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During a recent meeting I was asked to explore the possibility of presenting existing PDF newsletters in a flipping book format. You know the sort; online interactive magazine layouts presented as a 3D book, where pages are navigated to and animated in a realistic flipping motion. This wasn't new ground for me as I'd already completed the exercise (and dismissed them in favour of PDF) 5 years ago, but the topic had raised its head again, and this time it was interesting to relook at things from a mobile-friendly perspective.

First there was Flash… and the magazine metaphor

There's no denying that flipping book softwares have been around for a long time, harking back to the days when Flash was a popular choice for creating user interactions on desktop. But even then the novel idea of an online digital book was doubted by UX enthusiasts. This discussion on StackExchange describes it as an example of the "metaphor anti-pattern";

... where they re-create a physical something in digital form and thereby replicate all its weaknesses; plus, since you can't truly replicate everything you introduce new weaknesses. In this case for example, users can't fan through multiple pages to skim to what they want. The result is you're creating advanced technology to make something that is less usable than the original technology it replaces.

It is easy to see how the flipping book metaphor became popular;

The idea is apparently to use a magazine metaphor so users will know how to interact with it. Users know how to flip pages in a magazine, so they'll know how to flip pages in this digital replica. Theoretically, this would be good for someone who is totally unfamiliar with computers. However, if they have to get to this document by going through conventional web pages, then they must already know how to click and scroll, so they're getting no benefit from the capacity to flip pages like a magazine.

Interesting. Thankfully, with regard to Flash, times have changed and the onset of new technologies (mobiles and tablets, as well as modern browsers) has seen it being dropped in favour of responsive web design, HTML5 and JavaScript. But where does that leave the flipping book publication? Still with some popularity it seems, although trends suggest that the big publishers (news sites and gossip columns housing lots of articles) are favouring blog formats or dedicated reading Apps. No surprise there – they've bought in to the mobile revolution and endeavour to get their content out there using mobile optimised methods.

But, for others - those who may not necessarily understand how the web works or who have not necessarily considered where and how visitors access content - there is still much appeal in the visual "WOW" that an animated online booklet offers. And therein lies the problem.

Adding "sizzle" to a website

In chapter 12 of Steve Krug's "Don't Make Me Think!: A Common Sense Approach To Web Usability" - Help! My boss wants me to _____; when bad design decisions happen to good people - Steve explains why adding "sizzle" to your website is often counterproductive;

Unfortunately, there's an inherent problem with the way executives are involved in Web site design. Given that the site is crucial to your organization, naturally your input is solicited. But because of the way sites are developed, all you're really asked to comment on is the appearance ... the only thing you can reasonably judge is "Does it look good to me?" and "Does it create a good impression?" As a result, CEO's almost always push for something that's more visually appealing, something with more "pizzazz" or "sizzle".

The problem is that except in a few cases ... Web sites don't really need much sizzle.

Most of the time on the Web, people don't want to be engaged; they just want to get something done, and attempts to engage them that interfere with their current mission are perceived as annoying ... Attempts to add sizzle almost always get in their way.

Unless your site gives people the information they want and makes it easy for them to do what you want them to, the main thing it's doing is announcing that you're either clueless about the Web, or you care more about your image than you do about them.

The moral is, you can do as much as you want to make your site look good, but only if it's not at the expense of making it work well. And most sizzle gets in the way of it working well.

At the end of the day, it usually falls to the web team and / or marketing people to decide if a flipping book is a superficial flourish or a worthwhile and effective means of distributing content.

Flipping books – web-based or desktop software?

Looking at what's currently out there, page flipping softwares come in 2 flavours – web-based and desktop software.


I dismissed the web-based ones almost immediately due to on-going monthly costs; as they require a subscription to the provider's service, and because the software is held on someone else's website, with the flipping books being hosted on someone else's servers, it's a way of keeping you permanently tied-in. Most flipping book providers I looked at prevented the final product from being downloaded (as a working flipping book) for personal safekeeping or hosting on another website, so concerns would be, if the company went under, or if you wanted to go elsewhere, would you lose all access to, or use of, old flipping books? At that point there'd also be additional cost / time in researching alternatives, setting up alternatives, and training, not to mention the disparity between 2 different final products and end-users potentially dealing with 2 different interfaces. There are no doubt many more reasons but I didn't go further as this option had already been swept off the table.

