Reading Ahead: Topline Summary
By Dan Soltzberg at 5:15 pm, Monday August 10 2009
Part 12 of 24 in the series Reading Ahead

Reading ahead logo with space above

As soon as possible after concluding fieldwork, we write a Topline Summary, in which we capture our first impressions and the ideas that are top-of-mind from being in the field.

We’re always careful to be clear about what the Topline is and isn’t. There’s synthesis that happens from the fieldwork experience itself (which the Topline captures), and synthesis that happens from working with the data (which we haven’t done yet).

In the Topline we go a step further than the field highlights and start to articulate some of the patterns we think are emerging, but these ideas may change once we do a detailed analysis and synthesis of the data we’ve gathered.

In a client project, we’ll have a discussion with the client team around the Topline Summary. We encourage members of the client team to come out in the field with us, and the Topline discussion is a great opportunity for everyone who did so to share their experiences and tell stories. The Topline discussion is also a good time for our clients to let us know if there are any specific directions they want us to pursue as we analyze and synthesize the data we’ve gathered.

We’ve now finished our fieldwork for Reading Ahead. We conducted six in-depth interviews, with photo diary and participatory design activities (more in our next few posts about these methods).

Here’s our Topline Summary:



Portigal Consulting: Reading Ahead Topline Summary

  1. Reading is not just a solo activity; there are significant social/interpersonal aspects for many people
  • Recommendations, book clubs, lending

  • Books facilitate the interpersonal aspects of reading

  • Can be easily lent or given away
  • Given as gifts
  • People can use a book together: parents and kids, showing someone a passage or illustrations, etc.

  • Reading can be a big part of family life

  • Childhood memories, passing books between generations, reading with one’s own children.

  • Connection between home life and outside world (school)

  1. Reading and Books are not always one and the same
  • Erica buys some books because she likes them as objects. She knows she may not read all of them. “I love books. I almost like books more than reading.”

  • Jeff says if you love to read, you’d like the Kindle. If you love books, you should try it out before you buy one

  • The Kindle facilitates types of reading beyond books: blogs, articles, periodicals

  1. Books do more than carry content
  • Books engage the senses: they are tactile, visual objects, with specific characteristics like smell and weight

  • Become carriers of specific memories

  • Develop a patina that carries meaning
  • An inscribed book becomes a record of an event, interaction, relationship

  • There is an art/collector aspect to books (which is absent in the Kindle)
  • First editions
  • Signed copies
  • Galley proofs
  • Typography
  • Pictures and illustrations
  • Quality of paper, printing, etc.
  • Books say something about a person
  • Others can see what you’re reading; like clothes, etc., this carries meaning
  • “Looking at someone’s bookshelves when you go to their house” (Jeff)
  • When people give books as gifts they are deliberately communicating something about the relationship, the event, themselves, and the recipient

  • Books can create a physical record of someone’s reading activity
  • Chris used to line up all the books he had read to get a sense of accomplishment

  • Annotations, bookmarks, tags all convey the reader’s personal history with that book

  1. Books are easily shared
  • Pass them along to others

  • Donate to library

  • Sell or buy at used book store

  • Borrow from the library rather than purchasing

  1. How books are stored and organized carries meaning
  • Emotion, sense of pride, expression of personality, record of engagement

  • Erica organizes her books by how the content/type of book feels to her: “dusty” classics, modern classics, etc.

  • Julie’s extensive shelves are organized alphabetically to reinforce the idea of library

  1. Libraries and bookstores provide specific experiences
  • As a little girl, Erica visited different libraries with her Mom. This was their daily activity, and Erica retains strong and specific memories

  • Julie and her housemate recreated a library atmosphere in their home

  • A quiet, comfortable space
  • Good lighting
  • Alphabetized bookshelves
  • A unified décor

  • For Jeff and others, spending time browsing in a bookstore represents having leisure time

  1. The Kindle
  • For people whose love of reading is bound up in their love of books, the Kindle loses much of the reading experience; it is only a content carrier

  • Julie has a history of wanting to read on electronic devices as well as from printed books, so to her, the Kindle is a big evolutionary step from her old Palm, the iPhone, etc.

  • For Erica, the Kindle signifies “computer,” so it does not let her “unplug” from the fast-paced connected lifestyle that books provide a refuge from

  • Several people described the kinetics of page-turning as an important aspect of reading books that is absent in the Kindle

  • Books afford ways of navigating content that the Kindle does not: flipping, comparing non-sequential pages, looking at the recipes at the end of each chapter, etc.

