Digital Reading: Three UX Principles from the Catalyst Group’s Peter Hughes

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

What makes a new digital device, website, application, or system become widely adopted, wildly popular, or set the standard for those that follow? A critical element of success is great user interaction, according to Peter Hughes, partner and principal usability consultant in Catalyst Group, a New York-based interactive agency.

In 2009, Catalyst published a study comparing user preferences in the Sony PRS-700 and Kindle 2 readers. The results showed something of a gap between users’ expectations and their direct experience of the two devices. Users wanted a seamless shopping experience; ease of start-up and use; and a much lower price point.

Hughes trained his analytical eye on some of the more hit-or-miss aspects of current e-reading devices and laid out some basic usability principles in the process. Always keeping principles of user interaction in mind, Hughes focused on three: usefulness, consistency, and simplicity.

Usefulness: “You start with something useful, then make it easy to use.” (Interestingly, he says, the reverse is not true. If you create something that is easy to use, that doesn’t mean it’s useful.) “In the many media projects we have worked on we hear time and again that one of the best aspects of mobile e-readers is the ability to store many books or magazines on a single, compact and relatively light device. This trend has only been accelerated by the hugely popular iPad and the increasing availability of book and magazine titles, which themselves continue to be enhanced as the technology improves and the concept takes root in the consumer market.”

Consistency: Hughes notes that Catalyst Group does a lot of work with magazines. “We have been helping publishers understand how their customers respond to mobile versions of their titles, and what needs to be done to deliver an excellent iPad and iPhone experience. The challenge is to preserve the brand customers love while giving them that extra something they expect from an app.”

“There’s an expectation that devices will do more. In the old days of reading books or magazines you may not have realized that certain things were possible; for example, not only marking up passages but collecting them.”

“Something that’s come up with every study we’ve done is the idea of clipping. It turns out that clipping is a really hot item. But what does clipping mean? Is it a page, or the whole article? How about a page with multiple types of media on it? The publisher must define how far to take ‘clipping’—and, the reader must recognize he has the option to clip. It’s not always obvious that the function even exists. The reader must discover it, then figure out how it works. It’d be better if the function were ‘offered’ by the system to let the reader know that it exists.”

As currently implemented, clipping is nonstandard. Everyone’s doing it differently—and that doesn’t help the user. Standardized and consistent functions, therefore, help both publisher and reader.

Simplicity: Although he rates the Kindle as user-friendly, Hughes’s personal encounter with the Kindle system resulted in a low mark on one basis—it was too hard to get started.

“Not enough attention was paid to the set-up,” he said. “As a Kindle user, you must come to grips with a whole system. Every new Kindle customer is going to have to figure out how it works and what to do with very little assistance if any. It was easy enough finding a book, but I had the dickens of a job figuring out how to get a book onto the iPad. I didn’t feel that the cues were strong enough for me to do it intuitively. I test many interfaces and interactions in my work and am very comfortable diving in and trying out something new. So, if I have a hard time with something that is aimed at consumers I am pretty confident there will be many people struggling out there. For Amazon, I’d think that might well represent some lost business and therefore be a good reason to address this problem.”

One of the best things you can do for your customers, says Hughes, is lead them through a new process a step at a time.

“One idea I often give my clients is the notion that your software is essentially a concierge … it’s an attitude, no different than going into a restaurant and having a knowledgeable waiter explain everything to you, thinking ahead about what you might like, supporting your choices. There are so many ways to incorporate this concierge model, with window pop-ups, progress indicators, better graphical presentations for instructions, for example.”

This attention to the user’s ability to understand a process is not trivial: Hughes says that the critical user interaction—the one that keeps or loses a customer, for example—may be a complementary interaction to a bigger event—like seeking financial information or subscribing/registering for services. Or just setting up a device.

Hughes called up an analogy: “A successful and pleasing interaction—something that draws people to it—[comes about in a way] no different today than hundreds of years ago, when craftspeople would develop their own tools, refine and refine, until they had an item they could use for hours, with a great degree of control. And that’s the same as today’s process of iteration, as in Kindles 1, 2, and 3. Evolution based on feedback, fitness of purpose and ease of use.”

But for all the attempts that fall short of usability perfection, Hughes appreciates the profusion of devices, apps, and ideas. “Developers keep giving people more options … it’s like a market-scale testing environment, to see what sticks and what doesn’t. It’s exciting, and that’s why I’m in this industry. I love that people are putting out all these ideas. Some things that don’t stick today may stick next year as people catch up. And getting to the next stage where, for all I know, the idea of reading could be that my eyeglasses project the page in front of me: who knows what’s coming?”

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others 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’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.

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.

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