Desktop software

So desktop software was a better choice in this instance. I looked at several but dismissed many due to them;

  • Being developed before the era of mobile and / or not being compatible with mobile (generating an interface that is not sized for mobile or doesn't work on mobile – i.e. Flash technology)
  • Not accepting the import of a pre-made PDF / Word / Publisher document, and having to compile / build whole newsletters / magazines in the software itself (there'd be a learning curve associated in getting to grips with a new software, possibly for multiple users to cover sick days, holidays or if someone leaves)
  • Only generating a collection of files needed to produce a finalised flipping book and not exporting in other portable formats, such as PDF (which would make distribution over email difficult)

There were a few options, of varying costs, that looked promising due to allowing pre-made documents to be imported into them and producing something that worked (reasonably) well on mobile. At this stage a non-webby type might have thought this enough of a positive reason to eek a firm "Yes!" out of me. Unfortunately this was not the case. More thought was required. And so the flipping book assessment continued...

A few hours or research and note-taking later, my final reasons reiterated the importance of remembering that these flipping books are generated specifically for use on websites, and as such, there were other points to consider... points that ultimately circled back round to the PDFs that were already in use;

Inflated size

Each flipping book is a collection of dozens and dozens of scripts, files and folders, which together make it possible to view (variations of) the flipping book on mobiles, tablets and desktop computers. These take up a lot of space. For example, a test document in PDF format was only 5MB in size when optimised for the web. I turned it into a flipping book and the weight soared to 36MB+... and that was only on a 10-page restricted conversion owing to limits of the trial software. I would expect a full 20+ page publication to be considerably more... maybe 10 times the size of the PDF. Consider too that we're not just talking about the size of each flipping book in relation to space occupied on the server, but also by the weight and amount of files each web-visitor has to download in order to view each flipping book on their device. The extra weight could really chomp through data usage allowances on mobile.


The dozens of generated scripts, files, and folders all need to load in order for a flipping book to be visible and work in a web browser, but, depending on circumstances, all the necessary files may not all load on all devices. For example, to preserve data consumption on mobile devices (not everyone has access to wi-fi all of the time, and many folks still PAYG), users, or default settings of a device, may disable images and / or scripts in certain situations. Desktop users may disable JavaScript, or some files may be blocked by corporate firewalls / web policies, etc. All of these failing-points would render a flipping book completely useless; visitors wouldn't just forego the pretty animation – the basic text and everything would be totally inaccessible (as in, blank white page). In contrast to this, note that a well-made website continues to work, and all critical content remains accessible, even if JavaScript fails to work / load for whatever reason, so putting a flipping book within a more stable and carefully considered platform that wouldn't fail (alongside the flipping book that would, in the same circumstances), doesn't really make sense. To summarise, there are more moving parts, therefore, more chances to go wrong, and way too many unknown circumstances to predict when failure is likely.

Lack of portability

The scripts, files and folders that make up each flipping book, come as a bundle and have to be transported together. A flipping book isn't (for the most part) something that could easily be emailed out in a standalone version. It is true that some software outputs a standalone .exe file, but in order to transport it over email, it would need to be zipped-up to bypass anti-virus / spam protection, or whatever unknown malicious threat prevention measures that the user (or the organisation) has in place on their system; cue additional usage instructions for the recipient on desktop, and frustration on mobile when they realise that they can't view the .exe on the go, forcing them to wait until they're back at a desk. The most accessible flipping book could therefore only really exist on a website. On the other hand, you could simply distribute a PDF – that stands for Portable Document Format, so the clue is in the name.

Technical constraints

You would be at the mercy of a website person to upload all of the necessary scripts, files and folders online, embed it into a web page, link it in menus and provide access links that can be emailed out, for every flipping book.

Longevity / future-proofing

It's impossible to predict whether the desktop software used to create the flipping book, will work on future computers, leading to further upgrade costs. Similarly, there's no way of knowing if the scripts will be compatible with future web browsers, or if flipping books generated today will work in all future devices, leading to a need to rebuild them all later down the line to accommodate any new technology.

