Main illustration: Daniel Fishel
Here’s how the little-known skill of “active reading” can teach you how great products get built – and ultimately how to be a better designer.
Reading and writing have been around for millennia, but it took the invention of the printing press for literacy to become widespread. Similarly, we have had computers for decades now, but it took the arrival of the smartphone to accelerate our collective digital literacy.
However, while the vast majority of the world can read, just as billions of us use smartphones, very few of us know how to deeply interrogate what we read. Rather than passively consuming the words on a page, or merely figuring out how to use an app, a deeper level of reading exists. You might consider it the difference between reading and reading into something: consciously engaging and questioning and asking “why?”.
This more inquisitive approach requires more effort. It needs to be consciously developed and maintained. But the mental framework extends beyond reading – the deeper appreciation for how great designers build their products will in turn inform your own design work. After you’ve learned how to do it, you’ll have a new superpower.
How do we develop this deep form of reading? Luckily for us, someone else already figured it out. And they wrote a book about it.
The four types of reading
In 1972 Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (trivia: the Quiz Show guy!) released a book with the very meta title of How to Read a Book. A heavily revised version of Adler’s 1940 book of the same name, it outlines four categories of what they called active reading.
What can you learn by not just using, but analyzing, those products?
Briefly, the four types:
1 Elementary. This is the fundamental basis of reading, what you learned to do in school. What do the words on the page say and mean?
2 Inspectional. This type of reading is a skill in itself, and should give you enough information to form a basic judgment of the text. It involves skim reading, browsing the table of contents, flipping through some random pages, breezing through the intro and conclusion.
3 Analytical. A slow and thoughtful reading of the text, or even multiple reads. By taking notes, asking questions, attempting to summarise it, you really digest where the author is coming from and how he or she is attempting to convey ideas and emotions through structure, tone, style, repetition and form.
4 Syntopical. The highest level of reading involves a comparative analysis of a book with others on the same topic. Attempt to cross-pollinate ideas and make connections beyond what’s presented within any single text.
Presented like this, it becomes clear that most of us move between Elementary and Analytical reading. Which is perfectly fine – books are generally intended to be enjoyed, not labored over.
But if you were a writer, you would probably want to verge into the other types of reading. You’d want to learn how you yourself might become a better writer through studying other texts.
How to read a product
Similarly, if you’re a designer, you should probably seek a deeper reading of the products you use every day and how they were made. What can you learn by not just using, but analyzing, those products? I’ve found that the framework of active reading can be easily applied to design.
1 Elementary. How normal people use products. They download an app, launch it, figure out how to follow people or add a project or find a recipe or hail a taxi. Then they close the app and get on with their lives.
2 Inspectional. This is how many of us “check out” a new product. There is an art to doing this well. You’re triaging, so don’t just idly flick through. Instead, try to gain a solid overview of the product as quickly as possible, and mentally bookmark the parts you want to return to. Launch the app, skip onboarding, flick through screens, play with a neat transition, generally try to break things.
3 Analytical. Having inspected a product you’re now ready to dive in. Outline the product: how is it structured? Where was it confusing, where was it elegant; why? What phases of use were you guided through (onboarding, setup, education, usage, re-engagement, etc.)? Do you return to the product later, and if so why? What is significant, different, innovative, or fun about it? In attempting to answer these questions, try to figure out the design decisions that elicited each reaction. Critique all of the above. Write down your thoughts so they are as clear as possible.
4 Syntopical. Engage in a competitive analysis of many products within a single specific domain. For example, if you were considering a new flight search engine, you would perform an Analytical reading of Kayak, Skyscanner, Google Flights, Hipmunk, etc., as well as related products in the field of travel and shopping. Then attempt to synthesise the results, looking for common patterns, standards and problems. Where do the products agree and disagree? What gaps do they present?
Again, there’s nothing wrong with skimming the latest products, and superficially flicking through intro screens. But “reading” products in this way isn’t going to give you an edge or make you better at your job. To do that properly, you need to examine and question the maker’s blueprints, not just the easily gleaned information.
Becoming a better reader of products
Thankfully, to become more skillful at reading and understanding products, all you need are some simple techniques.
Dissect the work of your heroes. Very much in the Analytical vein, Hunter S. Thompson used to type out entire novels like “The Great Gatsby”, sometimes multiple times over, just to learn how it was written. “I just wanna feel what it feels like to write that well,” he said. Pretend you’re a different designer for a day. Try to figure out the underlying system behind a product, the UI patterns that it uses, the tradeoffs they may have made.
Maintain a “commonplace book”. Popular among Enlightenment-era writers and now enjoying a renaissance in the internet age, a commonplace book is a personal journal of quotes, ideas, summaries, and thoughts—a personal memex of thoughts that can be referenced and connected. It’s a place to store all those notes you took while actively reading. For designers this can mean taking notes and collecting links, often tagged and organised in something like Evernote. Designers should also screenshot constantly: anyone worth their salt should have a Dropbox folder full of interesting screenshots. Develop a library of ideas and inspiration that you can draw on. Refer to it when you’re running low on inspiration, looking for that old website, or need to combine multiple ideas.
Great writers are also great readers, with highly developed skills for engaging with a text.
Look for inspiration everywhere. Many writers are known to take long walks to separate themselves from the intimidation of the blank page. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.” You’ll find good solutions in other products, but great ones elsewhere. Take a walk, but also look beyond screens for inspiration in film, art, science, animation, and yes, literature.
Don’t rush things. Allow your ideas time to ferment. Zadie Smith suggests that writers “Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.” Same with design: sketch out your ideas, then go do something else. Sleep on it if possible. Come back to it later with a fresh, critical perspective, and only then iterate. (Smith’s “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet” is pretty solid advice too.)
But know when to move on. Many writers have observed that a book is never finished, only abandoned. At some point you’ve got to call it a day. Luckily for us digital products can be iterated on in a way that books can not. There’s an art to knowing when to draw the line. If you really want to learn about how a great product team functions, don’t look at what they launch. Look at v1.1. That’s where the real drama is. The arguments, the painful compromises, the bad decisions hastily corrected — they’re all there, hiding between the lines of those first release notes.
Great writers are also great readers, with highly developed skills for engaging with a text. The same approach also holds true for product design.
Like writing, the many genres and styles of design will necessitate different approaches: some products are by definition precise and analytical, others are wildly creative and rule-breaking. Learn from your heroes’ successes, and especially their mistakes.
And as with writers, there’s no single right way to do this. Each person should develop a system that works best for them. There are no hard and fast rules. But learning to become an active reader of products will almost certainly make you more literate, aware, and conscious of how to tell your product’s story and connect with your audience.