The ambiguity of perceived value

Printed reference works – such as dictionaries, encyclopaedias, manuals, etc. –offer hostorically a sense of major quality and solidity, which is the reason why they are perceived as tools able to last over time. The purchase of a dictionary or encyclopaedia was based on the belief that future generations would benefit from it, and that kind of information would not have changed over time.


In fact, over the last few decades, reference works have evolved radically, in line with the great innovations that have affected the publishing industry: today there are available versions for computers, for mobile devices not to mention the myriad of online applications. However, despite the advantages offered by technology, certain crystallized habits remain difficult to scratch: if we need a dictionary, we are oriented to the traditional volume of paper in the bookshop, better if a well-known and consolidated author/publisher (it is useful, lasts in time, makes a good impression in the living room), while for the electronic version they prefer something free, often giving up quality.

Having worked for long time on the design of consultation tools such dictionaries and encyclopedias, it is very difficult to understand why it is better to spend more than double to use the same content, especially if we consider the pros and cons of the two alternatives.


  • A dictionary/encyclopedia app offers the same content as the printed version, which is the result of years of work by the author, but costs less
  • An app can be installed on multiple devices (PC, smartphone, tablet, etc.) and is always available everywherever
  • Apps are generally updated periodically for free, while a new printed edition requires the purchase of a new volume at full price


  • An app often offers the index of entries that allows you to search for matches by typing only a few characters
  • Search capabilities are much more flexible in apps. While on paper you have to browse hard, an app allows you to
    • Search for lemmas, also by approximation
    • Search the phraseology for all the entries in the work that contain the search criterion
    • Search for all text, finding all the entries that contain the criterion within the definition
    • Search selectively for scopes, for example, only in nouns or verbs
    • Store the history of searches made to quickly return to an item to be consulted
  • The interface of an app can be in multiple languages, allowing it to be used by users from other countries

A correct evaluation of these aspects should inevitably lead to the choice of an app compared to the printed volume, but the weight of the paper still contributes to distort the perceived value.