Books will save us all! (If we’d only read them more…)
How Immer is solving the problems that keep people from reading more, building the world’s best reading app in the process.
There’s plenty of proof that reading books is good for you. They’re beneficial for your brain, and they make you a better human being too.
No wonder: books allow you to dive deep into other people’s minds, whether they actually exist (in non-fiction) or someone invented them (in fiction). In both cases, you immersive yourself into the author’s mind as well. You learn from their experience and perspective, their vocabulary and knowledge, visit the places they’ve been to and get acquainted with the people they’ve met, allowing you to grow a little bit as a person too.
So, books are great, and it’s super important that we read them more. Yet reading worldwide is on a slow decline.
I’d argue that over time, it’ll become even more important that we read. As our global society is automated further and wealth spreads more, we’ll have an increasing amount of leisure time. More time to get bored, more time to waste on social media, more time to run circles in our own filter bubbles…
It will be essential not to let our collective spare time go to waste. To turn phone time into quality time. To become better versions of ourselves and make the world a better place.
Books are actually perfectly positioned for all this extra quality time. They’re long. They’re deep. They’re nourishing, but they’re entertaining too. And uniquely, they allow you to temporarily distance yourself from your normal life in an almost meditative fashion. When deciphering long-form text at your own pace, a unique mental space is conjured, in which you can reflect on the book, on the world, on yourself.
Books are me-time containers!
If only they hadn’t gotten stuck in the 20th century…
I founded Immer because I believe that e-books do a poor job of bringing the benefits of books to our everyday devices.
E-books are still only a mediocre attempt to emulate the paper book, while modern hardware and software give us so many options to rethink what books are. To turn them into a new medium of sorts, just as cinema is more than a stageplay with a camera, or like how video games are more than digital board games.
In this article, I go through some of the problems with (e-)books that we’ve identified here at Immer, that keep us all from reading more, and that we’re solving with our app.
Long-form text can be overwhelming
If you’re an avid reader, it may be easy to forget how overwhelming books are for many of us. In this era of text messages and tweets, almost everyone reads a lot, but it’s extremely short-form. In our user research, we hear the same over and over: “If I open a book, there are so many words, I almost get dizzy. I don’t know where to start.”
This is why we’ve been looking for ways to limit the text overload somewhat. For example, our Portion Reader breaks text up into coherent chunks, making each screen a little more welcoming. With the added benefit that sentences and words don’t get cut off at the end of a page. It looks nicer too!
And because Immer’s ‘portions’ are shorter on average, you get a tiny pat on the back when you finish one at a higher frequency — after which you can tap the screen to continue to the next story beat.
I think that even more can be done to break down and rebuild text display: being even smarter about portioning text, perhaps varying text size based on the content. All without tinkering with a book’s content itself, of course.
Other media just look better
Social media, games, streaming video, even audiobooks: many other media types that you can fill your spare time with have a lower threshold and a more instant satisfaction than reading books.
However superficial this may sound (and typography lovers among you will scoff at this), books just don’t look that good. Below the surface they have so much to offer, but how will new readers ever find out?
I think books can be presented way better. Before founding Immer I experimented with audiovisual enhancement of text. Enhancing books quickly becomes too laborious to make economic sense, but luckily in my testing I discovered that less is more. To present text more nicely without distracting the reader, it works best to apply color, animation, typography and sound in a subtle manner. And as it happens, this is more easily scaled to a broad range of books.
In the Immer app, the blue ‘meditative bubble’ fills when you start reading. As you make progress in your session, the soundscape builds up in layers (don’t forget to put in those AirPods!). Portions and background patterns fade in and out smoothly. Each tap strikes a chord, literally. We’re proud of what we have so far, but there’s so much more left to do that will make reading on your phone or tablet even more attractive and engaging.
Books can feel like mountains
It’s not just that densely printed spread of text that overwhelms, it’s books themselves too. And I don’t just mean maximalist novels. Many people we talked to have a kind of ‘pile of shame’ on their nightstands that they think they want to read, but are actually a little scared of.
To help with this, we developed the first version of the Session Tuner. This tool visualises the structure of a book, takes into account your reading speed and allows you to set up reading sessions that fit with both the book and the time you have available.
For example, if you’re on a commute for 20 minutes, the app can indicate that, yes, you’ll be able to comfortably finish the next chapter.
We’ve found that the Session Tuner makes it easier to get started. With a few of these sessions, you rediscover the joy of reading. You understand that it’s not about conquering the mountain, but about the moments of joy as you climb at your own pace.
And that actually, if you read regularly, you’ll reach the peak pretty soon!
