Digital Reading: To Succeed, Enhanced Book Apps Need UX Intelligence

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner at Foxpath IND | @bklynanne

When I attempt something new, I often describe it as an experiment. That way, if it doesn’t quite work out, I’m absolved from at least some of the responsibility. Back to the drawing board! That’s my attitude.  This attitude is harder to pull off in business, but many others are trying it, especially in that gray area where e-books meet apps.

A new iPad app called Papercut launched this month by calling itself an experiment. Billed as “an enhanced reading experience,” Papercut contains three short stories commissioned for the new app. Its producer, the UK firm ustwo.com, hopes Papercut can become a new, licensable platform for enhanced literature.

But first they should take one more critical step—a thorough review by a UX expert and some UI redesign.

A Guardian UK article pinpoints several shortcomings of the current app and discusses another drawback:  Developed by the producers of the popular Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime app, Papercut cost a lot to make—and if Nursery Rhymes’s sales history is any judge, it will be a long time before it earns out.

This is not a knock on the content of the app (and certainly Papercut is not the only enhanced-book app out there for analysis). The missing element is some consideration of how the reader  will experience it.

Papercut’s Matt Mills said,  “We’re not saying this is perfect, but we’re trying really, really hard.”

Papercut starts out strong—its opening page shows bold covers for the three stories. Then things become a little confusing. A discreet (unlabeled) arrow on the page takes the reader to a cul de sac of short bios of each author and links to YouTube videos in which each author describes how excited she or he is to go beyond “mere text.”  After that, where do we go? Even “back” is hard to find.

Each story is its own self-contained amalgam of text, image, and sound. Each one has not only a different graphic design, but also a different interface design. This means the reader has to spend time figuring out how each story “works.”  The functional relationship between text, graphics and audio changes with each story. Sometimes the elements simply are not functionally related. The text window is quite small, considering the story’s importance to the whole. In one story, scrolling in the text window to reveal a headphone icon will trigger the audio but there’s no icon in the other stories. You might hear the author read lines of text, but it’s not the text you see in the window.  Meanwhile, animated graphics and illustrations do their things, seemingly without reference to the text. There’s a scroll bar on the side, but without markers to give the reader some idea of where he is; there’s a button marked “menu” that only returns you to the home page, which has no apparent navigation on it. If you leave the story you can only pick it up again from the beginning.

The app seems unaware of a need to fulfill a reader’s expectations for, among other things, consistency, clarity, logical function and appropriateness. If this is a “reading experience,” even if it’s multimedia, readers should be able to make their own way through the work. They should spend time with the text and not with figuring out how to navigate it.

Many of these issues could be addressed if only they were recognized early on, creating an app that might indeed be attractive as a licensable platform for others.  Without these qualities, though, the “reading experience” is not immersive, but passive; it’s a one-time-only read; the short stories are short, and the app is not refillable; right now there’s no way to fulfill any reader’s desire for more.

Reading really is a different kind of activity, and apps don’t always support that difference, as discussed in an earlier column. This is not about the quality of the literature, or of the art or sound design, or even the interactive design of the three together on the screen.  It’s about how it functions for the reader.  Here is where, as an integral element with the other three, UX design decisions (or lack of them) can have a huge impact on the final experience. And a multimedia, enhanced book is all about the experience.

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 current president of Women’s Media Group.

Anne is also a member of the advisory board for the Publishing Innovation Awards, which celebrate the best in ebooks, enhanced ebooks, and book apps. New to the Awards this year is the QED Seal, which highlights usability in ebooks along a thorough 13-point ebook inspection in multiple formats and platforms.

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