Yesterday’s Thoughts

September 26, 2005

Cursors for reading online documents

I’d like to have an easier way to track where I am reading in an on line document.

I’d like this both for each page as I am reading it, and for bookmarking my location.

And, no, I don’t want a pony.

Perhaps I am an exception, but I like reading from the screen. Having a single laptop that lets me read most of the current, and many of the not-so-current, texts in the world, is a fantastic experience. I like the fact that I don’t need to worry about the lighting, and in my late forties, I like the fact that I can enlarge the text in most documents and don’t need to worry about glasses. But there are a couple of usability factors that significantly degrade the experience. Fix these factors, and make all the world’s textual information available to me, and I’ll never pick up a book again for leisure or general knowledge reading. I’d still need a way to write on the page, and to have easy simultaneous access to the page and my work space or paper, for more demanding work though.

For each page, the problem is that the different tools that I use work differently and sometimes are even inconsistent within themselves from screen to screen. The most frequent way for Windows applications to handle screens of text is exemplified by Microsoft Word. In Word (2000, which just surprised me by playing a little start-up symphony when I opened the “About” box) the scrolling with the scroll bar is pretty consistent. When you scroll, the bottom line of the screen normally becomes the top line of the screen. This single line is sufficient context to show you where you were, maximizes the screen real estate, and provides convenient landmarks so that it is simple to resume reading. It works the same way with the scroll wheel, if set to scroll a full screen.

The issue is at the end of the document. Instead of scrolling as it has before, it scrolls so that the bottom of the document is at the bottom of the window. This requires the reader to search around for the line they just finished reading somewhere in the middle of the page, and then to read the next line. This is an abrupt break and is very distracting. Depending on what you are reading this distraction can range from annoying to disastrous. It is like the time when I was watching “The Elephant Man” in a theater and the film abruptly slipped a sprocket in the last three climactic minutes and played on to the end of the movie out of frame. Needless to say, the conclusion was ruined.*

Word is not the only offender in this behavior. Netscape, Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers all have done the same thing. Since web postings are more likely to be of dramatic interest than the Word documents that I read, this is even more serious, although it is mitigated somewhat by the appearance of comment sections and other such matter at the bottom of web pages. These occur below the bottom of the interesting text; the browser continues to scroll as normal through the interesting matter.

Adobe Acrobat is a complete mess. It scrolls bottom to top in some documents and then in others, it does the bad at the end of the page non-sense on every physical page, or at the end of every section. Also, the number of context lines provided by Acrobat (7.0) is zero. This actually works fine for those documents where the scrolling is working correctly (the last line of every screen is the line immediately before the top line of the current screen) but if it isn’t, watch out.

I don’t know enough about how PDFs are prepared to know if this is the fault of the document designer or of Acrobat. Maybe there are options to control this and guidelines from Adobe, but the designers, or their tools, don’t follow them. I don’t know. I do know that since PDFs are the default format for preparing documents in many organizations and for many purposes, this is a significant problem. Maybe my point of view will change when I get my Mac which uses PDFs as a native format.

Among text editors, some handle scrolling correctly, others do not. Notepad and Wordpad work almost like Word, with that additional possible annoyance that they don’t account for the line height correctly so the last line on the previous page is not necessarily completely visible. With Emacs, scrolling displays the last two lines on the previous page at the top of the current page, and scrolls identically for as long as there is text to scroll.

The number of lines at the top of the page is probably configurable in Emacs, and if it isn’t configurable, it is at least under the control of the user to modify the source. In my experiments, I find that 2 lines is actually better than one at providing context though. If the last line on the page is a blank line, then 2 lines gives you the last line that you read.

Text editors have an advantage over web browsers and read-only tools such as Acrobat because they can use the cursor (insertion point) to track where the user is on the page. Emacs gives me a bright red cursor, but the cursor shows up on the next to last line left. Word, Notepad and Wordpad all leave the cursor where it was, which is useful for some text entry and editing purposes, but isn’t designed to be reader friendly.

To fix scrolling, ideally, every application would do it right, whatever that is. Since I’m not examining every use case, I don’t really know what that is, but for reading it requires consistent placement of the last line that the reader reads on a screen on the next screen. Failing the ideal, I’d settle for consistency in every application. One application that you use occasionally can significantly break the trust with the user. This occasional unexpected behavior erodes the user experience rapidly.

Lacking that, I can imagine applications implementing a solution with two faint lines on each page of text, one at the bottom and one higher up. When I hit page down or click the scroll bar or wheel, the line on the bottom stays at the same point relative to the document, but is now near the top (where depends on the applications implementation of page down) and then there is a new line near the bottom. I always know where to continue reading.

The other issue with reading tools is the complete lack of bookmarks in most applications. By this I mean bookmarks in the pre-Netscape sense, a piece of paper, plastic or metal that you slipped into your book to keep your place in a document when you stopped reading, so that you could easily resume when you came back. I want the same thing from my computer reading applications. Of the applications listed above, only Emacs does this (using desktop). All of the others take you to the first page of the document.

Worst of all, Netscape and Firefox corrupted the word “bookmark.” There is no longer a good term for the place holder in a document. Netscape bookmarks take you to the document, not to the place in the document. They take you to the correct shelf in the library, not the correct page in the book. In all fairness, Netscape probably introduced the term in the expectation that the writers of web pages would be more generous with the use of anchors than they have been.

Give me those two things, and maybe throw in a tablet display that lets me read in portrait mode, and I’ll be a happy reader. Seriously, I don’t care about the pony.

* The other problem with Word, and most tools for reading on a computer is that the lines are too long. It isn’t always obvious what the next line of text is if the line is longer than about 5 inches (13cm). A cursor is a solution to this problem, but I don’t necessarily want a cursor on my screen. You can always narrow the window to achieve this effect, but then the next screen problem becomes more acute. This is why I want to read from a portrait monitor.

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