Digital Reading: Thinking on Both Sides of the Screen

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

User experience professionals know what we want. Their research and testing of every detail of interaction design has, over the years, determined what our experience on the Web and on mobile devices is today.

When they turn their attention to digital reading and e-books, they tend to see both forest and trees. Whitney Quesenbery, principal at the research and consulting firm WQusability and a usability expert as well as a devoted e-book consumer, talked about how reading books could be transformed by going digital.

Books Should Be Accessible to the Buyer in All Formats

Quesenbery got right to one of the main points in the e-book discussion—the subject of multi-format accessibility. “I want to buy the book [once] and go back and forth between modes [of reading]. I’d even want to sync my audiobook version with my text version.”

Like most good interactive design practitioners, she prefers to streamline the user’s path to the content—fewer clicks, subscriptions, and versions. “The New York Times should be able to customize my subscriptions and digital delivery. I don’t want to have to subscribe to five different versions of the Times, and I don’t want to have to reduce my options.”

Storytelling for User Experience by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin BrooksQuesenbery’s recent book, Storytelling for User Experience, from the innovative publisher Rosenfeld Media, is a model of her multi-format philosophy (the book can be purchased in two different multi-format packages that include print or printable, mobi, e-pub, and Adobe).

Her book carries the subtitle “Crafting Stories for Better Design.” For the purposes of digital reading, she may as well reverse that line to “Crafting Design for Better Stories“: The book’s story (the experience) is inextricable from how the book is experienced; the book’s design.

Kindle Gets It Almost Right

When it comes to digital platforms, Quesenbery is a Kindle fan.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. “Reading is an immersive activity, so Kindle is good: when reading a book, I’m not multitasking. When I read on an iPad, there are all sorts of distractions.”

Other design choices seem particularly user-friendly and accessible, which are qualities of high importance: “It feels right in the hand, and not too heavy. The screen, with its soft gray instead of bright white background, is not as hard on the eyes; I can read the Kindle forever. And the power cord is industry-standard.” Quesenbery stores 60-70 books on her device, sends documents for screen reading, and uses it as a clippings file.

But her ideal reading device is still over the horizon.

Although she says, “I have the timing down so I can push the ‘forward’ button before I finish the last sentence of the page,” she’d really like something better optimized for nonfiction: scaling graphics for diagrams and tables; travel-book features that combine GPS with dynamically served text; and (most important for frequent users of the Kindle’s text-to-speech feature) “a ‘dead-man’s switch’ to turn off the book when I fall asleep.”

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group specifically for editors working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.

3 thoughts on “Digital Reading: Thinking on Both Sides of the Screen

  1. Patricia Rooney

    Thumbs up on all you say. What you didn’t say: e-cookbooks: must not reference pages in text, but programmers must add hperlinks to referenced pages, like they do with foonotes. So many different qualities of ereading experience make one picky for high quality page referencing and easy navigation. The books aren’t free and sometimes they feel like file dumps.

  2. Elizabeth Burton

    Ten years ago, whenever I mentioned ebooks, traditionalists would gave down their noses at me and say “Ebooks will never be anything but an oddity,” then go on to explain this was so because THEY never read them.

    Now that ebooks are the trend du jour, suddenly it’s the designers and the techies who are dictating that ebooks have to be this or that, and go on to explain this is so because it’s what THEY want.

    Is anyone bothering to ask the vast majority of ebook readers what THEY want?

    I’m not talking about specialty books–technical manuals or cookbooks or poetry. Those have special requirements that everyone recognizes. The author of the companion article to the above made a condescending comment that a book she’d read must have been created using an automated system. Must I remind these new experts that when you have twenty ebooks to publish and a very small staff you might not have time to spend hours tweaking code?

    In other words, after sneering at ebook publishing for more than a decade, the traditional industry is now determined to remodel it in their own image. No surprise, since they’re also apparently determined to convince the world they invented it. Having adopted the raggedy orphan that’s been sitting on their doorstep all these years, they are determined to whip it into the proper shape so they won’t be embarrassed when they show it to the neighbors.

    When I read a novel, I don’t care if the publisher’s colophon is on the title page. Frankly, I don’t even need the title page as long as the book is clearly identified. I just want to be able to read without discomfort, and don’t require drop caps or fancy chapter heads or any of the other minutiae that seem to weigh so heavily on the minds of those reinventing the wheel.

    1. Anne Kostick

      We are indeed asking readers, not only usabiiity experts, what they’d like to have in their digital reading experience, and I’ll be collecting and reporting on what they have to say in upcoming articles. Of course, there’s a broad expanse of likes and dislikes here; traditionalists and those more open to a new kind of reading experience. But publishers should pay attention, and I think they’ll respond by improving their e-books over time.



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