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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

Flipbooks: Weighed, Measured, and Found Wanting

20 Jun 2011

written by Michael Fienen

Flipbooks: Weighed, Measured, and Found Wanting

I’m a little bit concerned with the growing frequency of folks asking the question, which I paraphase: “X has discovered flipbooks. They love the sound they make and want to put everything into it. How do I stop them?” Beyond the obvious answer to tell them flipbooks support terrorism, there are many, many reasons to avoid them. There are a number of different tools tossed around in the discussion: Issuu, Scribd, Flipping Book, enhanced HTML, etc. For the most part, they suffer many of the same faults – though not all will suffer every point I make below. You should be able to pick and choose several of these in any situation though. And if you’re in the group that didn’t know there were reasons to avoid these, well, here you go.

Just Say No

This is my favorite answer to give when asked to do something that you know is a bad idea. Learn it. Use it. Remember, you are paid to be the expert on web technology and tools. Sometimes we feel like we have to explain that to our peers more than we should have to, but ultimately it’d be the same situation if you wanted to buy some tool to do hourly billing for the office, and the accounting office stepped in and said that what you were doing was a bad idea (even if you loved the UI). “No” is probably best followed with another reason below, lest you look like an ass.

Like me.

Content Strategy

You have one, right? Here’s the short answer based on this: “I really don’t think we should focus on putting X into a flipbook and making it fancy until we can commit to a plan to make the information in it [accurate/sustainable/useful] on the normal site.” I used this same angle recently when asked to create a custom landing page for an ad campaign. Even though the concept was good, we lacked a page currently that was even remotely useful on the topic matter. In that way, you’re running before you can walk. You need to be able to treat the content with respect, and do it right, in a normal way, before you think about “jazzing it up.” And even if you do have a good version of the content all properly maintained, how does the flipbook fit into or extend your existing strategy? Who will maintain it? How will parity be maintained? Remember, one of the key indicators of content on a site that should be removed is if it is redundant. If you have identical content in a flipbook as a normal page on your site, why would you keep it at all?

Search/Findability

With all the tools out there, they all suffer a fairly common problem: finding crap. This is especially true if it’s a multi-page document (and there’s not much point to the flipbook if it isn’t). Because most of the tools will rely on an embed, there’s basically no way to index all the information. Some search engines can crawl data from Flash if it’s set up right, but usually that’s limited to a certain amount of data (I think our Google Mini server is like 30MB for non-HTML data, but 3rd party crawlers aren’t likely to tolerate sizes that large). And since it’s a multipage document inside a single page, you’re pretty much guaranteed that you won’t have deep-linked results. 3rd party tools like Issuu usually have document search features, but not in a way that you can tie into your base search engine. It’s normally for finding content matching keywords from various providers. Do you really think users will go off site to search for your documents elsewhere?

Usability

flipbook2 300x209 Flipbooks: Weighed, Measured, and Found Wanting

An example of Page-Flip.com's Flash flipbook

STOP BREAKING CONVENTIONS. I mean, it’s okay to try to be innovative once in a while, but let’s face it, the real reason to use a flipbook is to try and create a print style presentation on the web. The usability and presentational conventions of the two mediums are fundamentally different. When you try to force print-like interactions with a web page, you are breaking your bond with the user, who just wants you to keep things simple, familiar, and consistent. On top of it, many flipbook applications I have seen tend to employ several non-intuitive interaction methods. Features are ill-described, hard to use, or don’t make sense. You effectively will be forcing a user to learn a new interaction style when they come to the page with your flipbook, which is a tall order. All of this amounts to added friction when it comes to consuming your content. Like flossing with sandpaper.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of mobile. Using Flash? Well, you just denied iOS users access to your flipbook entirely. Again, how exactly is it best serving this audience to force them into a print style interaction scheme on a device that is very limited in its interaction capabilities? Or how about audiences? Anecdotally, I tend to notice older users more interested in deploying flipbooks than younger. This is a problem because at the same time, older users are also less likely to adapt to changes in UX.

