E-Book User Experience Design: Book or Web?
Book design has gone relatively unchanged since the days of Gutenberg. While there have been advances is the processes that lead to the creation of books, some of them quite extreme, the actual book itself has been essentially standardized. This has created a situation where “the book publishing industry … [creates] a product for a “customer” that they never speak to, speak of, see, interact with or consider.” (Sandusky) Book design seems in some ways in total opposition with the idea of user experience design, which is not just the physical product (or, in the case of eBooks, the digital one) but “how users perceive and interact with the products.” (Sandusky) In the case of web design, the importance of user experience design is arguably more entrenched in the collective psyche of users than in eBook design, and much of the criticism that comes towards eBooks from this sector is that they are too much like books. That they’ve essentially forsaken whatever claims towards innovation they would have had by conforming too easily to the standards set in place by the print publishing industry. Of course, there is another, equally vocal group, that is all too happy to point out the ways in which eBooks fall short of what print publication’s capabilities. None but the most vitriolic of detractors denies that eBooks are here to stay; the question is, will they continue following in the footsteps of traditional publishers, or will they attempt to find their own way in the realm of user experience design? Will the future of eBooks be in readers, or will it be in users?
User experience design can be defined as
“the judicious application of certain user-centered design practices, a highly contextual design mentality, and use of certain methods and techniques that are applied through process management to produce cohesive, predictable, and desirable effects in a specific person, or persona (archetype comprised of target audience habits and characteristics).” (User Experience, UX Design)
The nature of user experience design is, therefore, incredibly diverse, as it is targeted towards a specific audience. It requires that content creators “not just design something that [customers would] like to use, [but that they] keep listening and iterating.” (Hess) It changes constantly, improving and updating based upon consumer reactions. This has become not just the accepted by the expected practice for many forms of new media. Ebooks have not escaped this expectation, but many of the major changes that have taken place in eBook platforms have been in the platforms themselves – and those changes haven’t necessarily been for the sake of the eBooks. Updates to many of the dedicated eReaders – specifically and recently, the Kindle Fire – have clearly been made for the purpose of accessing more of other types of media. While these alteration will likely benefit eBooks eventually, it doesn’t change the fact that there hasn’t been as much movement in the eBook market towards making the most of the capabilities of the medium. This may be because “when a book goes electronic, it feels like the electronics are intruding into a sphere into which they don’t belong.” (Toler)
Book design is, as I stated above, a practice that has gone relatively unchanged since it first became standardized, back in the days of Gutenberg. The way books are formated has become almost ubiquitous, with accepted standards and presets. The suspected value of a book on the part of a publisher can be extrapolated from the way that the book is designed. The cover of a classical novel diverges greatly from that for a cheap romance, or even from just general fiction; and whether people admit it or not, we certainly judge books by their covers. Quality of paper can convey literariness, as can margin size, while pulp paperbacks suggest the throwaway mentality that is held about genre fiction. Size of font can suggest youth or age, presence of illustrations can suggest an immersive experience or an educational one. Book purists would say that for eBook user experience design to be effective, content creators would need to take these things into account – would need to consider what their book is saying without words.
Certainly readers expect a lot from their books, and while eBooks have made it easier than ever to take a book anywhere, they have yet to cover all the bases when it comes to what can be done with physical books. Readers of books run the gamut in terms of reading style
“pondering, thinking, taking notes, bookmarking, copying, quoting, defining words, underlining, highlighting, comparing with other texts, skipping around, skimming, looking at photos, examining charts/graphs, etc.” (Hennig)
An effective eBook user experience design would need to accommodate all of these styles of reading. But in terms of current reading style, eBooks are stuck between web sites and books. Portability is something that eBooks have got down. But while bookmarking is easy enough, and some programs support annotation, there is still a definite gap between books and eBooks – just as there is a gap between books and websites – when it comes to some of the most simple things. Page transitions on many eBooks give the illusion of a page being turned, some complete with sound effects, but the process of turning many pages quickly is quite different. One either has to repeat the same flipping motion many times, drag a scroller or select a number that is a rough estimate of where they want to be. Font options are still not all that they should be as “licensing custom fonts from a well-known foundry or font designer … is an impossibility for eBooks.” (Ganapati)
Maybe the issue with designing for readers of eBooks is that even as publishers begin to foray into the digital world they are still in the same position as they were with print – they “don’t know who their customers are.” (Broadhurst) Publishers still don’t understand why people buy what they buy – they can only make educated guesses based upon experience and statistical information, but the user/reader is a relative uknown to them. Why a person buys one romance novel and not another of almost identical tenor is as much a mystery in the digital world as it was in the physical one – likely because people often don’t know why they buy one over the other. Statistics can only give so much information before they become little more than just numbers. How do you create a user experience for readers when even they themselves don’t even fully understand why they found one novel scintillating and another sickening?
The issue of user experience design extends not only to the experience of reading an eBook, but also to the process of creating one. Many eBook publishing companies have systems in place designed to minimize any work on their end, giving the author a feeling of control. This feeling may be slightly inflated, as most sites give plenty of guidelines and the limitations of the medium act as their own sort of filter. It’s all to easy to put a jumped up PDF file into a ePublishing program and get something that looks enough like a book for most people to be fooled. But in some ways, the very thing that is criticized about book publishers – that being, that they don’t create for a customer but instead tend to think of themselves as servants of the author – is also true of eBook publishers. It has never been easier for so many to say so much for so little, and as the author is essentially becoming their own publisher, the trends have shown that authors are just as disinterested in the customer as traditional publishers have been in the past. They don’t care about what some of the best bloggers know (which is ironic, as some of them are the best bloggers) – that people will stay longer at a site for the user experience. For that mix of graphic and interaction design that makes something intuitive rather than just functional. And that’s what the current iteration of eBooks is, even after all the advances that have taken place – functional.
“When you’ve flown that far from Gutenberg, the only place to travel is back.” (Zeldman) Certainly that seems to be the current trend in eBook creation, moving away from web design basics and back into the realm of books, though that’s almost certainly bound to change. While consumers may have begun to move away from the printed book, eBook design is still largely bound by the conventions of one. Maybe the idea of the book is stronger than the opportunities eReaders present, or maybe people aren’t willing to put up with biweekly updates to their reading interface because it means adjusting their reading habits, even if only minutely. More likely, this is just a stepping stone. It wasn’t that long ago that the most advanced web sites were little more than glorified word documents. It can’t be long before the glorified PDFs that constitute many eBooks transform into something more user friendly.
Broadhurt, Jamie. PUB 350 Lectures. September 30, 2011.
Ganapati, Priya. “Why E-Books Look So Ugly.” WIRED GadgetLab. May 18, 2009.
Hennig, Nicole. “Reading on E-Book Devices: the user experience.” Slideshare. 2010.
Hess, Whitney. “10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design.” Mashable. January 9, 2009.
Sandusky, Brett. “Portraits of an Industry in Flux.” UX Magazine. January 3, 2011.
Toler, Todd. “eBook User Experience (and why I know so little about it).” Solid State UX. March 31, 2011.
“UX Design Defined.” User Experience, UX Design. August 8, 2010.
Webb, Jenn. “On a Small Screen, User Experience is Everything.” O’Reilly Radar. March 30, 2011.
Zeldman, Jeffrey. “Self-Publishing is the New Blogging.” Jeffrey Zeldman Presents the Daily Report. January 3, 2008.