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Open question: Are ereaders too complex?

The trend toward more ereader features seems to undermine the simplicity of reading.

War and Peace on the Kindle app
Screenshot of “War and Peace” from the Kindle iPad app

In a recent post for Gear Diary, Douglas Moran bemoaned the direction technological “advancements” are taking ereader apps and devices. As examples, he compared the original Barnes & Noble eReader (which he liked) to its replacement, the Nook app (which “kinda stinks”).

On a personal level, functionality is an ereader obstacle that turns me into an ebook curmudgeon. I recently was gifted a Kindle and I nearly threw it across the room trying to read “War and Peace” (as part of a year-long book club; I’m way behind).

Moran and others noted the simplicity of the Kindle and how its fewer features might make for a more straightforward reading experience. But perhaps the Kindle isn’t quite simple enough. In the end, I bought the print version of “War and Peace” and gave up on the device. Trying to toggle around links to read book notes was so clunky as to make that feature completely useless. Why not put the notes at the bottom of the page? Having links is great if 1. they’re easy and quick to access, and 2. you can return to your place in the book in some obvious, speedy fashion. Otherwise, just give me the content.

All this led me to questions regarding functionality and user experience in ereading:

  • Are ereader developers focusing too much on technological possibilities and losing sight of reader behavior?
  • For those of you who embrace ereading: What features on your reader(s) are extraneous or obtrusive to your reading experience?
  • For developers: When working on a new app or an update, how do you incorporate the end-user into development?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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Comments: 13

  1. My biggest gripe about the Kindle is its relatively slow speed to navigate. With print, if you want to jump ahead or back 5, 10 or 20 pages it’s very easy to do. This allows you to quickly browse material related to the content you’re currently viewing. Or see what’s coming next. Or to quickly return to some spot that you remember. This is hard to do on the Kindle. Navigating a page at a time is tedious. Knowing the context of where you currently are is difficult.

  2. I agree that the Nook app kind of stinks, largely because it is unstable and renders badly, at least on Mac.

    I don’t think ebook readers themselves are too complex. They’re often not well geared to what is still more or less a page turning environment, but this is more a function of how they do what they do, rather than what they do. In my opinion, a much greater problem is that many ebook readers don’t fully support the ebook formats they claim to support.

    Consider: Adobe Digital Editions, the defacto standard for epub readers, has incomplete support for SVG images, does not properly support HTML (imagemaps don’t work right at all), and imposes a top margin on every page that you can’t get rid of.

    iBooks for iPhone works with all these, but it likes to maximize any image it finds to fill the screen, regardless of the HTML layout around it.

    Kindle.app strips away most paragraph formatting in favor of its own.

    The hardware Kindle /is/ clunky to navigate on, and first generation ones like mine were limited to the ISO-LATIN1 character set, and heaven help you if you had a German name in your book. (Later Kindles had this fixed in software updates, but Amazon has pretty much abandoned the first generation Kindle, and we’re stuck with crappy font support.)

    Problems like these hamstring eBook designers’ ability to make ebooks that work well, since we never really know what reader our creation will be read in.

    As far as complexity, I’d agree with the hypothesis of this article, but only in the sense that before adding more complexity, it’d be nice if ebook readers worked properly, and supported the fullness of their ebook standards first. Then add features.

    – JRS

  3. The only thing that truly bothers me about my three uses: Kindle, Kindle app on iPad, and iPad iBooks is that there seems to be no good, practical, “safe” way to something i always do in non-fiction: flip through pages. I want to easily scan ahead and easily flip back, without having to remember to put in a book mark, etc.

    I am not sure that I realized how much I actually do this in print books until I began reading ebooks and felt constrained. I use the flipping for many things including a better sense of context (“where am I now relative to everything else in this book?”), review (“I need to study that part about X again”) or any time the content in the book makes an assumption about what I recall from previous chapters that I have clearly forgotten. Sometimes I just want to jump ahead, but teleporting into a new topic never feels the same to me as flipping/scanning my way forward. Obviously in the iPad it is pretty easy to swipe forward and back… Much easier than Kindle device, but I still do not find myself doing it as often because I cannot as easily just stick one hand in my current location as I can with print books.

  4. I have a Kindle (latest, 2nd?, gen). The main problem is not being able to skip between two or more locations in the book, for cross referencing. I do miss the ability to flip through pages.

    Concerning notes, I’d like to see a way to jump the cursor to active links on the current page. Once clicked, though, it’s easy to get back to the original page by using the Back button 🙂

    Putting notes at the foot of the current page isn’t really an option, because page size varies according to font settings. In fact, the ability to adjust font size and spacing is, for me, one of the big advantages of eReaders like the Kindle. I use this feature often, according to light conditions, or when I don’t have my glasses.

    As an indication of my liking for the Kindle, I have recently purchased the Kindle version of two books after initially buying the paper versions. I love the convenience of having the books to hand and the flexibility of font sizes.