Goals, Goals, Goals

Simple one here, and similar to my “Just say no” point. Everything you put on your site should serve a purpose. It should have a reason. A raison d’être. What goal is being accomplished by using a flipbook? What need is being filled? What problem is being solved? Usually when the question of flipbooks comes up, it is framed in the context of “So-And-So saw it and loves how it looks. They love the flippy sound.” FLIPPY SOUNDS ARE NOT A GOAL, THEY ARE A PROBLEM. And bottom line, if the particular tool isn’t serving a core goal, how do you reasonably justify the effort? If the reason is to make So-And-So happy, then where do you draw the line and why bother having goals in the first place if they won’t trust you to point out when a tool is a silly waste of time? (Note: this point works for many different things in many different situations. Use it.) Our time and resources are usually a very prime commodity, you should be able to argue the value of the time spent on these things vs. other site needs.

Accessibility

This should be the only ammunition you need, ideally. In many cases, especially if Flash is involved, the tools are simply not 508 compliant. Check your rules, more than likely you’re not supposed to be deploying solutions that aren’t accessible. It ties to the content strategy point, that if you haven’t already created a robust, accessible, happy-happy joy-joy normal version, then you’re not going to be able to offer something that meets accessibility requirements. Are there keyboard controls? Is it screenreader friendly? Is the font size readable? Is the color contrast acceptable? Exceptions will be largely in the area of people trying newer, HTML/JS based approaches using tools like jFlip. For them, I offer…

Maintenance

flipbook3 300x236 Flipbooks: Weighed, Measured, and Found Wanting

Just a taste of configuring a Flash flipbook

Seriously. If you aren’t using a 3rd party service like Issuu or Scribd, maintaining these things is a pain in the butt. Imagine writing all the HTML markup to convert a 50 page magazine into an HTML enhanced flipbook. Or having to take PDFs and render the pages out as images (in multiple resolutions for zooming) and loading all that into configuration files. The fact of the matter is that any tool that you use yourself is going to be a pain to deploy. Best case scenario, you write tools and scripts to help automate the process. Then you have to maintain those automation tools.

Conclusions

I know a lot of the time it’s easier to just bow and DTDT. I know sometimes you can’t fight city hall. But this, among other things, is one of those areas where I feel it falls into our purview to be responsible for educating people as to why pretty doesn’t always translate to the best idea. Now, I also want to point out that I’m not against flipbooks for every instance. There are times where it genuinely makes sense to display a print document on a site, like archives of magazines. I just feel like we need to focus on making sure that it is never the “primary” pipe to the content being displayed, unless it’s simply not feasible to duplicate it on the web (like a 500 page report on water quality tables). In a way, that presentational style is a step backwards for us as an industry. They can be a very nice supplementary tool. But that is the key: supplemental.


Photo Credit: cc icon attribution small Flipbooks: Weighed, Measured, and Found Wanting Some rights reserved by dantaylr

The content of this post is licensed: The post is released under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 license


About the author

Michael Fienen

For six years, Michael served as the Director of Web Marketing at Pittsburg State University. Currently, he is the Senior Interactive Developer at Aquent and is also CTO for the interactive map provider nuCloud. When it comes to web communication, he focuses very heavily on interpersonal communication components of websites, as well as content considerations that must be taken into account when building usable sites.  He is an active supporter of the dotCMS community, accessibility advocate, consultant, internationally featured speaker on web issues, and general purpose geek who wears many hats.

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This post was written by - who has written 99 posts on .eduGuru


  • Guest

    Amen! Preach it. No stupid flipbooks!

  • Guest

    Amen! Preach it. No stupid flipbooks!

  • Anonymous

    We use Scribd to archive existing PDFs that are otherwise buried and never to be found again on our site. We obviously have website problems in terms of findability and information architecture, but those issues won’t be corrected anytime soon for a variety of reasons. I’m not making excuses, it just that our situation is what it is. So until positive changes occur, Scribd offers a superior place to get certain kinds of content out to people. Our analyses show that a report or paper that exists deep on our site is viewed and downloaded more often once it’s posted to Scribd. Not a little more viewed and downloaded, exponentially more (a not uncommon case shows a report on our website getting 221 views over it’s entire life online versus 4,352 views on Scribd in a shorter period of time).

