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You wouldn’t think that you would find page-flipping on tablets. But many e-reading apps have it. iBooks has a page-turn animation, which it actually lifted (along with its wooden bookshelf display) from the iPhone e-reader “Classics”. Instapaper recently added page-flipping as an option instead of scrolling. Flipboard uses its own stylized page-flip, too (from which it takes the “Flip” part of its name, come to think of it). So why do developers use it so often?

Because readers seem to like it.

“Pagination is obviously an artificially bolted-on construct on the iPad and iPhone, especially when the source content is unpaginated web articles,” [Instapaper developer Marco] Arment says. “The most ‘authentic’ web-article advancement method, to me, is just scrolling. But I can’t deny that I like pagination better. Scrolling through long articles just feels tedious.”

The practice of making new things feature non-functional design elements from old things (such as e-book page-turning, or for that matter the bookshelf-style book display favored by Classics and iBooks) is called skeuomorphism. Page-flipping is one example of digital skeuomorphism, but far from the only one. It’s a very popular practice to add somewhat-unnecessary ornamentation to computer programs, because it “tells a story”—people can tell at a glance the purpose of a program by its resemblance to real-world elements. A program meant for making quick and dirty doodles has an interface that looks like a sketchbook. One intended for serious art looks like a framed painting canvas.

I wrote in my iBooks app review that I found the page-turning animation silly, but I’ve changed my mind a bit over time. Really, it’s all about setting the tone. Much as we like to laugh at people who fixate on “the smell of books,” in some ways they do have a point about elements commonly associated with paper books adding to the emotional experience of reading. When we see pages turn, it subconsciously tells us, “Hey! You’re not just looking at a computer screen, you’re reading a book!

Now, do we need to be told that? No. There have been lots of e-reading apps and devices that haven’t had page-turn animations, and we’ve liked them just fine. But somewhere in the back of our minds, seeing those pages turn gives the experience a greater emotional resonance, and perhaps makes the experience just a smidge more immersive.

Of course, the whole reason it has that resonance for us is that we grew up reading paper books, which isn’t something that will necessarily be true for the next generation. It’s possible that the page-turning metaphor might seem as odd to future readers as floppy disk “save” icons are to young computer users now. But for now…here I go. Turn the page.

 
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