The Experience of Reading Ebooks – Where it’s Missing

on Sep 16, 2010

It’s about time – the book publishing industry is finally going digital and the dream of carrying a library in our hands is becoming reality. Except, that there seems to be some compromises – dampening the experience of reading ebooks over dead tree books.

Don’t get me wrong; current designs already do much to make for a familiar experience. Many ebook readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, use e-ink – which allows for a display that looks like paper. Likewise, other devices, such as Apple’s iPhone and iPad, have page turning gestures and animations. Electronic reading devices also have features to improve the reading experience over dead-tree books. They allow one to change the font, text size, and even “paper” hue.

But other things are missing, unnecessarily so. Consider the different formats of the book Rework, which is geared towards tech-savvy folks likely to be ebook users. In the dead-tree version, it’s clear that a lot of effort went into the presentation. This “atmosphere” adds a lot to the experience of reading the book. And going from paper to electronic form takes away from the experience in significant ways.

For example, the dead tree version of the book is filled with many images that span to the edges of the page – as if they engulf the entire book. Contrast this to the electronic versions. Margins are added to the images. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but it does make a difference in the experience.

The dead tree version's image spans to the edges of the page.The impact is less strong in the electronic versions which create margins.

Speaking of margins, the paper version of Rework has very large margins and generous line-spacing. This was deliberate to give a relaxed, open feel (honestly, it’s something difficult to put into words). And there’s the font choice; again, more deliberate design. Text uses a serif font while headings use a sans-serif font.

The dead tree version has a distinctive heading - size, boldness, and font are all carefully selected.Also note the large margins and generous spacing.

There’s still more, the design choices in the headings next to the page numbers (although not visible in the images, the headings run on every other odd and even pages and have subtle differences in color tone). Even little things like custom chapter title artwork is lost in the electronic version (though this isn’t the case in all books).

While the content remains the same, the unique presentation is lost.

Some of these deficiencies are tradeoffs in design choices. An e-ink display may simply be incapable of displaying images well. Or a display may not be large enough to present everything as intended. Conversely, allowing users to change fonts and sizing would conflict the with the presentation selected by the author.

Still, many of these issues can be overcome. In the case of webpages, devices such as the iPad and Android phones already reflow text to fit the screen when you zoom in, allowing the experience to remain mostly the same while providing larger, more readable text. There’s no reason why this can’t be applied to ebooks.

What really boggles me is that this ideal electronic presentation has already existed for years. Amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature shows a limited set of pages presented exactly as it looks in the dead-tree version. Why does this not exist for e-readers? Devices like the iPad and PCs (running Kindle software) can easily make for a fantastic experience as intended by the authors.

Why can't we have this on our iPads, Kindles, or PC readers?

I have a feeling that publishers have a role in stagnating the advancement of experience. I reply with a stern warning – they’re making the same mistake that the music industry made. They’re providing an inferior experience to the very people that support them. I love to read and I’m sure that the many others that do will resort to alternative methods, if need be, to assure a good experience. Pirated books already exist in pdf form. They maintain the presentation of physical books, yet are usable on devices like iPads, PCs, and app phones.

There is a huge opportunity here for publishers. They can engage their audience with the convenience of ebooks while offering a proper presentation as meant by the authors. After all, the experience truly does matter.

Special thanks to James for providing pics from the Kindle and iPhone

Technology for the Masses

on May 18, 2010

There’s much flaming between fans of Apple products and fans of other systems, such as those running Windows or Linux/Android. It’s important to note that each system has its advantages and disadvantages. There are always tradeoffs. But depending on who you are, the tradeoffs tip to one side or another.

The Apple product offers:

  • A beautiful and seamless experience that’s easy to use but you’re locked in to a system that isn’t very customizable
  • Strong support but it comes at a price (see note on the Apple Tax at the bottom)

Other electronics and software offer:

  • A more open and customizable experience but with a greater likelihood that stuff will break or is unintuitive
  • More bang for your buck (in terms of features and power) but you’ll have to support yourself

So basically, if you’re one to really make use of those extra features and customability and able and willing to put up with stuff that’s more complicated to use and to deal with instability, then buying Apple seems absurd. But this kind of technologically savvy user is likely 10% of the population, if not less. Most of the other 90% are just folks that want technology that just works and is easy to use. And if things do break, they need help and are willing to pay for it.

Imagine if a hard drive failed. A tech savvy user would probably just swap it out himself while the general user pays for the repair (including beforehand in something like The Apple Tax). The tech savvy user pays as well, with opportunity cost. At some point, he had to spend time to learn how to do a hard drive. Also imagine some application that has a hundred buttons for all its features. The savvy user works to sort through them to make use of everything available. But the general user is flummoxed at the sight.

There’s another category of users: power users that prefer Apple products. They understand the tradeoff and are willing to sacrifice features and price for just having something that’s easier to use. There’s also folks that go one way with some products and another way with others. I have some good friends that use Linux machines for their home setups, but carry around iPhones.

Still, there’s much polarization on the issue. NYT Tech Writer David Pogue, who falls into the above category, wrote two separate reviews for the iPad. The one targeted to tech savvy folks slammed it for a lack of features and customability. The other, poised for general users, praised the iPad for being an incredibly fun to use device. When it comes down to it, there will be tradeoffs and we should be mindful of what we get and what we lose with each system. And more importantly, we should understand that others may have different needs, especially when it comes to technology (more on that in a future post).

Special thanks to Stephen Komae on helping me see beyond my “narrow tech-savvy perspective” to understand the magic of Apple-like products

A note on the Apple Tax. It’s true, there is a “tax” on Apple products. But as with how taxes are supposed to work, they’re for a service. This means that if something goes wrong, you can bring it to an Apple Store where people (that actually know what they’re doing) will help you out in a considerate manner. That peace of mind is invaluable to a general user, but not worth it to many tech savvy users.

Doing What You Believe In

on May 4, 2010

What do you do? What do you believe in? Do you do what you believe in? Are you doing something you care for? Is it something that matters? We spend most of our waking hours working – work is part of who we are. Is this who you wish to be? These questions are neglected by many folks. They feel that a job is just a job. In some cases, their argument is valid, like if they don’t have other options and they need to support their families. But the many other people that do have a choice refuse to acknowledge it. They want to stay “safe” and have a job instead of pursuing a calling. Work is just work, yet work is life.

This shouldn’t just matter to individuals, but also to organizations (especially companies). Is your organization all about what it does or what it believes? Do its employees put in work in exchange for a paycheck? Or do they put in sweat and blood to support a cause you jointly believe it? Is your organization persuading potential consumers with what its product does? Or is it building a following around a genuine philosophy?

In a recent TED talk (embedded above), Simon Sinek discusses what inspires people (to work, to buy, and to support). He proposes a golden circle which consists of three concentric rings with a term within each: what, how, and why, from the outside to the inside respectively. He explains how so many companies, such as Gateway, start from the outside and go in, while others, like Apple, start from the inside instead, with why. So while Gateway, and most other computer companies, talk about what their products to, Apple makes products that exemplify why the company does what it does. (Sinek also tells similarly admirable stories behind The Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. so check out the whole talk.)

Sinek offers scientific support for the golden circle in the form of biology; he shows how our brains are structured in the same manner. The most recently evolved part, which is more rational, controls the what while a more ancient part, involved with decision making but not tied to communication, is more about the why. As much as you can try to persuade someone on strict rational grounds, the more emotional feeling part of the brain will have a strong say in decisions.

So look at yourself and your organization. Does your work matter? Does your product just do something or does it prove that you and your company believe in something your consumers believe in?