Swing Both Ways: Why Print Bibliophiles Should Stop Hating On E-books

My Spanish barista friends must have thought I was mad when shortly after sitting down to an afternoon Earl Grey, I frantically asked in broken Spanish if they could watch my heavy bag while I ran back to the metro station for Gertrude Stein. I was taking "American Writers in Paris" while studying English literature in Madrid (yeah, process that for a moment), and I'd been reading a copy of "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" I stole from a library in Texas. I'd left it on the subway and panicked when I realized this.

Fortunately, the woman at the ticket counter understood my description of a small red book and produced it with a smile that said "you might be crazy, please leave now."

Today, this little hardback sits on my shelf, and every time I look at it, I remember this experience and smile. No other book has the same backstory. Had I been carrying an e-reader, I probably wouldn't have gotten it back and I wouldn't attach this memory to any particular text.


Embracing the Dark Side

Cut to last fall, when I purchased my first e-reader. It was a momentous occasion. Just a mere three years ago, I was fiercely devoted to print (hell, I worked at a newspaper). And to this day, when I walk into a good bookstore, I find myself needing to pee from excitement. But I've grown to love this digital format... and grown annoyed with the idea that I'm cheating on my other books.

The notion that e-books are inferior to "real" books is a misconstrued debate, and the fighting has to stop. It's about as productive as arguing over whether listening to an audio book "counts" as reading a book. Seriously? The "real thing" when it comes to storytelling goes further back than Gutenberg's press—all the way to oral storytelling traditions. So maybe audiobooks are really more authentic choices.

Stories are an experience. The format of that experience is not what makes the content worth engaging.


Why E-books Are My Friends

I chose my first e-books deliberately; I read Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane. It seemed like the most appropriate thing to try. Here's why I ended up loving the e-book experience more than I ever anticipated:

  • Feedback. When I downloaded my first e-books, I also started using ReadMill. It is an almost surreal experience to be able to tweet comments on specific selections not only to my friends but to the actual author as well. She may not reply back, but I can give immediate feedback on how I'm receiving her work (although I've engaged in conversations with two authors via Twitter so far).
  • Community. As much as I love book clubs (and don't intend to give them up), it's also fantastic to immediately see how people I will never meet IRL respond to something I've reacted to. My thoughts can be immediately influenced by others if I choose and thus have the chance to mature faster. I hope to see more web content structured this way in the future. In fact, I'd argue that reader feedback methods on most blog is disappointingly behind the curve (but that's another blog post).
  • Portability. I still have many of my college textbooks that I can't bring myself to discard whenever moving time rolls around. It's both a matter of financial and intellectual investment. I may never sit down to re-read the whole of Plato's work or my massive collection of women's poetry—but I do return to sections of these texts now and then, and my notes remind me of where my mind was years ago. I don't want to discard these experiences—which is where e-books come in as a joy for those who feel connected to our texts and prefer living as lightweight as possible. (Interestingly enough, there's also an argument that just the opposite fuels e-book popularity—that e-books are the new mass market paperback.)
  • Accessibility. Despite the abundance of trolling and otherwise disappointing human behavior, the potential this medium holds is mind blowing. As a civilization, it's startling how quickly we've moved from the preciousness of printed materials to an information free-for-all. What this means for education in places with limited opportunities is even more inspiring to me.


Stop Quibbling, Start Imagining

The long of the short of this bookish debate is that e-books can do things and have advantages that printed books cannot and do not. But the reverse is true as well.

Each format has its place, and I want to see what each can accomplish that the other cannot. For example, if you're going to spend the money to print something, make it different than what could be conveyed in a digital format.

I'm currently reading Kern and Burn: Conversations With Design Entrepreneurs, which has been bound in a lovely soft-touch coating that actually makes me pick up the book more often. That, my friends, is the power of print—and it's not being exercised often enough.


Swing Both Ways. Seriously.

But here's the real secret: you don't have to choose one or the other. You can love both (and most people are not exclusive with their book choices).

I have by no stretch of the imagination abandoned print (more than a dozen boxes of books my Dad has moved more than once is a testament to that). I stand in old bookstores and just breathe in the stories (ones printed on pages and ones left there by their former owners)—but I also spend my day writing content for the web. I have 6 pen pals I handwrite letters to every month—but I send email every hour.

Print and digital content are not at war. They are allies in the greater battle against ignorance.

Pivotal Tracker vs Sprintly: A PM Perspective on Agile Tracking Tools

I've written before about the benefits of being an early adopter and generally willing to try new tools or methods, but I wanted to get tactical concerning a recent project management tool choice.

My team at Inovāt has been working on a really exciting project for a client in the education space. What we're building could make a huge difference for teachers by providing tools not currently available to them online. It's a sizable project with an aggressive deadline and plenty of unknowns—which is why we decided to use agile methodologies.

With this in mind, we went looking for the right tool for collaborating as a team. We wanted something that would help us:

  • Prioritize and track specific feature development and design.
  • Understand what was completed, what was currently being worked on and what was up next—and report that progress to our client in the least time-consuming way possible.
  • Recognize and quickly resolve roadblocks.
  • Make sure nothing got lost in the process of rapid iteration.
  • Determine if the project was on schedule for an on-time launch.

I had experience using Pivotal Tracker, but I wasn't married to it (nor was my team), so we looked around for comparable options. Serendipitously, one of our designers stumbled upon Sprintly while browsing an inspiration site, and I was immediately intrigued.

Since Sprintly is the new kid on the block, I wanted to do some research on how it stood up to what Pivotal offered. I had a hard time finding much in the way of comparisons from project managers, so now that I've used both,  I wanted to offer what insight I can.