Books require a long attention span, and you’re distracted quickly
Reading books is like a muscle you have to train. You have to create a new, better habit for yourself, that takes precedence over habits you’re less proud of… and you have to keep improving it. That’s why we’re developing a set of tools intended to help you amplify your desired reading behavior, including the Session Tuner, Reading History, Daily Goal and Reading Reminders.
Reading with earphones on will also help, with your own reading soundtrack or our layered meditative audioscapes. You close yourself off from distractions and get immersed more easily. Turning off notifications helps too.
(Don’t put away the phone itself, though. It’s not about the device, it’s about what you do with it.)
On a related note, yes, books require a long attention span, but I don’t think they’re too long. In fact, it’s a huge benefit of books that they let you go in-depth on a topic or in a story. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give you a hand to help you get to the end, if you need it.
A lot of people tell us they don’t have time to read, except when they’re on holiday. I think they’re wrong. There’s plenty of time, they’re just wasting it on other things. And now they have to take back control!
The screen itself makes text fleeting
There’s scientific evidence that when reading from the screen, you remember less than when reading from a physical book. It seems like this is connected to what’s called ‘embodied cognition’: bodily things stick with you more, and because digital text is usually more dynamic, not tangibly stuck to a piece of paper, it becomes more ephemeral.
At Immer we think it doesn’t have to be this way, at least the impact could be smaller. Anything that makes text feel more solid will improve embodied cognition. So our text portions vary in size, making each uniquely shaped. So we put the circular progress indicator at the bottom of the screen, as a kind of fingerprint of where you are in a story. And so we added subtle background patterns, another attempt to increase tangibility (and lickability too).
We even have proof that it’s working. Our research partners at Radboud University Nijmegen have demonstrated that Immer’s text portions and progress indicator make readers enjoy a story more, and immerse them more deeply. Whether Immer also helps you memorise a text better is harder to prove, so we’ll have to do further research on that. (All of these aspects tie into reader engagement though, I believe.)
Some people worry that the screen keeps us awake. But as display technology improves, scientists are finding it harder to show this convincingly. I imagine it’ll be a non-issue in the future, and in the meantime you should use features like night mode. In the end, again, it’s about what you do with the phone. Stop doomscrolling, start Immering!
Books channel the jam jar paradox
When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, he started with books because there are so many individual titles. It was the perfect product category for the kind of logistics solutions he was envisioning.
At Immer we’re more interested in a related but very different statement of fact: there are many great books. In fact, there are so many great books, for different people, different needs and different moods, that it can be impossible to find one for you in your current state of being. This is partly an information problem, but it’s also related to the famous jam jar behaviour science experiment: a surplus of choice leads to paralysation.
The Book Stack is our first attempt to solve this. It presents you with a small selection of books that we think is right for you, and allows you to swipe to indicate your opinion, like Tinder with books.
We plan to make the Book Stack smarter as you read more in the Immer app, when we see your actual reading behavior. We might nudge you to start with something light and fun, so you can perhaps tackle the heavier stuff later on.
Longer term, our goal is to ‘always offer something great to read’. You should be able to pick up the phone and Immer should instantly offer a quick read like a story or poem by a favorite author, a preview chapter of a book that a friend loves, or a next session that automagically fits your schedule. Creating another reading moment with minimal friction.
Finally: Reading is a personal experience that you can’t easily share
What makes reading unique is the meditative, almost hallucinatory experience that you have all by yourself. But once you’re done with your session or book, you want to share that experience with others.
People try to do this by doling out reading recommendations, copy-pasting quotes, organising book clubs, and even by giving their bookcases central positions in their living rooms. Research shows that being able to show off the great works you identify yourself with is actually an important incentive for people to own books.
Despite all these attempts, it can still be hard to convey what happens to you when you read. That deeply personal magic moment!
At Immer, we believe that the experience of sharing books, reading progress and notes could be much easier and much more fun, so it should be an important part of the Immer experience. We’re just starting to shape our many ideas about this into actual features. More soon!
Immer is launching internationally later this year
Currently, the Immer app is only available in The Netherlands, in a quite early form. Our efforts were recently rewarded with the Renew the Book Innovation Award 2021, a prize of 50,000 euros for the most innovative initiative in the books space, intended to encourage new ideas.
The prize will certainly help us to continue expanding Immer with more books and features, and launch internationally later this year. To this end, we’re also raising a new investment round at the moment.
Are you curious about Immer? Subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll let you know when you can try the app in English. I can’t wait to show the rest of the world more of what we’re doing to help people read again!