    Our success notwithstanding, I buy the argument that flipbooks aren’t the greatest thing to ever happen to the web. We did a trial run with Zinio that turned out to be a flop for both our audience and our internal team. The literal replication of a print publication experience on the web is, in my humble opinion, a wasted opportunity to leverage all the good things the online world offers. The old adage that the web isn’t print apparently still needs to be communicated. But I do think there’s a time and place for services like Scribd. While the interface is clunky, it does offer another outlet for exposure and easy sharing (which isn’t currently possible on our existing site). And by having the option to download the file in PDF format, it gives people an out using a file format that’s familiar, searchable, looks good printed, etc. 

    There’s always a happy middle ground. I think flip books have major usability issues, but the online storage that they come with can be a boon. 

  • Guest

    AMEN my brother! I have forwarded your article to the masses! :)

  • Anonymous

    For less than $20 a month, a service like ISSUU provides an alternative format that is simple to deploy with precious little time investment. Combined with the PDFs this provides two ways to digest content though neither are perfect by any means, but two “okay” options are better than one. 

    Until either we have more staff time to develop all the publications that we want into well designed websites or a technology to rapidly deploy publications into Web friendly HTML5 sites, I don’t see all FLIP technology as a bad thing as long as you just view it as a supplement to a PDF document that you would’ve never done anything else with in the first place. I would rather create to a Web page with the right meta data, links to accessible content, a clear link to the PDF and the embedded FLIP (ISSUU or whatever service) than just a PDF alone. 

    Should we always strive for a more accessible, better tool? Absolutely,
    Are they really evil incarnate? I think the overall hatred towards them is misplaced.

  • Dan Woychick

    Thanks for adding your voice to those who’ve been trying to beat back this contagion. Last week I got a printed copy of Rolling Stone in the mail. I pushed on a photo and it didn’t enlarge! I slid my finger across the page and it ripped! Why people think one convention should translate literally from one medium to another boggles the mind. It betrays sloppy, shortsighted thinking.

    The good news is that they used to put radio shows on TV in the early days of that medium … then it evolved. I expect online magazines to do the same.

  • John Bach

    Michael, Great post about the over-reliance on Flipbooks. While we offer it as an option on our magazine site (mostly because our printer practically gives it away), we consider it only an alternate tool for accessing content, particularly for those folks (most of our alums) who never see the print magazine.

    http://magazine.uc.edu/

  • Gil Rogers

    A flip book for having a flip book’s sake, yes, is a waste of money.  However … I would argue that if you make your flip book into a multi-pronged multi-media experience for the end user it can be a great marketing piece.  At University of New Haven we took our viewbook and put it on steroids … embedding relevant videos throughout, with direct links to information referenced.  The “flip” technology is actually second fiddle to the rest.

    • http://www.doteduguru.com/ .eduGuru

      But that’s really the key. If you’re willing to put some real strategy and work in to the idea, there is value there to be realized. But you’re the exception at the moment. Most folks aren’t putting forth that effort, and it’s being approached as a shiny toy instead of something to add to the chest of strategic assets.

      Would you be willing to share a link to your viewbook for others to see as an example?

    • http://twitter.com/fienen Michael Fienen

      But that’s really the key. If you’re willing to put some real strategy and work in to the idea, there is value there to be realized. But you’re the exception at the moment. Most folks aren’t putting forth that effort, and it’s being approached as a shiny toy instead of something to add to the chest of strategic assets.

      Would you be willing to share a link to your viewbook for others to see as an example?

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  • Tony

    I have looked for a flipbook software to create flipbook from pdf for such as long time, one of my friends recommend me to use FlipBook Creator, it is works so great, I enjoy it so much. I have gotten 15% discount at that time.

  • Tony

    I have looked for a flipbook software to create flipbook from pdf for such as long time, one of my friends recommend me to use FlipBook Creator, it is works so great, I enjoy it so much.

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