Digital Reading: Quietly, Kobo improves UX for its readers across all platforms.

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

I don’t consider myself a social reader but I’ve always admired Kobo’s commitment to refining and improving the user experience for social readers. I recently found out that this commitment extends to all aspects of the user experience, which makes my solo reading experience better, too.

I had a chance to talk to Tony O’Donoghue, Kobo’s UX lead for mobile applications, during Internet Week (he was at OMMA, I was at APPPNATION). It turns out that Kobo has been quietly upgrading and streamlining its interface, navigation, and even its features, and not only in Tony’s area of responsibility. The result is a highly improved passage through a book.

O’Donoghue, who has been with Kobo since 2009, brings to this mission a varied background that no doubt contributes fresh perspectives and benefits for readers. A New York City English literature major who worked in the theater and in entertainment journalism, he paid his interactive dues back in Queensland, Australia. It makes sense that someone steeped in the entertainment world would take on the challenge of building a better reading experience. In fact, he points out, UX at Kobo is core to the business and is what sets it apart. The UX team numbers 25 people, with backgrounds including music and design, as well as HCI. This kind of interdisciplinary teamwork is the best blend, he says. After all, “the developer won’t necessarily know what’s beautiful, and the designer won’t necessarily know what’ll work.” Together, their results are “beautiful, and they make sense.”

As Tony pointed out, the various apps for Kobo on mobile devices and desktop had been developed at different times and didn’t offer consistent features and experience across the board. Now they will advance together, developmentally. This was an important improvement. Having just read a couple of books across three mobile platforms (iPhone, iPad, and “the Puppy”—my 11” MacBook Air), I can say that it does make a difference.

Kobo’s particular challenge is to support and enhance social reading on every platform without ignoring or slighting the solo reader. This it does by creating navigation and affordances that recede when not wanted; highlighting key tools and soft-pedaling others; and heavily rewarding their social readers with clever stats, communication prompts, and most recently, conversations with the book’s author, updated and embedded right in the page margin.

Although it often appears that Kobo knows more about its readers than other major e-book retailers, it may be just that they display some of that information back to the user. But here’s where the company’s knowledge can really work in the reader’s favor, says Tony. Of course they can employ the usual UX investigative tools, such as surveys, focus groups, or even eye-tracking. Still, “a lot of the work is educated guess.” But by using agile development and coordinating releases, the teams can try out new ideas and, instead of asking for feedback, make decisions based on actual and broad user data.

Most recently, Kobo’s Pulse program integrates a reader’s Facebook account to allow for social reading and sharing that truly feels effortless. The hurdle there is the reader’s reluctance to blend those accounts, and Tony acknowledges that many readers opt out of that part of Pulse. It’s a paradox, we agree: readers are reluctant to share their own comments and books, but are interested in what others are reading and saying. Opting out, however, doesn’t diminish the direct social reading experience. With Pulse, readers can still make notes, publish them and make them contextual. After the team implemented the latest improvement whereby public notes were contextual to related passages, in one month alone, Tony told me, there were 370,000 clicks on public notes; new comments increased by 25%; and a 65% increase in discussion threads. This kind of data tells the team they are on the right track.

An upcoming change I admire is the refinement of navigation in the latest versions of the reading apps. Instead of running along the bottom of the screen, it will be along the side—right where your navigating finger will find it. Nice and intuitive. Among the things they’re working on: enhanced audio track experience; including multimedia capability (.smil files) for children’s titles, and more features.

I asked Tony about the e-book of the future. He said, basically, anything goes, as long as it’s still a reading experience. This first era of digital reading design eases the transition for readers; designers were “looking over their shoulders at the past while creating something for the future.”
“The first designs for e-readers were a transitional stage between print and digital books, whereby designers tried to mimic physical books with lifelike paging animations, print-like layouts and “spines” and so forth. But after this initial handholding period, I think we’re ready to take it further.”

It may not be the giant companies that will create the more radical reading experiences—Tony sees that job as something for independent designer/developers—and it may, in fact, be the next generation of readers and writers who will make big changes possible. “Next-gen” readers may look at reading differently. Instead of a distraction, they may find a true integration of social and relevant media to be intuitive, even expected. And when writers are writing for e-readers, will the result necessarily be a linear experience? “The invention of writing had an impact on the way people think–it made us think in a linear way,” said Tony, “and I think this technology will have a big effect on the way fiction is written and consumed–but because the technology is in its infancy the shape of that impact is yet to be determined.” Of course, he added, today’s designers must design for the moment. But, “When you design you need to think about how your work fits into the culture. There’s a bit of responsibility to actually care about how it impacts the culture.”

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