  • Peter finds it frustrating that when he buys a Kindle book from Amazon, he can’t share it. When he started working in an environment where people were passing books around, he went back to reading printed books

  1. Participant ideation about the “book of the future” and “reading device of the future”
  • NOTE: The first thing a number of the participants said when asked about what the “book of the future” could be and do was that it’s pretty hard to improve on the book-it works very well the way it is. In addition to all the qualities already mentioned, books are

  • Instant on-off
  • Durable

  • But people did have ideas. Here are some of them:

  • Interactive
  • Put yourself in the story

  • Leave the story for more information
  • Choose from alternate endings, versions

  • Size-shifting

  • Able to morph from bigger size for reading to smaller for transporting

  • Retain the book form while adding functionality

  • Book form with replaceable content: a merging of book and device, with a cover, and page-turning but content is not fixed-it can be many different books

  • Books that contain hyperlinks, electronic annotations, multimedia, etc.
  • Privacy

  • Hide what you’re reading from others, hide annotations, hide your personal book list and lend your device to someone (with content for them)

  • Projecting

  • A device that projects words that float above it, so that the reader doesn’t have to hold the device in their hands

    • Twitter
    • Facebook
    • LinkedIn
    • del.icio.us


    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

    14 Responses to “Reading Ahead: Topline Summary”

      “Reading Ahead” has been an amazing thing, guys. Thanks. It’s so rare to have this much real-time transparency of the process and the content. It’s like a reality show I actually want to watch. Well done.

      Comment by Tom Williams 08.10.09 @ 8:24 pm


      I really like this whole serie. Would you mind if I translated them to portuguese and post them in my blog (with all rights mentioned, sure)?

      Comment by Priscila 08.11.09 @ 5:17 am


      Priscilla – that’d be fantastic. Will you send us the link when you post it so we can mention it here as well?

      Comment by Steve Portigal 08.11.09 @ 7:09 am


      Thanks, Tom, that means a lot!

      Comment by Steve Portigal 08.11.09 @ 7:10 am


      Tom, glad you’re enjoying the project. It’s been nice on our side, too, to be able to talk in depth about what we’re doing, since the details of so much of the client work we do are confidential.

      I like the reality TV analogy. Let us know if you go into development with that idea!

      Comment by Dan Soltzberg 08.11.09 @ 12:23 pm


      steve: awesome job making our work visible.

      i’ve been recently inspired by anthropology’s notions of ‘problematizing’ (instead of taking a situation as given – factual – treating it as a designed circumstance, and figuring out whom it’s problematic for and why), and janine benyus’ fabulous talks on biomimicry at ted, where she says things like: “imagine designing spring…”

      in the spirit of that: imagine designing reading – that thing that is made up of all these actions & interactions.. seems a better question to ask than “how can we make a better book?” (to which the zen master might say, “can you make it edible? no? then off with you!”

      Comment by arvind 08.12.09 @ 8:53 pm


      Arvind – appreciate the enthusiasm and perspective. That’s an interesting frame, but not one that is comfortable for me. I would feel arrogant in undertaking an effort to “design reading” – reading exists, we’re only here to support it. I see as trying to understand reading as already constructed by people and then design the artifacts that can support, enhance, expand, etc.

      Comment by Steve Portigal 08.13.09 @ 8:26 am


      er, but you design reading by designing artifacts for reading, no?

      Comment by arvind 08.13.09 @ 8:29 am


      Exactly. So by playing with the artifacts, we’re facilitating people to give us a window into the activity. E.g. getting to the broad by starting with the specific.

      Comment by Dan Soltzberg 08.14.09 @ 10:03 am


      But that doesn’t equate to designing reading. Making shoes is not designing walking. Creating radical innovations in the artifact isn’t necessarily even REdesigning the behavior. I see it as a dangerously blinding perspective to take.

      Comment by Steve Portigal 08.14.09 @ 11:59 am


      ah, but designing behaviour can be done without designing artefacts. anthropology would say that culture is (co)designed behaviour. for instance, the TSA designs your airport behaviour (and influences it even as pack your bags for the trip).

      this is not to mean that by designing books we are completely determining the practices of reading. (i agree, that is a blinding perspective). but it does try to explore the other things that shape an experience that are not rooted in artefacts.

      Comment by arvind 08.15.09 @ 10:07 am


      Kramer auto Pingback[…] Reading Ahead: Topline Summary […]

      Pingback by Conversations with Dina » Reading Ahead … ethnography on evolution of books and reading 09.06.09 @ 7:01 pm


      Brilliant post Steve! We are just about to launch ourselves into our first round of analysis for our Masters project – reassuring to read that you don’t have to do it all in one big push and it’s ok to get the ‘first burst’ thoughts that have been floating round in your head out there.Thanks for writing this up!

      Comment by Caoimhe Mc Mahon 07.15.10 @ 2:23 pm


        Hi Caoimhe, I’m actually the one who posted this particular installment from the Reading Ahead project. Glad you found it helpful. The Topline Summary is invaluable – writing it helps, as you say, get the “first burst” thoughts out and articulated. And it’s a really important step for collaboration with clients/stakeholders, as it provides a chance to share emerging hypotheses. This is especially helpful if your findings contradict existing beliefs – it’s a nice way to ease into the discussion prior to a more formalized presentation of findings. Hope your analysis goes well!

        Comment by Dan Soltzberg 07.15.10 @ 2:40 pm