Pros: What They Do Well


  • It's really, really ridiculously good looking. Seriously, Sprintly is easy on the eyes, and when you have to look at a tool all day, that's a plus.
  • Daily digests. Receiving one email at the end of the day summarizing what's happened provides a nice overview to stay in the loop.
  • Involving non-agile masters. Sprintly paid attention to detail when it comes to bringing in agile n00bs. Stories are structured to help anyone adding them to account for the three critical parts (who, what, why), though that can become awkward to write and repetitive to browse. They also allow bug reporting via email.
  • Assigning sub-tasks to individuals. Instead of ownership only at the card level, Sprintly lets you assign sub-tasks within a card to others.
Pivotal Tracker
  • Easy to self-orient. Pivotal has one view and only one view, so there isn't any confusion about where you are and what you're viewing. The downfall of this, of course, is losing the ability to fully limit/customize what you're looking at.
  • Epics. I thought we could live without epics, but I was wrong. Pivotal's epics allow us to upload a wireframe or comp that spans many stories in one place without any complicated linking.
  • Organizing by searching. The panel method allows me to search for a term, then drag that item to the top of the backlog/icebox quickly and easily. Sprintly's searches occur within their silos, making drag and drop... well, a drag.
  • Pricing. Pivotal has pricing tiers that charge by the month. For us, it was just $18/month for up to 7 users on 10 projects (more than enough for us).
  • Cancel at any time. 'Nough said.
  • Pinging others in comments. Being able to notify someone with a simple @ comment is really practical, and Tracker just added it as a feature. Now if only someone would create a log of my @ comments so I made sure to respond to all of them...

Cons: What Could Be Better


  • Search should be AND instead of OR. This is a big shortcoming of the product and one that you might not immediately pick up on. When looking for something tagged "adjective 1" and "adjective 2," you will get back results that have one of those tags attached to them—not results that have both associated with them. This became a problem for us when we wanted to look into a set of features for a phase of work ("administrator"+"phase 1"). You can use boolean search to get around this, but it's an unreliable hack. Unfortunately, this is a pretty big undertaking and might be a while before it's up and running. In Pivotal, you can do an AND search by just writing the two words you're looking for, but it's missing the predictive tag names that Sprintly offers.
  • Velocity and epics. Ironically enough, Sprintly doesn't advocate for the use of sprints and traditional agile (instead promoting a Kanban approach). For my needs, this became a problem pretty quickly. My team is blissfully self-motivated, so the notion of taking on next highest priority work once a sprint's work is complete (or stalled by a client) didn't need to be dictated. Sprints, however, help us communicate and plan with a client concerning expectations and made them more comfortable than a "we'll keep working as quickly as we can to get things done."
  • Finding the right view. At first I was excited to escape the confinement of the single-view Pivotal prescribes, but as it turns out, there are simply too many views and it can be difficult to figure out where I should be and what I'm looking at. I eventually figured things out for the most part, but my team was exasperated by the navigation issues.
  • Pricing. While projects are unlimited, Sprintly charges by the seat: $14/month. That was a $66 difference against Pivotal's price and just a little too rich for our small shop blood.

Pivotal Tracker

  • Auto-saving. I have to click "save" on everything. While I do get a warning if I try to close my tab without saving, I don't get a warning when I navigate over to another card or panel. I desperately want auto-saving.
  • Multi-tag searches. These three searches all return a different number of results: "foundation baseline," "foundation and baseline," "foundation, baseline." If searches leveraged existing labels (like Sprintly does), results might be more predictable.
  • Epic checklists. I use epics to manage design work since this effort isn't at the story-level but rather a user path level. I can upload files to an epic, but I'd really like to have checklists at the epic level for managing design and manual, pre-release QA tasks.
  • Aesthetic. Usability is (mostly) there, but I just wish Tracker was a little more sophisticated.


  • User communities could be better. Sprintly is using UserVoice as their community and while they're actively responding there (and via Twitter), UserVoice isn't necessarily the best community on the market.Pivotal Tracker has a Get Satisfaction community, but sadly it's not super active and it's fairly hidden—instead of using the typical Get Sat "Feedback" tab that persists across a site/app, you have to click on "Help," then "Got a feature request or suggestion?" It's really too bad they're not leveraging the full power of Get Sat and their customer community.
  • Need responsive design to leverage views. As a product owner, I want to fill a giant screen with my stories to organize cards. Sprintly currently has a maximum 1000 px width and it's just not enough. Pivotal leverages panels within a single dashboard view, but this tends to get a bit cumbersome.
  • Curating client views. I'd love to loop in my clients directly to our workspace—but I want to have a good amount of control over what they can see and interact with. Sprintly allows observer seats, but these users can see everything a full user can, just not interact with it. I want to dictate what a client can see.
  • Easy imports/exports. Sprintly's export was something I needed my dev to help out with and it wasn't simple to scrape everything we needed into a single file. Importing was only available by following a strict format via email (and you weren't notified if it wasn't right; the stories just didn't show up). In Pivotal, I can easily export and import, but they limit imports to 100 items, presumably for speed concerns (but a huge pain in the neck at the beginning of a project).
  • Cross-checking card repetition. It would be ideal if as I'm creating a card, I could be prompted with "Hey, looks like that might already exist. Is this it?" In a tight-knit team, it's not essential, but it would definitely be nice to have.

Four weeks into using Sprintly, my team decided to switch to Pivotal Tracker. It's not sexy but it is simple, and we think epics in particular will help us balance design and development.