Change and the living Internet

The Internet has got so big and complex that understanding it is more like biology than engineering. Creating anything on it – whether a blog post or an ebook – is like launching an origami boat on a great lake. For a while, it will float along just fine on the still water, but at some stage things will change for our little boat.

When we publish content in any digital format, it becomes part of that living Internet, where everything changes all of the time.

Our job is to do our best to create content that travels and lasts. Luckily, there are ways to tackle that challenge.

Credibility and scale

Before we continue, we should quickly put a common misunderstanding to rest. That misunderstanding is about whether reading or publishing on paper or screen is better.

For decades, publishers have been pulled in two directions: you’re a print person or you’re a digital person. This is largely a practical matter: the skills, tools and workflows for each have been completely different, as were their distribution channels. In most publishing companies, digital teams are still separated from print-production teams, and often this separation breeds in each team a measure of suspicion and anxiety about the other.

So the practical matter of skills has framed the evolution of publishing as ‘print vs digital’, when of course the conversation should be about print and digital. This is not just because we live in a multi-format world, but because print and digital formats are symbiotic. In ambitious publishing projects, especially where we want to make a social impact, neither can be successful without the other.

Print generates instant credibility. Books and magazines carry a sense of permanence and authority that digital formats cannot muster.

Notice how print books have remained ad-free in an age when every other available surface carries advertising – something about print books has kept them immune from the disease of advertising. Libraries, despite their own digital transformation, still stand revered as churches to printed books. And notice how experts only become thought-leaders when they can talk about their latest book, which only means anything if you can buy it in paper.

But print does not scale, and it usually depends on a funding model where the end-user pays for each copy.

Digital formats, and websites in particular, are completely different. Web publications struggle to muster the authority of print, but they scale instantly and allow for a range of funding models.

Most importantly, they allow us more flexible funding models. Since institutions can now fund the development and distribution of websites centrally, books as websites can be public goods in a way that printed books cannot, especially for the poor.

So, when a publication needs to make an impact, it should be in print and digital formats. It may not have impact without the authority of print. And it may not have impact without the scale of the web.

Formats and reading contexts

When we work on a publication, one of the first things we do is decide who will read it. Ideally, we decide this consciously. If we think carefully, we’ll also imagine the contexts in which people will read our book: at their desk, in bed, on holiday, in the classroom, and so on.

Some years ago, the non-profit Perinatal Education Programme asked nurses in South Africa where they found time to read their textbooks. The most common answers were ‘on the bus’ and ‘on the toilet’. That information is now always front-of-mind when the PEP team make publishing decisions.

Knowing potential reading contexts can have a significant effect on how we write and edit. Our readers might be standing in queues, sitting on planes, or herding cattle. They may be using big tablets or cheap phones, or even reading a paper print-out from the office.

Viewports on paper and devices

While a paper book might only ever appear as, say, a 6 × 9 inch paperback, an ebook or a website might appear in an infinite number of sizes and aspect ratios, on a dizzying number of screens, each with their own settings. On every screen, font sizes, colours, margins, brightness, line length and more might differ.

We have to completely set aside any fixed notion of ‘the page’ or ‘the screen’.

A useful concept to use instead is the viewport. The viewport is like a window that opens onto the content. A page is a viewport. The part of a web browser that shows a web page is a viewport.

UX, UI and user patterns

In digital publishing, you’ll often hear the terms user experience (UX); user interface (UI) and user patterns. These are very important concepts for editors.

‘User experience’ encompasses everything about being a human interacting with a given publication – whether that’s a book, a website, an ebook or an app. (And not just publications; even motor cars deliver a user experience.)

The user interface is what the user sees or hears as they encounter the publication. The user interface of a paper book would include its cover design, typography, page numbers and so on. On a website, things like text and buttons and where they lie.

User patterns are the habits we form as we use publications – patterns of behaviour. In English, we open paper books on the right, and look for the book’s description on the back cover. Those user patterns are so ingrained that it is very disorienting when a book doesn’t follow them.

Common user patterns on the web include the placement of login buttons on the top right, and that we scroll vertically, not horizontally, through articles.

As we write and edit for digital products, we need to:

  1. be aware that we’re creating a user experience, but not entirely in control of it, and
  2. know and think as much as we can about user patterns in different reading contexts.


Publishing teams often neglect the user experiences of people with disabilities. If you don’t have full vision, you may use a screen reader to read text aloud; you might set your computer to a large-print, high-contrast display. If you have a physical disability, you might not be able to use a mouse, or type more than one letter every few seconds. You might use any number of alternative devices and software to help you read.

As you create digital products, you will find many opportunities to make your content more accessible to people with disabilities. This will include creating text descriptions of images that software can read aloud, and making sure that text isn’t embedded in images where computers can’t read it.

It is very easy – even tempting – to cut costs during production by neglecting accessibility features. It’s up to each of us to make ethical choices here when we create content, and to invest a little more in making sure our content is accessible.

In digital publishing, the term ‘accessibility’ most often refers to making content accessible to people with disabilities. It’s valuable to extend this to include anyone who might struggle to access content: people who can’t afford data; who have small, cheap phones; who live in rural areas; or who live under oppressive regimes.

As you work in digital publishing, you will have more and more opportunities to make accessibility decisions.

Focusing on people

Like any publication, web-based products are for people. We create everything in the service of the user. So it’s very important to have a super clear picture of who that user is! The most common, concrete approach to putting users front and centre as you create web products is to use personas.

Personas are fictional people you invent in excruciating detail: their names, ages, backgrounds, and interests; their devices, connectivity, and available money; and importantly their journey through your product.

Creating personas can seem like hard work. One reason it’s hard is because you really want your product to be for everyone, and narrowing down your audience can be painful. Be assured that your entire project will be better off for it.

Creating a persona

The more detail you add to a persona, the better. To get you started, here are some pieces of information you might include about the person you create.

  1. Full name
  2. Age
  3. Gender
  4. Location
  5. Profession
  6. Interests
  7. What device will they read your site on?
  8. What do they need from you?
  9. How will they find your site?
  10. How will they know that they have what they need from you?

Be very specific. If possible, explain exactly what they need to see on your site to know they’ve come to the right place, and what they need to read and click to get what they need. Remember that you are not describing how everyone might use your site. You’re describing how this particular person will.

Once you have created at least one persona, you should make all your decisions in their best interests.

If you have to make money from your product, personas are also useful for predicting sales, and therefore in creating project budgets. For example: let’s say your persona’s name is Elizabeth. How many people like Elizabeth can your sales and marketing reach? If that’s not enough people, do you need to change your persona, or add more personas?

Lots of personas isn’t necessarily a good thing. The more you have, the harder it will be to make decisions, because your personas may have competing interests.