A few days ago I was out having a beer with some HCI friends who had just sent their proposals off to CSCW. They were in a mood to celebrate, and having just sent off a draft of a proposal for my next book, I was too.
Despite some really interesting conversations and very stiff competition, the most interesting person at the table turned out to be a two year-old toddler.
She was playing with her parent's iPad. The iPad had several Sesame Street apps, and she was quite adept at navigating around and doing things.
Her favorite was a spelling program, which featured the alphabet surrounding a virtual blackboard on which you were supposed to trace letters. (Remember when you were in elementary school and you had those big pieces paper with dotted lines of letters, and you had to trace them? Same thing.) If you succeeded, you were rewarded with a video of Elmo saying something encouraging (or aggravating, if you were over about 8).
What fascinated me was that when she got to the interaction, the girl wouldn't do it herself: she'd use her mother's finger to trace the letter. She'd grab Mom's hand, position her index finger over the letter, and move it around.
Apparently the girl had discovered that her own fingers were a little small to reliably work, but an adult's larger fingers did the trick.
While we sat there talking, the toddler went through much of the alphabet, and it was always the same. Choose letter. Watch the outline appear on the blackboard. Reach over for Mom's finger. Trace the letter. Get reward. Repeat.
It was kind of mesmerizing. It was also a nice reminder of the complex interactivity of reading.
The ebook and kids' electronics industries like to talk about how their books are interactive, and the most sophisticated sales pitches will invoke the virtues of multimodal learning, the engagement that comes with having text and video together, and the encouragement to children that the immediate rewards of Elmo saying "Good Job!" provides.
Regular books, in contrast, just sit there. They don't do anything. They're not inviting. They don't praise you if you decipher an unfamiliar word, or offer you hints if you're struggling.
Described this way, it's a miracle any of us learned to read.
Only thing is, it's a straw man. That sort of reading is what you imagine adults doing when they're sitting alone, reading to themselves. It's easy to imagine that no one in that situation would get enthusiastic about reading, but reading to children is a very engaged, improvisational, and physical activity. It's interaction between people, interaction between book and world, interaction between what's on the page and what's in the imagination-- and interaction between all those different things.
When I used to read to my small children, they would usually select a few books, bring them over to me, and climb up in my lap or sit beside me. (The fact that you're looking at books together pretty much requires that you be sitting together.) As we read, they might turn the pages, or skip parts they didn't like. I would read some books in funny voices or accents. They'd recognize the characters, point to animals on the page, or spin off a little story about a minor character. if it was the evening, they might get drowsy as I read to them. When they were babies, chewing on the books-- treating them both as books to read and objects to play with-- was popular.
I'm not the only one who's noticed this. As Farhad Manjoo notes in a recent Slate article,
To a kid, a physical book is much more versatile, and ironically more interactive, than a tablet—you can open it to any page, you can drop it or bang on it or step on it, you can draw on it, you can rip out a page and tear it and crumple it up. In this way, a shelf of books can be endlessly fun—by which I mean at least many minutes of fun.
So for small children, parents are accessories-- both in sense of fellow participants in the activity, and as objects-- in the act of reading. It's no surprise, then, that this toddler would use an adult's finger as a stylus. She probably could have figured out how to do it herself-- putting more pressure on the iPad, dragging a larger portion of her finger against the glass-- but in her world, I think, it was perfectly reasonable to use Mom.
Even now, I read with my son, who's dyslexic. Each of us has a copy of the book we're reading, and we take turns reading aloud. He follows along as I read, then I follow along as he reads. He's supposed to note how you treat punctuation, the ends of sentences, and so on. I keep track of how accurately he reads, what kinds of words he has an easy or hard time decoding, and how well he moves from decoding individual words to making sense of the sentences and paragraphs and narrative arc. I also try to stay aware of his body language, how comfortable or frustrated he is, in order to hit that spot between being encouraging and correcting.
This kind of reading is, by any standard, interactive: it's social, its multimodal, it involves several different kinds of cognitive activities. Even scholarly reading is interactive in other ways: as you read, you're placing a book or article in a broader intellectual tradition, seeing how it fits in or undermines existing scholarly structures, imagining how you might write it differently or incorporate some of its ideas into your own work. The interactivity may seem more cerebral, but it has a physical dimension to: for me, that sort of reading is a martial art, as it requires a serious physical engagement with the book, in the form of marking it up, underlining, and annotating it. I used to tell my toddlers not to draw in books, until I realized I did it all the time.
The bigger point is that "interactivity" isn't just something that happens on the screen, nor is it just something that happens between the user and the program. You can't identify it from technical specs; you have to see it in action. It's not something that designers create, but something that users do. And even with what we think are "interactive" media, we do it in some unexpected ways, with unexpected things. By, for example, taking a mother's hand and tracing the letters on the screen.