  5. Strictly speaking, the iPad is not an eReader, but if you’re willing to spend a little bit more, the reading experience on it is a lot better. I have a kindle and had been using it for more than a year when the iPad came out. There is no comparison. The iPad can be read in bed (without a light). I can turn the pages with a tap of any finger, I can easily make a book mark and flip back to it. A dictionary lookup is only one logical tap away. When I’m away from my iPad, I can read (using the same user interface) on my iPhone. I still buy nearly all my ebooks at Amazon, but I read them on my iPad (and iPhone).

    I picked up the kindle a couple of days ago to check a passage in a book I had read last year and found it nearly impossible to navigate: too many buttons and menu items poorly laid out, the home and the menu key are confusing (I always push the wrong one) and navigating to a word to lookup a definition is extremely painful. I went back to my iPad and re-downloaded the book. I’m listing my kindle on ebay next week.

    Touch screens are the future and for a good reason.

  6. That e-readers are seen as becoming too complicated is tremendously ironic given that they are replacing a beautifully simple device; the book.

  7. I’m an ardent lover of books: I have a ridiculously large physical library. That being said, I’m a bit shocked at how quickly I’ve been won over by e-readers. I use an original Nook. I now mostly prefer it to paperbacks, at least for reading fiction. As for text books and technical books I still prefer physical books.

    On the Nook I ignore the games and web browsing and other apps and use the Nook only for reading. I see no need for these extra apps on an e-reader, that’s what my phone or laptop are for.

  8. I am perfectly happy using an old WM6 PDA with Mobipocket as my ebook reader. In fact it’s about the only thing for which I still use that PDA. It is a pleasant reading experience, I can bookmark and annotate pages, make instant lookups in multiple dictionaries, and it fits in my shirt pocket (a major advantage compared with kindles, ipads, or paper books)!
    Works great for linear text, not sure how well it could handle tables or images.
    The only drawback is that the supply of books in mobipocket format is rather limited for commercial titles, but still abundant for out-of-copyright or public-domain titles. I use calibre for converting ebooks to mobipocket format.

  9. Jenn,
    If you have footnotes that are linked, you can click on them as you’ve done and then press the BACK button to get back to where you were before requesting the footnote.

    That Back button works to go back to the place you last “jumped” from — which means where you were before clicking a link. I think it’s my favorite key 🙂

  10. Jenn,
    If you have footnotes that are linked, you can click on them as you’ve done and then press the BACK button to get back to where you were before requesting the footnote.

    That Back button works to go back to the place you last “jumped” from — which means where you were before clicking a link. I think it’s my favorite key 🙂

  11. It seems that the ebook world is ripe for the type of industry-wide standards that have organized other communities like computer chip specs, automated test languages, machine operation languages, technical documentation, metadata, etc.

    The current mish-mashes of formats and devices are a testiment to what happens when hardware vendors try to build their markets on proprietary formats that force customers to buy their devices in order to get at the information they want. This never ends well, and usually the industry suffers as much as the market over time (the EBCDIC vs. ASCII battle hurt IBM in the end.)

    If a single comprehensive format could be jointly developed by the ereader industry, specifically compatible with an enhanced browser or app, we could begin to learn just how attractive electronic reading will really be in the long term. If we don’t go down that road, the cat fights will just continue and users will end up with either restricted libraries or multiple devices or both.

    In today’s supposedly information-savvy world, that would be sad.

  12. I don’t find them complex. The screenshot you show is an example of poor formatting. I have run into several different example of poorly formatted table of content that render it nearly unusable. I think the problem can be fix by having people focus on ebook as one of the primary format. My bet is right now a lot of publisher uses conversion software from existing publishing format and the result is not optimal.

    I concur with Kathy Sierra that one of the biggest problem of this generation of ereader is difficulty to flip page. The slow page speed make it inferior to paper book. This is especially problematic for technical book where there is a strong need to flip back and fro rather than reading it page by page.

  13. “I see no need for these extra apps on an e-reader, that’s what my phone or laptop are for.”

    I think, that’s a good point here. Because a lot of tech-savvy users probably don’t think so. They see something with a screen and some buttons and expect it to do a lot of stuff simultaneously, because that is what they are used to. Same for the apps. They have a lot of apps and are quite web-savvy (who isn’t nowadays?) and with the knowledge of possibilities in these areas the expectation for e-readers increased as well.

    So if I would get an e-reader or an app for that, I would at least want it to be able to maintain notes in it (which can be blogged, tweeted, liked, you name it), have some nice bookmarking and, if I fancy and the author is so long dead that his works are in the public domain, it should post my favourite passages to Twitter. Having just stumbled upon your ReadSpeaker-JacaScript, I even want it to read me passages or the whole book. And I haven’t even started on the real social features…