Reading experience and mobile design

The convergence is inevitable

It’s all about user experience. Once you get past whether a book is available on a particular reading platform, the experience is the distinguishing factor. How do you jump back to the table of contents? How do you navigate to the next chapter? How do you leave notes? How does it feel? Is it slick? Clunky? Satisfying? Difficult? Worth the money?

A few weeks ago, at Charleston’s mini-TOC, someone asked me how I approach new digital publishing projects. How to test or design them. Where to start. The easy answer: start by looking at mobile design. The way we design reading experiences and the way we’ve been designing mobile applications are similar. The two are converging.

Mobile design?

Mobile design patterns and best practices overlap with the way we design (or should design) reading experiences. It’s a simple concept that may seem unremarkable — that generic concepts in mobile design and user experience apply when putting together a reading system — but it’s actually at the heart of building something in publishing today.

If this sounds technical, it isn’t. If you’ve used a smartphone to read email, a tablet to read magazines, or an e-reader to consume content, you’re experienced enough to have seen a number of mobile design patterns, even if you didn’t notice them. Consistent functionality, simple interfaces, polished graphics, and speedy responses: together these things are all part of mobile experience design. As the opportunity for reading long-form text explodes across different platforms, the reading systems (the way we navigate through the content), will draw from the lessons mobile UX designers have learned over the last decade, from things that had little to do with reading.

Five convergence points for mobile design & reading system design

1. Simplicity is really, really important

For people using a mobile device, connections are slow. Images need to load quickly. There isn’t space to explain (or use) 20 different features. People close apps before bothering with a FAQ. People are impatient. Knowing this, mobile UX designers are specific about what goals they design for, and they stick to those. Most mobile apps do just a few things, and they strive to do them well. That keeps apps very straightforward and simple.

Obviously simplicity has always been a sign of an optimal reading experience. Open and read, right? In fact, it’s best if most of the chrome around a book disappears, so readers can focus on the content. It’s natural that the most successful reading systems need to follow this principle of mobile design.

2. Everything takes place in the context of our lives

The first thing UX designers learn when working on a mobile project: people use phones while doing other things. They use them one-handed. They often use them when they are not at home. Design for sub-optimal conditions, because you never know if you have someone’s complete attention.

Reading also takes place within the contextual fabric of how we live our lives. People read books on the subway. At the doctor’s office. In coffee shops. Loud noises, phone calls, check-ins, and conversations all disrupt the experience, even with paper books. As long as we have an easy way to mark our place, a simple way to carry it with us, and a graceful way for features to fail until we can get back to optimal conditions (for example, in the way a reading service might need to reconnect to upload notes), reading systems will act like people expect them to: consistently.

3. No one will wait to read

One the biggest complaints when the original Kindle came out was the page refresh. It was a simple *blink* to swap out the content from one page to the next. People didn’t want to wait for the next page to load – they expected it to appear instantly.

The same is true of mobile. There are a number of design patterns created to notify the user that content is loading. Different loading bars and contextual messages are designed to manage people’s expectations in a world of high-speed internet, where most clicks bring content to them instantly. This is called latency, and it will drive users away. In both reading systems and mobile apps, latency needs to be under control.

4. Patterns matter

Mobile design patterns create a uniform experience across applications. For example, if you’re filling out a form in a mobile app, there are some best practices the designer has (hopefully) followed, like saving your data as you enter it (people typing with their thumbs don’t have a lot of patience if they have to do it twice), or preserving that data if an error message loads (for the same reason). Granted, these are good guidelines on the web too, but they are really of paramount importance in mobile. These best practices are used inside recommended patterns, so layouts must have optimal places for error messages, or easy ways to update content. You see those patterns repeated in the way lists and forms work across all your mobile apps. (I use patterns and best practices loosely here, the exact definition of each is eternally debated among UX professionals.)

How does this relate to reading systems? On one level, the same applies to users adding notes or reading socially – respect the data because most people won’t enter it twice. But it also has a lot to do with design patterns for reading. The way a table of contents is treated, the way people move through books, the expectation that there will be a way to bookmark a section – these are all patterns.

Last month, at Books in Browsers, Craig Mod gave a presentation on Subcompact Publishing. In it he talks about how, if you need a screen of instructions on how to use your reading app, it’s probably too complex. To avoid this, UX designers need to pay attention to user expectations and habits. Everything from page-turn options, to title visibility to a linkable table of contents, these rules are being created now, and they need to be followed consistently.

5. APIs will be the source of interactivity and real-time action

Mobile systems often pull in different informational feeds: maps, Twitter posts, ratings. The flow of information into mobile apps means that the applications are richer; these capabilities live on top of an app’s core system.

Expect to see the same thing in reading systems. Although many reading systems are a bit too immature to allow full EPUB 3 capabilities, they will evolve to allow JavaScript and the ability to bring in real-time data. iBooks does this with limited ability now. Enhancements that make reading better without being a direct part of the book are going to very popular. And readers will expect it in the way they expect it from mobile apps.

All of these similarities between mobile design and reading systems exist now; faster, better reading applications will be created if we are mindful of what has already been defined by the mobile experience.

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