Tools & Tabs: Hardbound


“What if books were designed for screens?”

This question led cofounders Nathan Bashaw and Joe Nguyen to build the new app Hardbound, a platform for visual, interactive, and (sometimes) animated stories designed for a touchscreen mobile device. Out of beta for just two weeks and arriving in an age when pessimists claim “reading is dead,” Hardbound has obtained a modest bounty of downloads and ProductHunt hype. At Talos, we freaking love reading. So, this product review was always going to happen.

The Hardbound app is simple in conception and design. It took approximately five seconds to register and start reading stories, which appear as icons on the first screen. There’s also a “Stuff We Love” area, which seems like a peek inside Bashaw’s private Instapaper collection.

The four most recently uploaded stories are available to flip through, while you hit a paywall for the “back catalogue” of stories, which will appear more enticing once Hardbound can publish more content. The current app totals 18 stories, most written by Bashaw himself, and promises a new story every Thursday. (In the long run, Bashaw says in conversation with colleague Will Hoekenga that he hopes to populate the platform such that others’ content dwarfs his own.)

Stories range from “Where the Moon Comes From” and “How Concrete Became a Thing,” to “Understanding Venture Capital” and “Will VR Make Us Better Humans?” Most fall under what I like to call the how-stuff-works genre, with a couple outliers and rouge Walt Whitman poem.

Hardbound, though, makes a number of choices (any of which could be easily overturned at this point) that leaves me puzzling over the true Hardbound vision:

1. Linear Storytelling

The natural cognitive leap when you hear you must click through a story, to which there is no ‘autoplay’ option, is the possibility for “choose your own experience” content. Click here, go there. But click over here, go somewhere else entirely. Hardbound tells linear stories that come at you in a single, predetermined sequence. In fact, a reader can’t skip ahead (besides quickly tapping through each screen.) 

Some users enjoy this functionality, saying that the app forces its reader to pay attention, to stay actively engaged with the text from beginning to end, and that this functionality might enable some sort of deep learning experience. There’s no data to back up that last claim, but it sounds compelling, particularly for the app’s potential as an educational tool.

...which brings me to my second point.

2. An Audience of Adults (or near-adults, at least)

Hardbound screams, “Let me teach you something!” 

The obvious audience of its animated mini-lessons would be the curious minds of elementary and middle schoolers… but the app so far has focused on adult readers and serves a general continuing education function. The stories don’t have ratings for age appropriateness and lack kid-friendly themes. “Understanding Venture Capital” could interest a Silicon Valley neophyte, and maybe even a precocious ten-year-old entrepreneur, but ultimately, it’s an opportunity missed.

3. A Lack of “Course” Sequences

The current “catalogue” of Hardbound stories are difficult to categorize into groups, much less into any sort of meaningful sequence that might truly build a reader’s knowledge. Imagine Duolingo with French prepositions, “Italian Verbs I,” and some Spanish idioms. Interesting! And I’m learning stuff! But does it amount to more than interesting dinner party conversation? Not yet with Hardbound.

I wonder whether this is a part of Hardbound’s longterm plan or has been purposefully discarded as a means of differentiation from Crash Course, a YouTube series created by John and Hank Greene of Vlogbrothers2.0 fame. It’s hard to deny the visual and conceptual similarities between the two, though Crash Course intentionally cultivates content meant for both preteens and adults who want to catch up on 2,000 years of Chinese history or the difference between induction and abduction

While Hardbound is novel, and Bashaw is easy to love, I don’t think Hardbound has grown into its shoes yet as a new media form.

Hardbound hasn’t quite landed on what it wants to give its readers, apart from assembled words and images that feed the same part of the mind as do pub trivia nights. I wonder if its creators have considered the effect of shining their spotlight in a particular way, on a particular place, and to what end they will build content. There’s a real love behind the work of Hardbound, and love is critical in the work of storytelling. An irreducible curiosity for the world is foundational in the pursuit. But it’s not quite enough. 

Bashaw says that Hardbound’s mission is “to make people feel amazing through stories.” According to ProductHunt reviews and testimonies on the Hardbound homepage, they’re achieving this already with a mere 18 live stories. I’d be remiss to not mention how impressive this is. And, I’ll be interested to see how Hardbound continues and what types of content it grows. I just hope that there will be a little less of “How Concrete Became a Thing” without losing the big love and intrepid curiosity that’s coming to define the brand.