The Paper Book Metaphor, Part I


One of the key areas that I am keen to investigate further is that of the paper book metaphor. Described in short as the dilemma surrounding the translation of content from traditional print mediums into digital platforms. Does the designer of such translations adhere to the paper format as closely as possible and indeed seek to emulate the paper book experience for the user. Or does he/she seek to deliberately avoid the paper metaphor and design with no reference to the paper-based experience that users are so inherently used to working with? Additionally, are there some aspects of the paper metaphor that should be kept in digital content and others that we can afford to lose? Can I pick and mix my paper metaphor elements to achieve more successful digital content?

There is actually very little original research that focuses exclusively on the paper book metaphor. There is a gap in the research here that I could perhaps fill going forward.

An interesting comment on the subject is that made by Frank Chimero, acclaimed Designer and Writer:

“You give a user something to grasp onto when you make a metaphor solid. In the case of software on a screen, the metaphors visually explain the functions of an interface, and provide a bridge from a familiar place to a less known area by suggesting a tool’s function and its relationship to others. For instance, if I say “This is a Trash Bin,” you may not know a computer’s file management system or directory structures, but you’ve got a pretty good idea of how trash bins work, so you can deduce that the unwanted files go in the trash bin, and you’ll be able to retrieve them until the bin is emptied.”

Frank Chimero (

So here we see that Chimero’s experienced opinion is that users need a gentle transition into e-content. After all books have been around for centuries, computers, not so long. Certainly from a visual stance, recognisable icons and features, such as a peeling corner graphic as a tool to turn the page makes sense to nurture in e-books in order to make users feel at ease.

Another question I have is why? Why should students use e-content instead of printed books. More to the point, what can e-content designers do to enhance printed content to the extent that students see increased benefit from using it?

Zheng, C. et al. discuss the topic in relation to how users search, browse and highlight content in traditional paper formats and how this can be enhanced through technology, in particular the new Prototype O System that Zheng, C. et al. and his team are working on with Microsoft.

“Users hold the device as if it were a piece of paper and circle or highlight webpage content with their finger. The system then searches the Web for information about the marked object, using context to improve search results.”

(Zheng, C. et al.)

As the video above shows, the O system adds something to traditional print books by recognising bi-manual gestures to facilitate searches; you place a finger to the outer edges of the screen to activate the context-aware search system and then circle or strike-through words or pictures that you would like more information on. The O System software is also context-aware, so if you are on a page that is talking about electronic tablet devices, the search function will return results focused on electronic tablets – as opposed to if you were on a website talking about tablet medicines or vitamins etc., which would then return results based on medicine and well-being. This really does enhance the paper book experience whilst also taking its lead from the traditional format.

Zheng, C. et al. state that retrieval of search results using the O-system is ‘five times faster than for traditional cut-and-paste search’. Plus of course you get much more relevant results than with traditional keyword-based input.

The O-system is not entirely new though, as it builds upon concepts developed in the XLibris eReader. Although XLIbris did not have the context-aware search functionality which further enhances e-content offerings.

Besacier et al. also write on the subject in the context of creating digital content for tabletop systems:

“Participants … intuitively perceive the interactions they can perform with a sheet of paper, a file, or a filing cabinet. In order to facilitate the transition to tabletop systems we have to offer the same intuitiveness.

… the correspondence between sheet of paper and windows is fundamental. We think this metaphor must be extended to the way users interact with the system.”

Whilst this is discussing a different format to that of which I will be designing content for (at present at least), it is interesting to see the paper metaphor in action across varied mediums. Tabletop systems are a device that I should like to research further into in the future.

In focusing on the benefits v.s the drawbacks of print books, UX Magazine published a great article on the subject of the book metaphor which can be read here. As per the comments made above, the article focuses on the fact that readers expect certain inherently-learnt characteristics to be present in eBooks, but also goes on to discuss that print books have their flaws that we should not try to mimic, such as the fixed font size which could be a problem for those with poor eyesight and the fixed page sizes which limit the ability to contain complex formula or calculations which then have to be spread over more than one page and so segmented, complicating comprehension ability.

In conclusion, It appears that the answer to my original question is yes, I can pick and mix paper-book metaphor elements, but carefully. I need to consider in my practice work how I maximise visual elements based upon the paper-book metaphor to better facilitate transition to e-content and also consider what technological advancements will help users to read and absorb content and facilitate deep learning.

For additional research in this area, see part II .



Besacier, G., Rey, G., Najm, M., Buisine, S. and Vernier, F. (2007). Paper Metaphor for Tabletop Interaction Design. Part II, Human Computer Interaction: Interaction Platforms and Techniques. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. 4,551, p.758-767.

Zheng C., Sun, J.T. and Huang, X. Microsoft (2014) Web Information at Your Fingertips: Paper as an Interaction Metaphor. Computer. 47,3 p.62-66.
(Accessed 29.12.15)
(Accessed 29.12.15)

UX Magazine, Article No: 1,229, April 29, 2014, by Adrian Zumbrunnen


3 thoughts on “The Paper Book Metaphor, Part I

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