Signaling Important Document Paragraphs in WriteToReply – And a Possible Mobile Theme?

One of the strategies I use for reading long documents that I want to comment on take detailed notes from is to read through the document quickly, marking or highlighting the parts I think are important (or quotable), and then doing another pass where I dwell on the parts I marked.

With the publication via WriteToReply of a comment soliciting speech from Ed Vaizey on public libraries yesterday (Remodelling Libraries, [press release]), I started thinking again how we might support a highlighting approach in WriteToReply. In a post earlier this year (Skim.it – Like Digress.it, But With Ratings Rather than Comments?), I briefly considered how we might publish documents in a paragraph atomising way (as we do using the digress.it WordPress theme) and then allow readers to add ratings (rather than comments) to the document at a paragraph level. Something like this, maybe:

favouriting paragraphs

Another factor that I think needs to be taken into account is the ability to read documents on mobile devices. A variety of mobile themes are available for WordPress, from the “run anywhere WordPress mobile edition to the iPhone/Android loving WPTouch.

So what I’ve started thinking is that maybe iskim.it should be a mobile theme to complement a desktop browser theme along the lines of digress.it and the mooted skim.it, that would allow users to “favourite” or “star” paragraphs they think are important so they can return to them later, maybe on a desktop or portable computer, rather than a mobile device (hmm… desktop, portable, mobile…). For exampe, the iskim.it should:

0) work on mobile devices;
1) atomise docs into paragraphs;
2) allow a user to “favorite” a paragraph;
3) allow a user to review a list of the paragraph they have favourited;
4) allow a user to optionally comment on the paragraphs they have favourited;
5) allow a user to look at the paragraphs favourited by another user;
6) allow a user to look at a list of the most favourited paragraphs across all users.

(Note that similar functionality (1+) should also be made available on the parent website via a parent skim.it theme.)

The aim of doing this is to identify quickly, and without the need to comment, those paragraphs that are deemed “important”. (I did wonder whether the “favouriting” should offer two options – “important”, and “needs challenging”?)

Unlike the 5 star ranking scheme sketched in the image above, we’d only need a single star:

More doodlings around the idea of skim.it

It might also be worth considering indicating how many other people had favourited a paragraph? For example:

ALternative views of skim.it favoriting with count

In the above example, the star/count appears at the end of the paragraph, because you ant to signal the importance of the paragraph after you have read it…

ALternatively, we might try to signal the perceived importance of the paragraph at the start of the paragraph, and then allow to the reader to make their own signal after reading it:

Your signals and my signal - skim.it doodle

The aim of the skim.it idea is to provide a way for readers to flag those sections of a document that are worthy or requiring of comment, and thus be capable of acting as a precursor to commenting on those sections. For mobile users, where time may be tight, the keyboard interface fiddly or difficult to use, the simple interaction – click to star – means that users can read a document and bookmark those parts of it that are important to them.

The ability to view the document via a filter of “most heavily favourited” provides a crowd sourced alternative to an executive summary of the document.

PS I am using the star as a way of signaling the importance of particular paragraphs. It’s not hard to extend this idea to social signaling, where for example a user clicks to tweet the link to that particular paragraph, or clicks to share the link to that paragraph on a social bookmarking service such as delicious.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

5 thoughts on “Signaling Important Document Paragraphs in WriteToReply – And a Possible Mobile Theme?”

  1. I like this idea. Could it be interchangeable? ie Read/markup the full document on a desktop PC and read the condensed version on a mobile device? Maybe this would be as straight forward as offering 2 views on either format (1) Full (2) Starred/commented paragraphs only. I only ask, as I find skimming on a desktop PC easier and reading condensed versions on a mobile device when I’m out of the office and away from other distractions. Others might do the same as me.

    Could you offer more than the 2 options (“important”, and “needs challenging”) to open up it’s use to other areas too?

    Gary

  2. Hi Gary
    I was wondering myself whether the features could be rolled into the digress.it theme? IT seems to me that there are several things we need to consider:

    1) where favouriting can take place;
    2) where commenting can take place;
    3) where “my favourites” can be viewed;
    4) where “top favourites” can be viewed.

    The digress.it theme currently supports feeds for things like comments by person, so it would be easy enough to provide a mobile view that just shows the most favourited paragraphs, as well as allowing the reader to then switch to reading/favouriting the whole doc in the normal way.

    One thing I realised after submitting the post was that we really need to be able to support offline mobile reading and synching too (eg in the context of an app).

    This is something Joss and I chatted over broefly once before, and something that I think we need to revisit. For example, should the app be at the WriteToReply level (allowing the user to view/comment on/favourite paras from all current consultations), or a per consultation app (i.e. standalone for each consultation doc.) (A corollary to all this is in the context of VLEs and courses – eg should we support course level apps, or VLE level apps that might provide a student with access to multiple courses.)

  3. Nice idea. Just a thought, though: when I am reading something, what flows more naturally to signal “pay especially close attention to this paragraph” is for it to be either highlighted, or in a larger font. If the number of “likes” (is that a noun, now?) would cause the paragraph to be either larger, or have a slightly different background color, it might be less distracting than reading the numbers (and having your eye dart to other numbers on the page to see if that’s a lot, or not very many).

    Just a thought. Nice idea, though, overall; it would combine the tighter feedback loop of sites like facebook with the opportunity for longer (more substantive?) writing on a given topic.

    1. Hi Ross –

      Interesting thought – so the paragraph font size would effectively be magnified as a function of the number of the number of likes/favourites etc…?

      On WriteToReply, when we link to a particular commented paragraph (e.g. http://writetoreply.org/doodlings/change-is-overdue-a-public-charter-for-libraries/?paragraph=8#8 ) the target paragraph is highlighted. So I guess a parameter could be used to enable highlighting that changes the background of the 10 most favourited paragraphs, or paragraphs favourited more than x number of times? (I suppose this also then lends naturally to the thought that paragraphs could be displayed or hidden according to similar criteria – the ultimate in highlighting a particular paragraph?!)

      PS do you think this would also work for students reading particular text, at least, the personal favouriting aspect?

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