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Ergonomics and Ebook Success

WEbookLee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal discusses the pleasant surprise of reading ebooks on his BlackBerry:

Your thumb doesn’t fall off turning teeny-tiny digital pages thousands of times to get through even the most fleeting novella. In fact, the ergonomics almost beats that of books.

Some will argue that mobile screen sizes don’t encourage extended ebook experiences, but there’s something to be said for the convenience of flicking through pages with your fingers or zooming along on a track ball (or if you’re old school, a click wheel). In fact, e-reader manufacturers might want to look at popular handheld devices for design inspiration — and by “handheld” I mean anything that can be held in your hand, not just mobile gadgets.

Take the TiVo remote. In 2004, the New York Times did a feature story on this device:

Because of the nature of the TiVo video recorder, the remote is held for long periods as users continually choose shows to record, skip commercials, fast-forward and rewind recorded shows, rate programs by pressing the thumbs-up or thumbs-down buttons, and even pause live TV. Designing a remote that consumers would find comfortable was a high priority.

An e-reader doesn’t have much in common with a TV remote, but that’s not really the point. It’s all about core use. The TiVo remote works because the oversized pause button — embodying the essence of a DVR — is impossible to miss. The iPhone works because the touchscreen gives you maneuverability in a small space, thereby narrowing the gap between a mobile device and a PC. And the BlackBerry works because the track ball lets you fly through menus and information. Moreover, each of these design elements is now second nature to users, so manufacturers can safely incorporate similar (not stolen; similar) functionality while avoiding user-interface re-education.

It could be that touchscreens and intuitively placed buttons/wheels/balls don’t enhance the ebook experience (although I think they might), but the current insistence on meshing traditional books with ebooks isn’t a design nirvana, either. As Gomes notes, the book-ebook connection isn’t really necessary:

Until a few weeks ago, my assumption had been that a useable electronic book would need to resemble a Gutenberg book as much as possible, with, for example, pages of screen text about the same size as pages of print … The Sony Reader, however, turned out to be a gateway device. Once you’ve experienced its great rush of convenience, choice and portability, you just have to have more. It’s then that you cross the line and start downloading British novels onto a BlackBerry. [Emphasis added.]

If “convenience, choice, portability” and other core ebook attributes define e-reader hardware design, then the resulting ergonomics could be the key attribute that reinvents the established market.

(Via Teleread.)

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