not just about an online experience. Download, print, and email options are available. There are also features like RSS and mobile versions of texts.
This all begs the question, Why go to great lengths to retain the look and feel of original publications? Isn’t text just text? Does it matter how the information is presented?
Well, according to people like Andrew Dillon and Misha Vaughan the answer is, Yes–it matters a lot. (See: “It’s the Journey and the Destination“). They’ve investigated what they call information shape, which they describe like this:
“Shape is a property of information that is conveyed both by physical form and information content. Separating these elements completely is perhaps impossible but one can talk of the distinction between the layout and sequencing of information as viewed by the consumer (user or reader) and the cognitive representation of meaning that employs (at least in theoretical terms) knowledge structures such as schemata, mental models and scripts. The representation of meaning is crucial to any analysis of hypermedia design and use as it gives the task real human value, yet it is precisely this component that is frequently by-passed in evaluations rooted directly in physical navigation terms.”
Almost sounds like the folks at Press Display used this notion as a mantra for their design of the interface.
In the age of RSS and atomizing data on the web to point that everything is mash-up-able with everything else, it’s almost ironic that Press Display has emerged at this time. For instance, my view of the blogs I monitor via my RSS reader is extremely homogeneous: everything looks the same. So should we care more about document genre when designing for information experiences?
On one hand, I feel that all too often we strip out all of the qualities of information that native formats offer. These are qualities that give it shape and meaning to us: color, size, position, images, etc. This stuff makes a difference in comprehension.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that I’d use Press Display or find it terribly helpful. Even though they’ve done a pretty good job with the display and interaction, I’m not convinced this service is any better or worse because of the information experience. It’s different, for sure. But the relative advantage in the long term isn’t clear to me, unfortunately. (Of course, I’m not an information professional and my daily work doesn’t center around finding, using, and managing information.)
Maybe there’s a happy medium between text-based information retrieval systems and something like Press Display?