It is the aim of UX practitioners to dissect ideas and business decisions and determine the core value of a product through a certain number of features of functions. As such, there are a certain number of questions that UX practitioners ask themselves about products which lead, often, to different ways of thinking and new points of view in tackling a problem.
Stepping along from that starting point, I posit the following: eBook DRM is not only undesirable for digital products, it denies users a fundamental function of a book: sharing.
Ok. Yes, so we’ve heard this before. Clearly a reader cannot (easily) share an eBook that is “protected” by DRM. And publishers like to “protect” their content so that they can make dat money rather than have their content just given away and shared around. (Cf. Piracy myth) But, there is another side to the argument, beyond sharing, that is essential to understanding this issue: the ways in which people interact with books is an expression of their identity. In denying them the opportunity to show off their collection and share recommendations with others, publishers are denying a central role of the literary arts.
A dear friend of mine from Paris was recently staying at my home during the first week of her month-long visit to New York City. Claire is a university professor specializing in American history, in particular that of women’s suffrage and the Wilson era. She is also a literary scholar and someone who has had an enormous influence on my literary tastes. Naturally, one of the things she did when she came over, after some catch up time and a little wine, was peruse my bookshelf. And, ask me for a recommendation to read while she was here.
I handed her two books. One was the latest Murakami, because she had mentioned that she was part of the way through, but couldn’t lug the book with her from France, so I offered her my copy to read while she was here. The other book was the short, but intense Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. (You should know that I am an enormous fan of Anne Carson, and Red is perhaps one of the greatest pieces of literature ever conceived.)
Clearly, the first offering was somewhat practical. The second less so. In fact, it was this exact situation that got me thinking about this. Why did I offer Claire this somewhat esoteric book by a lesser known Canadian poet? Herein lies the interesting stuff.
Sharing a recommendation is not about “getting away with free books,” it’s about identity. In the years since I’ve seen Claire, we’ve both changed. We’ve gotten older, more mature, our lives are very different from when we saw each other regularly on another continent. By offering her an opportunity to read a book that I, personally, find to be exceptional, I am not only sharing a part of my (literary) identity, but I am responding to a tacit understanding of hers. In other words, sharing is a means of offering a piece of oneself and demonstrating how you view the person to whom you offer your recommendation.
The point here is that sharing is not about free stuff. It’s about identity and relationships and understanding and subconscious decisions and view points about other people. It’s about assessing what others would like and displaying what you like.
The same goes for sharing in another sense, because not all sharing is just handing over books to friends. We all know the idea that, upon meeting a new acquaintance, and entering their house for the first time, we like to peruse their bookshelf. Here, the idea is essentially the same. Our bookshelves are our literary identities. They speak volumes (perhaps pun intended) about us and paint for the outside world a complex portrait of our tastes, desires, and dreams. There are myraid reasons why you have every single book on your bookshelf, and the story behind this is telling about your character.
A year ago I rented an apartment in San Francisco for a week via Airbnb. Upon arrival at the place, I almost immediately went to the bookshelf to get a sense of the person in whose home we were staying. Based on her bookshelf and the few emails we have exchanged, I had a good sense. While I never met her in person, I felt like we could be friends, and that I understood her as a person. We’ve all experienced this to some extent, and these are not superficial feelings. These feels are part of what it is to be human, to relate to others through a multi-faceted approach.
In fact, the same applies to other items in your living space as well.
Ultimately, the point is this: sharing books with friends, or even displaying books to others, is an essential aspect for individuals to share themselves with the world. There is an important social function in allowing people this intimate glimpse into something so personal. And yet, publishers have continued to deny this aspect within the digital book experience.
In erecting barricades between users of digital products, we are segregating our users into individual spaces and not allowing them to experience the true literary world, which is a social one. (And no, I am not talking about integrating Twitter into eBooks.) On a deeper level, there are many social conversations happening of which we are barely conscious but fulfill an essential role of collection and display.
And from a UX standpoint, we have completely overlooked this essential feature of our products.
As a UX designer, one would complete research on how people use things, how they accomplish tasks, and how they interact with products. Then, we set out to translate a certain UX point of view into a product, making sure that product answers the essential questions of usage and need. The point of view manifests itself in each product, creating a differentiated experience, but fundamentally the functions should always respond to the users’ needs.
Sharing is not a nice to have. It is a user need. It is a requirement. It is a fundamental, profound, and essential piece of a book’s raison d’être. We don’t read to be cut off from the world, we read to experience it. And, as we do so, we bring others into the fold and share with them one of our experiences, and our feelings, and our thoughts about the world.
So, forget piracy. It has already been shown that DRM-free business models work. It is time to shift the conversation. This is not about making an inappropriate business model work. This issue is about making products which serve a role for our customers. Art and ideas and books and thoughts belong to us all and are meant to be passed along from one person to the next to the next.