Something else to learn

And not just by the person using the desktop software, but by web visitors too. There are several sorts of flipping book softwares on the market, and each one generates a different flipping book interface. That's a new interface and new set of buttons, and behaviours, for new users to learn how to use, and an interface and set of behaviours for occasional users to relearn how to use. On mobile, depending on software, pages can scroll down, swipe left, tap, or be navigated to via a menu. There's more expenditure of brainpower as visitors encounter other flipping books on other websites, and this required extra thought can erode a user's confidence both in the website and it's providers. See Krug's first law of usability, "Don't Make Me Think!". Compare that to PDF - all PDFs everywhere behave the same and conform to existing learned expectations (users know how to scroll down) so they take less effort to use.

Restricted actions / unpredictable behaviour

Flipping books tend to use Flash technology on desktop, which interferes with a user's learned behaviours, such as, copying an interesting bit of text - text cannot be selected from a Flash interface. Worse still, the pressing down of the mouse button, or holding down of a finger on mobile / tablet in order to perform the text-selection, may actually result in undesirable page-turns, which would be very frustrating. The web is an open medium – its common knowledge that you can copy text / images from any web page you visit – so introducing a medium mid-flow into a visitor's journey through an open website, which goes against user expectations and prevents learned behaviours, is very harmful to user-experience. Why is it beneficial to work with user expectations? See Jakob's Law of the Internet User Experience, which states that;

Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.

Only impressive on desktop

Flipping book softwares have been around since before mobiles, and only a few have been converted to work on mobile in an attempt to move with the times and make mobile experience (of the interface – not the text, which is still tiny) more comfortable. But it is only the desktop version that has the "WOW" factor – mobile adopts a more simplistic view. The problem there is that, globally, mobile usage now surpasses desktop usage, and it's still growing, so it's a trend we can't ignore. The visual "WOW" factor on desktop will simply not have chance to "sell" the all-singing, all-dancing version of the flipping books to a growing number of people. Flipping books, as a way of distributing content, is also a falling trend. Take, for example, statistics for Issuu (one of the largest online publishing sites that uses flipping-page technology) – usage amongst the top 1 million websites has fallen over the past year.

I would guess at this being partially linked to publishers finding alternative ways to distribute their content (e.g. reading Apps), following the move by Google in April 2015 that has since penalised websites for delivering content that is not mobile-friendly.

Only impressive while looking at them

The "WOW" factor is there only for as long as the (desktop) web-visitor is looking at the online flipping book. Is it realistic to expect web-visitors to stay on the site and read the flipping book cover-to-cover, where they can continue to be impressed by the flipping animation? Or, is it much more likely that visitors will take the PDF version away with them to read at a more convenient time; Maybe offline, having been imported into iBooks or Pages; Maybe by emailing it to themselves? And are people more likely to email the PDF, which cannot change or disappear once it's in a user's possession, or, email a link to the web page where the flipping book is located, which could be removed or changed before they have chance to get back to it? The PDF would win because loss-aversion (fear of losing something) is a more powerful motivator than the gains of a pretty page-flip effect. The number of PDFs I'm personally sent for inclusion on the websites I maintain, rather than links to online publications (flipping or otherwise), would support this.

Long live PDF... and responsive web design

At the end of the day, a PDF, while not the fanciest medium on its own, is much more useful, user-friendly, portable, stable and predictable than an online flipping alternative. Still, PDF doesn't come free from it's own usability issues, namely the fixed-size layout that has to be shrunken down to fit on small screens, which is the same fate the flipping book falls victim to, minus the overhead (and uncertainties) of all those extra scripts, buttons and behaviours. This is where responsive web design (RWD) trumps both as a superior content delivery mechanism because it allows web pages to be viewed in response to all devices and screen sizes, without downsizing a static layout, or the text within it, to teeny weeny proportions.

So those are my reasons why flipping book solutions might not be the right choice. Sometimes they might be, but it is important to weigh up the pros and cons and understand the impacts in each use-case. The decision is yours.